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If not Nadal, then who? Zverev, Ruud, and Cilic hope to challenge for Roland-Garros title

Rafael Nadal has become a heavy favourite to capture the Roland-Garros men’s singles title. But can he be stopped? Alexander Zverev, Casper Ruud, and Marin Cilic hope the answer to that question is yes

Roland-Garros 2022 semi-finalists, men Roland-Garros 2022 semi-finalists, men (Zverev, Cilic, Nadal, Ruud) © Panoramic / Tennis Majors

Having ousted world No 1 Novak Djokovic in addition to watching Carlos Alcaraz exit the tournament in the quarter-finals, Rafael Nadal has become the heavy favourite to capture the 2022 French Open men’s singles title.

It’s not like that is anything new at Roland-Garros, of course. After all, Nadal is a ridiculous 110-3 lifetime at this tournament with 13 titles. Combine such an illustrious history with an apparent clean bill of health and impressive level of play (he knocked off the top-seeded Djokovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) on Tuesday) and it’s clear that Nadal is the man to beat heading into the semis.

None of that, however, means that a 14th Coupe des Mousquetaires is going to be handed to Nadal on a silver platter. The other semi-final competitors — Alexander Zverev, Casper Ruud, and Marin Cilic — are not just going to roll over and play dead. They are going to fight, and for good reason. However daunting the task of taking down Nadal on the terre battue of Paris may be, the trio does have reasons to hold out at least some hope. Nadal may have looked 100 percent physically through his first five matches of the fortnight, but his foot injury is a chronic one and could return at any moment. It did in Rome, where the 35-year-old lost to Denis Shapovalov in the third round. Moreover, Nadal needed five sets in his fourth-round match against Felix Auger-Aliassime on Sunday, and Djokovic served to force a fifth set on Tuesday. The 21-time Grand Slam winner is not exactly blowing opponents off the court.

It can be done. It is a mathematical possibility. If it actually does happen — a Nadal loss, that is — let’s take a look at how the three remaining challengers could make it so.

Alexander Zverev, Roland-Garros 2022

Zverev, waiting for the last step

  • Roland-Garros road to the semi-finals: Zverev came within one point of losing to Sebastian Baez in the second round before surviving in five sets. However, his signature win came over Alcaraz in the quarter-finals. A heavy underdog in the match, Zverev upset the red-hot Spaniard 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6(7).
  • Record vs the other three semi-finalists: Zverev is 3-6 against Nadal (1-4 on clay), 2-1 against Ruud (0-0 on clay), and 7-1 against Cilic (3-0 on clay).
  • How surprising it is to have him there: Zverev reaching the semis was a bit unexpected simply because he was in Alcaraz’s quarter of the draw, but otherwise it isn’t surprising. The German was already a four-time major semi-finalist (once at the French Open in 2021), including the runner-up at the 2020 US Open (lost to Dominic Thiem).
  • His clay-court game: Hard courts are Zverev’s preferred surface, but he is extremely accomplished on clay. Three of his six clay-court titles have come at the Masters 1000 level and he had already been to the quarters at Roland-Garros twice prior to this semi-final run.
  • Why it would make sense for him win Roland-Garros: Zverev is already a slam finalist, so the natural next step in his progression is a title. At No 3 in the world rankings, the 25-year-old is arguably the best player on the ATP Tour to have never won a major. His performance against Alcaraz showed he can beat anyone on tour — even Nadal — on any given day.
Norway's Casper Ruud at Roland Garros 2022 in Paris

Ruud, the clay machine of the regular tour

  • Roland-Garros road to the semi-finals: Ruud navigated the toughest path to the semi-finals in terms of quantity of competitive matches. Only his second-round tilt against Emil Ruusuvuori was a straight-setter. The 23-year-old ended Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s career in a tight four-setter in round one, came back from two sets to one down against Lorenzo Sonego in round three, and battled through a contentious four-setter against Holger Rune in the quarters.
  • Record vs the other three semi-finalists: Ruud is 2-0 against Cilic (1-0 on clay), 0-0 against Nadal, and 1-2 against Zverev (0-0 on clay).
  • How surprising it is to have him there: Given his clay-court prowess and his favourable draw in the bottom half of the bracket, Ruud’s appearance in the semi-finals is not a big surprise. Stefanos Tsitsipas had been the favorite in Ruud’s section, but the Greek never found his groove in Paris and lost to Rune in the fourth round.
  • His clay-court game: Prior to this season, Ruud was thought of as a clay-court specialist. Seven of his eight titles (all at the 250 level) have come on the red stuff. His hard-court games has improved this season, highlighted by a runner-up showing at the Miami Masters (lost to Alcaraz).
  • Why it would make sense for him win Roland-Garros: Ruud is quite simply one of the best clay-court players in the world. Outside of Nadal, Djokovic, and Alcaraz, the No 8 seed has always been near the top of list of other contenders. Now that Djokovic and Alcaraz are out, Ruud’s chances have only improved — and will improve even more if Zverev upsets Nadal on Friday.
Marin Cilic

Cilic, able to do anything – everyone should know by now

  • Roland-Garros road to the semi-finals: Until the quarters, Cilic made the most efficient path through the bracket. In his first four matches, the 33-year-old dropped a grand total of one set (to Marton Fucsovics in the last 64). His most notable results came in the fourth round and quarter-finals. Cilic destroyed world No 2 Daniil Medvedev 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 and then outlasted Andrey Rublev in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
  • Record vs the other three semi-finalists: Cilic is 0-2 against Ruud (0-1 on clay), 2-7 against Nadal (0-1 on clay), and 1-7 against Zverev (0-3 on clay).
  • How surprising it is to have him there: Clic’s presence in the semi-finals has to be considered the most surprising of the four. He is the only remaining player outside the top 8 and he had not been to a major quarter-final since 2018. Moreover, his 2022 match record prior to Roland-Garros was just 13-11.
  • His clay-court game: Clay has to be considered Cilic’s worst surface. Obviously he isn’t bad on it, but he has reached slam finals on both a hard court and grass. Only two of his 20 ATP titles have come on the slow stuff (both at the 250 level).
  • Why it would make sense for him win Roland-Garros: This is the only slam final in which Cilic has never participated. The world No 23 is 3-1 lifetime in major semis, so clearly when he gets this far he knows what it takes to keep going. Cilic won the US Open in 2014 and took Roger Federer to five sets in the 2018 Australian Open final. When he gets hot — like he is right now — Cilic can blow just about anyone off the court.
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