Five Must-Watch French Open First-Round Matches

The draw for the 124th French Open took place Thursday and gave us something thrilling matches in the first round.

Top seeds Novak Djokovic (1) and Rafael Nadal (2) headline either side of the draw. The Spaniard starts his title defense against Egor Gerasimov as he looks for a record 13th French Open crown. He faces a tricky route to the final should he make it past the Belarusian, with a predicted tie against US Open finalist Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinal, before facing his 2018 and 2019 finals opponent Dominic Thiem in the semis. Even if Nadal reaches the final, he faces the mammoth task of Novak Djokovic to capture the title for the fourth successive year.

Djokovic has a slightly easier route to the final, and could be considered favorite after his 36th Masters 1000 title in Rome last week. He faces Swede Mikael Ymer on the other side of the draw in the first round. A victory against the 24-year-old would bring a favorable projected run to the final. He’s likely to face either Matteo Berrettini or Roberto Bautista-Agut in the quarterfinal, followed by NextGen stars Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis, before an inevitable clash against Nadal or Dominic Thiem in the final.

The two top seeds are the ones to watch going into Roland Garros, but the draw has unearthed some fantastic matches across the board. Here are the top five matches to watch out for in the French Open first round.

Five French Open First-Round Matches to Watch

1. Andy Murray vs Stan Wawrinka (16)

Three years on from their exhilarating semifinal clash in the 2017 French Open, where both heavyweights left everything on the court, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka will meet again in Paris. Wawrinka ran out 6-7(8) 6-3 5-7 7-6 (3) 6-1 to make the final, but the match is more remembered for the physical toll it took on both men. It was the start of Murray’s ongoing hip problems, affecting his Wimbledon run later in the year and forcing him to pull out of the US Open at the end of 2017. Two career-threatening hip surgeries later, and the three-time Grand Slam champion will return to the French Open to face his last opponent at the tournament.

The grueling five-setter also had implications for victor Stan Wawrinka, who underwent knee surgery after the clash and was not able to defend his 2016 US Open title. He lost to Rafael Nadal in the 2017 final, and his best performance in the competition since is his 2019 quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer. The 2015 champion is yet to recapture the enigmatic form that saw him victorious five years ago, and a nostalgia-fueled clash against Murray could be the start of a resurgence.

Going into the clash, Murray comes off the back of an impressive week in “Cincinnati.” The Brit bested the likes of Frances Tiafoe and US Open finalist Alexander Zverev. He eventually lost to finalist Milos Raonic in a rematch of their Wimbledon 2016 final. He staged an incredible two-set down comeback against Yoshihito Nishioka in the first round of the US Open this year before losing in straight sets to Felix Auger Aliassime. Wawrinka chose not to travel to the US because of the ongoing pandemic. He won an ATP challenger event in Prague last month, before crashing out of the Rome Masters to wildcard Lorenzo Musetti.

2. Dominic Thiem (3) vs Marin Cilic

Riding the high of his maiden Grand Slam win at the US Open last month, Dominic Thiem faces Marin Cilic in the first round of the French Open. He is the favorite for some to win a second successive Grand Slam title. He has lost to Champion Rafael Nadal in successive finals, as well as to Djokovic in Australia at the start of the year. However, Thiem has finally shown the composure to push on and win a Slam, going into his favored clay surface with plenty of momentum. He bested Alexander Zverev 2-6 2-4 6-4 6-3 7-6(6) to win in New York, and even beat his first round opponent on the way. The 27-year-old beat the 2014 US Open champion in four sets during their third round clash in New York.

Marin Cilic goes into the French Open with a series of strong performances under his belt. He beat sixth seed David Goffin in straight sets in Rome last week before a loss to eventual finalist Casper Ruud in the next round. Despite losing to Dominic Thiem in the US Open, the Croatian has a strong resume to hand, with the 2014 US Open making him one of five men to win a slam in the era of the ‘Big Three’. He currently sits 0-3 against the Austrian, but it will be interesting to see how he adjusts his game after their clash under a month ago, and will look to avenge the loss.

3. David Goffin (11) vs Jannik Sinner

With all the hype around Nadal and Djokovic as well as the Murray vs Wawrinka clash, this match between Goffin vs Sinner is sure to be an under-appreciated classic. David Goffin has solidified himself as a top player on the tour, with four titles and a career high ranking of 7th. He made his first Masters 1000 final in Cincinnati last year, losing to Daniil Medevdev. Since then, the Belgian lost in the fourth round of the Australian Open to Andrey Rublev and fought his way to the fourth round of the US Open before losing to top 10 Canadian Denis Shapovalov. However, the sixth seed for Rome this year did not make it past his first match, losing to Marin Cilic in straight sets.

Jannik Sinner will not be beaten easily in Paris this year after a strong showing in the Italian Open. A comprehensive victory over Benott Paire was followed by an astonishing win against World No.6 Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Italian won the first set 6-1 before losing the second in a tiebreak 7-6 (9). He went on to walk the third set 6-2 in only his third win at Masters 1000 level, and his second over a top 10 player. He took former world number 3 Grigor Dimitrov to a third set in the next round, eventually losing 6-4, 4-6, 4-6 to the Bulgarian. The 2019 Next Gen Finals winner will look to take the momentum from his Tsitsipas into his clash with Goffin, and mark his first French Open appearance with a win.

4. Dan Evans vs Kei Nishikori

With only one ranking spot between them, sitting at No.34 and No.35 respectively, Dan Evans adds to the list of difficult draws for the Brits with a first round clash against Kei Nishikori. The World No.34 faces the former US Open finalist as both men go into Roland Garros with a questionable run of form. Evans succumbed to a first round defeat in Hamburg to Stefanos Tsitsipas, and did not fare much better at Rome. Despite winning the second set, Evans lost to Hubert Hurkacz 3-6 6-3 5-7 in the Italian Open. Clay is widely regarded as Evans’ worst surface, the high bounce of the ball leaves his backhand slice not as effective as on grass or hard court. His results in Paris reflect this, failing to make it past the first round in three attempts.

The past 12 months have not been so kind to Evans’ opponent Kei Nishikori. The Japanese star was sidelined with an elbow injury that required surgery, forcing him to miss the Australian Open. He then contacted COVID-19 which left him unable to play Cincinnati and the US Open. His tour return came in Kitzbuhel but lost to Miomir Kecmananovic in 3 sets, and was bagled by Cristian Garin before losing in two sets at Hamburg. Far removed are we from his stellar 2014 campaign, with four titles and the US Open final, but the 30-year-old has had a turbulent 12 months and will take time to rediscover his best form. He goes into the clash with Evans holding a 2-1 head to head lead.

5. Gael Monfils vs Alexander Bublik

Making his return to the Grand Slam scene on his home turf, Gael Monfils will hope to recapture some of the form that saw him start 2020 off with a bang. He started the year off with two titles, the first time in his career he had won two ATP Tour titles in a single year. Two victories over Vasek Pospisil in Montpellier and Félix Auger Aliassime in Rotterdam gave him the titles before a grueling final loss to Novak Djokovic in Dubai. Since the return of tennis, Monfils hasn’t had the same fortunes. He did not play in the US and lost in the first round of Rome to Dominik Koepfer and Hamburg to Yannick Hanfmann. The 8th seed will look to take it one step further than his semi final loss to Roger Federer in 2008.

World No.56 Alexander Bublik goes into his first ever clash with Monfils after a strong run at the German Open. His best win came against Felix Auger Aliassime besting the Canadian 6-4, 6-2 in the round of 16. Bublik won three challenger titles in 2019, as well as a skilful victory against an in-form Grigor Dimitrov in Chengdu. Unpredictable in nature and still early into his career, Bublik will feel he can upset the Frenchman and built on his second round departure in Paris last year.

Main Photo from Getty.

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