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Wilander on the big 3: “Rafa’s confidence is dented more than Novak – but he has the carrot of 21”

Three-time Roland-Garros champion Mats Wilander talks to Simon Cambers about the chances of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer at Roland-Garros

Mats Wilander a salué la performance d'Iga Swiatek Roland Garros – Mats Wilander Suede

Mats Wilander knows a few things about winning Roland-Garros, having lifted the Coupes des Mousquetaires three times in the 1980s. Now a respected commentator for Eurosport, the Swede cast his expert eye over the big 3 of world No 1 Novak Djokovic, 13-times Roland-Garros champion Rafael Nadal and 20-times Grand Slam winner Roger Federer.

Tennis Majors : Is it a straight Rafael Nadal-Novak Djokovic shoot-out?

Mats Wilander : “I don’t think so. I really don’t think so. I think that there are so many young great ball strikers out there that are (dangerous). I’m actually more worried for Rafa than Novak because I think there are ball strikers out there like a Jannik Sinner who can actually hurt Rafa’s confidence. And if he gets two or three or four matches of those, where they are bossing him around… he’ll still win them because he’ll slice his way through them if he has to, or he’ll loop a few or whatever it is that he does, I can’t quite put my finger on it any more because he’s (become) such a tactical genius later in his career…..

We’ve seen that in the pre-tournaments as well, where he’s looked horrible some days. And then I turn the TV back on and he’s won the match. How did he do that? We never had that in the past. So I think his confidence is dented, even though he’s had a good clay-court season.

Rafael Nadal beat Novak Djokovic to win the title in Rome earlier this month © Panoramic

With Novak, I think that he (feels he) can either withstand it (mentally) or he can not. If he feels like, “oh, OK, these guys are hitting hard but you know what, I’m pretty good at hanging”, (then he’ll be dangerous). But even him, you know, they’re bossing him around, too, certain days.

I think Rafa is more vulnerable in the confidence department than Novak. I think Novak can pull through these matches. He can forget about yesterday and (think) here’s a new (Novak). With Rafa, I think he feeds off of what happened yesterday. And if yesterday was a tough five setter against Diego Schwartzman, then that’s going to hurt him in the next match against Stefanos Tsitsipas, if you know what I mean.

But in the end, I think the difference between the two is that for Rafa, there’s an obvious goal that’s hanging right in front of him, which is 21 (slams). Novak has this goal, of course, but that’s like three majors out and and it’s not easy for him to be there (mentally) every day. For Rafa, it’s like : “OK, it is frickin life and death here. Because I’ve got to win another major, because then I’m on 21 and then I don’t care what people say, but I know I won one more than Roger and I know that I have a chance being the greatest player of all time”. So I think for him, it’s an easier motivation than what Novak is going through at the moment.

Roger Federer in action in Geneva in May 2021 ©

And what about Roger Federer? What do you expect from him in Paris?

Mats Wilander: I expect him to come and play a good level, of course. I think there’s only a plus by him going to the French. I don’t think it matters at all if he loses in the first round, because he’s going on to grass. I think losing in Geneva is bad for his French Open chances, sure. If he was going to hard courts after the French Open, I’d be a little concerned. But because he’s going to Wimbledon, it’s like, OK, the French Open. I mean, I’m not playing the same game.

So I think for him, if he can (have a run) like he did when he made the semis (in 2019) and then he should have beaten Novak in the finals at Wimbledon…suddenly (win) a match or even two matches, it’s huge for the practice during match conditions. So I think he has to (play in Paris), but losing I don’t think makes any difference to him.

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