Damein Kayat previews the Karen Khachanov vs Kei Nishikori and Roger Federer vs Marin Cilic fixtures from the 2nd round of the 2021 French Open.
2021 ATP Tour
Roland Garros, Paris, France (Outdoor Clay-Court)
Selected 2nd Round Matches- 2nd June
Karen Khachanov (23) (74/100) | Kei Nishikori (21/20)
The marathon man strikes again. Nishikori holds one of the highest percentages of deciding set victories in the Open Era. It illustrates the never-give-in attitude that has defined the former US Open Finalist’s career. He battled from a break down in the decider to defeat Italian Alessandro Giannessi. It highlighted the tenacity and court coverage abilities that have made him so formidable on clay. He is a three-time quarterfinalist here who has reached finals in Barcelona, Monte-Carlo and Madrid (that includes two victories in Barcelona). The Energizer Bunny of men’s tennis has been through a nightmarish spell with injuries, preventing him from playing his most ruthless tennis. However, there have been signs that the Japanese star is enjoying the clay. He reached the final 16 in Barcelona before a three-set duel with Rafa Nadal. He was then beaten in consecutive events by Alex Zverev (this included a three-set thriller in Rome). Nishikori was almost made for turbulent marathon sessions and he will probably feel invigorated by his opening victory.
On the other end of the spectrum, Karen Khachanov breezed past Jiri Vesely with minimum fuss, compiling 31 winners in a brutal 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 victory. The 25-year-old Russian has almost been lost in the shuffle with the rise of Rublev and Medvedev. The 2018 Paris Masters Champion is nominally a hardcourt specialist. But he has nonetheless shown quite an affinity towards Roland Garros. He reached the quarterfinals here in 2019 before a 4th round run last year. He has reached two semi-finals this year: at the Great Ocean Road Open and Lyon Open. Yes, he enters this event fresh off a solid semi-final showing in Lyon. But don’t let that fool you. It was a weakened event that doesn’t accurately reflect his clay-court form this year. Prior to Lyon, he was 1-4 on the dirt. The ultra-aggressive Russian sometimes lacks the patience and variety to break down opponents on this surface.
Verdict: Nishikori 21/20
Kei Nishikori currently leads the head-to-head with Khachanov 3-2. That includes a three-set win earlier this year on the clay courts in Madrid. Nishikori is my pick here. He is able to use his dynamism and defensive skills to frustrate the Russian. He will need to serve slightly better than his opening game. But I think he will be able to pepper Khachanov’s much weaker backhand side, perhaps forcing the Russian to go for too much too often.
Roger Federer (8) (38/100) | Marin Cilic (2/1)
In my preview for the French Open, I was fairly disparaging about Federer’s chances this year. And a straight-sets victory over Denis Istomin isn’t exactly going to change that. Having said that, Federer looked serene in his first match, hitting 48 winners. But Federer seems to be using this as a glorified practice session for Wimbledon, referring to SW19 as the ‘Light at the end of the Tunnel’. The 2009 Champion is only playing this event for the 2nd time since 2015 (he did reach the 2019 semi-finals). But it has been a tough year for the Swiss legend. His first-round win was only his 4th match of the year. That included a rather embarrassing opening-round loss to Pablo Andujar in Geneva. Federer will be a clear sentimental favourite this week and his next opponent is someone very familiar.
Marin Cilic moved through his opening round encounter in similarly comfortable fashion to Federer. Clay hasn’t traditionally been Cilic’s best surface. His game emphasizes big serving and dominant forehands. The Croatian hasn’t gone beyond the 2nd round here since 2018 (he did reach the quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018). 2021 has been fairly poor for Cilic. Semi-finals in Singapore and Estoril have been his best returns. That run in Estoril will encourage the big-serving Croat going into this clay-court Slam. Cilic is a Grand Slam Champion for a reason. He is a dangerous opponent who can beat anyone on his day. It will be interesting to see exactly how he handles this huge occasion against his nemesis.
Verdict: Federer to win 1:3 at 26/10
Roger Federer has an imposing 9-1 head-to-head record against Marin Cilic. Their last meeting was the highly contentious 2018 Aussie Open final. Many believe that the decision to close the roof favoured the Swiss maestro. Federer also overcame a blister-afflicted Cilic in the 2017 Wimbledon Final. So, it’s fair to say there is some baggage to this encounter. Federer to win in four at 26/10. I think Federer is just far superior on this surface. If this was Flushing Meadows I may back the Croatian given Federer’s form and lack of game time. But Cilic will be determined enough to nick a set.