Match Points #28 : What to expect from Roland-Garros (besides a Nadal win and a Djokovic fight of course)

Can anyone stop Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic meeting in the final at Roland-Garros? Our Match Points panel discuss all the big issues as we head to Paris.

May 22, 2021

In the latest episode of Match Points, our panel – former Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli and journalists Ben Rothenberg and Simon Cambers – discuss the upcoming Roland-Garros, as well as all the burning issues in the men’s and women’s game.

Will Rafael Nadal dominate yet again; will Ash Barty repeat her 2019 victory or will Iga Swiatek retain her title, eight months on from her stunning breakthrough win? Or will Serena Williams and Roger Federer make their mark, despite a lack of matches?

Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal, 2020 Roland-Garros final
Novak Djokovic vs Rafael Nadal, 2020 Roland-Garros final

Is another Rafa-Novak final on the cards?

Host Josh Cohen asks whether, in the light of Nadal’s win over Novak Djokovic in the final of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia earlier this month, is there anything to stop the two men meeting in the final at Roland-Garros as they did last October?

“It’s 50-50 because it’s a 50-50 chance they’ll on the same side of the draw, with Rafa not No 2 this year,” Rothenberg said. “I think these two guys are peaking when it matters most,” Rothenberg says. “They were largely absent lately, both literally and in terms of their peak form earlier in the season. We’ve seen Rafa do this many times. I think the Next Gen is still a ways off and still has something to prove if they’re going to disrupt these two on clay.”

Bartoli agrees. “It’s very difficult to see another final,” she says. “If they are facing in the semi-final, then you’ll have a final before the final and the mental side will play a lot. I really hope we can see that happen.”

Are the Big 3 disrespecting fans by dipping in and out of Masters 1000s?

The Big 3 of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have skipped some of the bigger events in 2020 and 2021. Cohen asks the panel if they are doing the ATP Tour a disservice by not turning out week in, week out.

Cambers says all three have put in an incredible shift over the years.

“Look at how many Masters 1000 they have won between them, it’s 100 – 36 (Djokovic), 36 (Nadal), 28 (Federer). “It’s unbelievable the commitment they’ve had to the Masters 1000s over their careers. They’re trying to win more Grand Slams now, that’s what they’re going to be remembered for. I don’t think you can criticise them for that.”

Bartoli agrees, saying they Big 3 are chasing history.

The Grand Slams means so much to them and they absolutely need to peak there. Unfortunately, just the way the schedule is made, with Roland-Garros and Wimbledon so close to each other, if they don’t do that they will end up running out of gas. The fans want to see a final between those three, to see who is the biggest GOAT.”

Is playing on clay good preparation for grass?

The panel then move on to discuss whether Serena Williams and Roger Federer had made the right decision to play some on clay when their goal is Wimbledon.

Rothenberg asks if it had dented the aura of both players by losing early in Parma and Geneva respectively. “Both of them rely on their mystique and Wimbledon is a much better chance for them to contend and if it’s all about adding to that Grand Slam title, then maybe the French Open is not time well spent,” he says.

Serena Wlliams, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, US Open, 2013
Serena Wlliams, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, US Open, 2013

Bartoli says both players were probably playing on clay just to get matches under their belts.

“It’s one thing to practice, it’s another to feel the stress and pressure of playing a normal match,” she says. “I just think they want to feel that in their bodies before they go onto their best surface. We all know that clay is probably not where they’re going to win, but that can prepare them for the grass just on the mental aspect of being on the court and able to compete.”

Cambers says he thinks the miles in the legs on clay will help both on grass while Rothenberg is worried they might pick up an injury.

Will there be another first-time women’s champion?

The past five winners of the Roland-Garros women’s title have been first-time Grand Slam champions and so the panel debate whether lightning will strike yet again.

Iga Swiatek
Iga Swiatek, after winning Roland-Garros in 2020

“The obvious pick is Aryna Sabalenka, based on her performances over the last month,” Cambers says. “But the massive question mark is her record in Grand Slams, which is poor, never having got beyond the quarter-finals. She gets very stressed, very tight.”

Bartoli agrees, and says world No 1 Barty is a big favourite. “Once she gets going and she’s physically fit, her game and her variety is very difficult for her opponents to counter. I think that slower pace will allow her to use all her shots. But you could see a player like Coco Gauff, maybe, have a breakthrough.”

Rothenberg says he expected this year to “end the streak of first-time champions” on the women’s side.

“I think there’s enough between Swiatek, Barty…maybe Naomi Osaka, who’s won the last two Grand Slams – we haven’t spoken about her – maybe things will come together for her (on clay).”

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