Roland Garros Men’s Singles Watchability Power Rankings

Late September, Wilson balls, no Fernando Verdasco for the first time since 2003, there’s a roof…this Roland Garros edition is shaping up to be quite bizarre. At the same time, Rafael Nadal will still teach free lessons to a couple of unlucky souls in the first week. Some things never change.

But let’s go straight to the point: it’s impossible to watch all 64 first round matches of the men’s singles draw, so I put together a list of 16 battles that you shouldn’t miss, for diverse reasons.

 

Easy W? Pump the Brakes…

Cristian Garín vs Philipp Kohlschreiber

True, Kohlschreiber has lost a step. He is a shell of his 2009 self, when he beat Juan Carlos Ferrero and Novak Djokovic back to back. He has only won one match in his last four trips to Roland Garros. Garín is a trendy dark-horse pick. All these premises are true. Nevertheless, something doesn’t smell right. As solid as Garín is on clay, his 1-4 career record at the French Open including qualifying is a major red flag. Moreover, playing deep into the weekend in Hamburg could backfire. Keep in mind that Dunlop balls are being used in Germany, while the criticized Wilson is this year’s official provider at Roland Garros. Will a couple of practices be enough to get acclimated? We shall see.

Watchability Index: 7/10

 

Roberto Bautista Agut vs Richard Gasquet

Some pundits are penciling in Bautista as a surefire quarterfinalist and potential threat to Novak Djokovic. I’m a bit skeptical. Clay isn’t the Castellón native’s natural habitat and he has never advanced past the round of 16 in Paris. Even though Gasquet doesn’t appear to be in great form, the Frenchman is far from an appetizing first round opponent. In 16 Roland Garros appearances, Gasquet only failed to win a match four times (2002, 2003, 2004 and 2010). For the record, he was a teenager in the first three and lost a five-setter to No. 4 seed Andy Murray in the latter one. While the expectations placed on Gasquet’s shoulders aren’t too high anymore, Bautista better bring his top game to avoid a scare.

Watchability Index: 8/10

 

Miomir Kecmanovic vs Diego Schwartzman

I know Schwartzman played the best match of his life and dispatched Rafael Nadal in straight sets in Rome. I know he’s been quite reliable at majors since his breakthrough (28-13 record since 2017 Roland Garros). Nevertheless, I am also aware that El Peque crashed out of the US Open in the opener because he ran out of steam against Cam Norrie. He followed that up with a poor second round showing in Kitzbühel. And you know who won the Kitzbühel title, don’t you? None other than Kecmanovic. Ok, fine, the only similarity between Roland Garros and Kitzbühel is the clay color. Literally nothing else. Schwartzman is still the favorite, but both players will struggle to generate pace in this conditions. This could be a dogfight.

Watchability Index: 6/10

 

Daniil Medvedev vs Marton Fucsovics

Fucsovics is not a clay juggernaut by any means, but he is a pesky first round foe. The Hungarian managed to snag two sets off Diego Schwartzman last year, plus he boasts a strong 5-2 record at majors in 2020, including wins over seeds Denis Shapovalov or Grigor Dimitrov. In a different slam, Medvedev would likely neutralize Fucsovics. But his previous appearances at the French Open do not inspire much confidence. In fact, he is winless in three attempts. How about his overall clay results? Well, they are confusing. Last season, he teased us with a magical fortnight in April, racking up eight wins en route to the Monte Carlo semis and Barcelona final. However, Medvedev’s lost his last five matches since. This matchup is a huge question mark.

Watchability Index: 7/10

 

Did you Bring Clay Shoes, Coach?

Matteo Berrettini vs Vasek Pospisil

As much as he likes to shorten up the points with his thunderous serve and forehand, Berrettini is deceivably good on clay. According to ATP Tour, the Italian wins two thirds of his matches on dirt, hence it’s not surprising he pops up as No. 8 on Tennis Abstract surface-specific ELO Ratings. Meanwhile, Pospisil is riding a 17-match losing streak on clay in tour events plus Davis Cup, dating back to Roland Garros 2013. The Vancouver native barely bothers anymore with the warm-up events in Europe, having chosen to play hard court Challengers in Asia both in 2017 and 2018. ELO gives the Canadian an 8.6% chance to pull off an upset. I don’t think it will be too lopsided though. Expect a serve-dominated affair.

Watchability Index: 6/10

 

Antagonistic Southpaws

Adrian Mannarino vs Albert Ramos Viñolas

This clash features a pair of 32-year-old lefties who play nothing alike. Dating back to 2006, they’ve faced each other seven times, one at the Futures level and the last six on the main tour. Unsurprisingly, the flat-hitting Mannarino dominated the four matches on hard, whereas the clay-specialist Ramos won their three meetings on dirt. Will the trend continue at the Bois de Boulogne?

Watchability Index: 8/10

 

Who Said Pressure?

Harold Mayot vs Alejandro Davidovich Fokina

Following his breakthrough run at the US Open, Davidovich looked impressive in his three qualifying wins at the Rome Masters. His progress came to a halt against Dusan Lajovic, but the Malaga native is carrying momentum entering the French Open. Across the net will be a fearless prospect like Mayot, whom should not be underestimated. According to Universal Tennis (UTR), the Frenchman is the third best junior player in the world, trailing only Carlos Alcaraz and Lorenzo Musetti. Despite sitting in the outskirts of the Top 400, Mayot has already defeated a Top 100 player (Egor Gerasimov) in an official match before. The pressure fully lies on Davidovich’s shoulders, so the reigning Australian Open junior champion will try to take advantage. In the worst case scenario, Mayot gets a great practice session ahead of the boys’ event, in which he’ll be the No. 1 seed.

Watchability Index: 8/10

 

Litmus Test

Denis Shapovalov vs Gilles Simon

One would have guessed that Simon, also known as The French Wall, would have enjoyed a glorious trajectory at Roland Garros. But that hasn’t been the case. The 35-year-old has never gone beyond the round of 16 in Paris. He puts a lot of balls in play, sure, but his average shot is too neutral for clay. Shapovalov, in contrast, is capable of changing pace and opening up the court with sharp angles. I believe the conditions here could suit him well. His much-improved net skills are a game-changer. The Canadian will need to come in often to close out points against Simon.

Watchability Index: 9/10

 

Coronaspiracy Theory

Gregoire Barrere vs Grigor Dimitrov

*Please don’t take this one seriously*

Dimitrov’s positive for COVID-19 was the catalyst for chaos spreading across the Adria Tour specifically and the tennis twittersphere in general. Since the tour resumed, the Bulgarian dismantled Tommy Paul at the US Open, avenging his narrow loss to the American at the Australian Open. Right after the Aussie swing, Dimitrov dropped his opening match in Marseille against his namesake Barrere. Therefore, should Dimitrov prevail this time around, does that mean he plays better post-infection? Is the coronavirus in reality a performance enhancer? Is that why Verdasco was forced to withdraw from the French Open?

Watchability Index: 5/10

 

Tennis du Soleil

Gael Monfils vs Alexander Bublik

Three years ago, I argued the first round clash between Monfils and Dustin Brown should have been played in front of a packed house at Parc des Princes or Stade de France. Unfortunately, the organizers didn’t agree with my request.

This match featuring a slumping Monfils and the unpredictable Bublik would be worth relocating. However, due to COVID-19, it would be futile to start a petition. I’m down to play this drinking game, though.

  • Blatant tank in a meaningless point – one sip
  • Over 200 km/h second serve ace by Bublik – two sips
  • Drop shot + peg – three sips
  • Jumping 360 overhead by Monfils – full chug
  • Underarm ace by Bublik – shotgun

Who’s joining?

Watchability Index: 10/10

 

Star Power

Stan Wawrinka vs Andy Murray

A few years ago, it would be unthinkable to see this match in the opening stages of a major. But this is 2020 and weird stuff happens, including a battle between three-time slam winners in a first round. Murray’s latest match on clay dates back to the 2017 French Open semis…against Wawrinka! A gruelling five-setter in which the Swiss hurt his knee and the Brit busted his hip. Terrible memories. On paper, the humid and cold conditions favor Wawrinka, who can easily generate power off both wings, whereas Murray looked somewhat punch-less in New York. The jury is still out on Wawrinka’s strategy to skip to US Open to prep for Roland Garros. He didn’t shine in the Czech challengers he participated in, plus he played a putrid match against Musetti in Rome, where he trailed 6-0 2-0 at one point. For what it’s worth, Murray leads their overall head to head 12-7, but Wawrinka holds a 3-1 edge on clay. In short, whoever claims to know how this match will unfold is lying.

Watchability Index: 9/10

 

Marin Cilic vs Dominic Thiem

Another first round featuring major champions? I’ll take it. Barring a monumental collapse or a total lack of adaptation to the unusual conditions, Thiem should advance. Despite the fact his biggest titles of late have come on hard, clay is still the Austrian’s top surface. In turn, Roland Garros is the only slam where Cilic has never reached the final (unless you count his 2005 junior title). The 2017 and 2018 quarterfinals mark his ceiling in the men’s singles draw. He may be declining, but he can still produce lights out tennis on a good day as he proved in Rome against David Goffin, whom he steamrolled 6-2 6-2. Can he sustain that level versus Thiem? Probably not.

Watchability Index: 8/10

 

Unexpected Precedents

Federico Delbonis vs Juan Ignacio Londero

One would imagine this match to be an extenuating grind between clay courters. Yet, their three previous encounters were flat out thrashings. Delbonis won 6-2 6-2 (2017 Buenos Aires Challenger) and 6-4 6-0 (2020 Kitzbühel), while Londero prevailed 6-1 6-0 (2019 Córdoba). Nobody knows how this Argentinian duel will turn out.

Watchability Index: 6/10

 

Endurance, Raw Power & Stuff

Jannik Sinner vs David Goffin

One player whose clay court prowess should be hindered by the new balls and the fall weather in Paris is Goffin.  I anticipate the nifty Belgian to struggle mightily. Following his recent, straightforward loss at the hands of Cilic, can Goffin devise a plan to derail Sinner’s big game? I’m not sure. The Tyrolean youngster proved in Rome he has made huge strides on clay. But can he reduce his unforced error rate? Does he have enough stamina to play a long match or will he fall apart like at the US Open against Khachanov?

Watchability Index: 9/10

 

Make Darwin Proud

Daniel Evans vs Kei Nishikori

Evans is not known for his clay court exploits, having dropped his last eight tour-level matches on dirt. Meanwhile, Nishikori is far from peak form after a yearlong injury layoff. In the past two weeks, he was thoroughly dominated by Musetti (6-3 6-4) and Garín (6-0 6-3). Bad omen for the Japanese star. Whoever can adhere better to survival mode will win this match.

Watchability Index: 7/10

 

Unforeseen Consequences

Alex de Miñaur vs Marco Cecchinato

Excluding those who face each other, Cecchinato is the lone qualifier or lucky loser projected to win his first round match, per Tennis Abstract’s ELO-based forecast. That’s right, Daniel Altmaier, Jack Sock and Steven Diez are all somehow supposed to lose against Feliciano López, Reilly Opelka and Mackenzie McDonald respectively. We’ll see about that.

But let’s go back to our featured matchup. Remember how clay-specialist Cecchinato lost 12 out of 13 matches last year between Munich and Cincinnati? That win came against de Miñaur in Rome. While the Aussie looked sharp in some post-lockdown matches on clay in Spain, they were mere exhibitions. I’m not convinced he’ll ever become an above average player on the surface. Conversely, it appears Cecchinato has found his old groove. The Italian mustered seven wins between Rome and Roland Garros qualifying. He’s peaking at the right moment.

Keep in mind Cecchinato has played 13 main draws at a major. He lost a whopping 12 times in the first round. The exception? His semifinal run at the 2018 French Open, where he defeated No. 10 Pablo Carreño Busta, No. 8 David Goffin and (¿¿¿) No. 20 seed (???) Novak Djokovic.

Last time I checked the draw, Cecchinato was in the fourth quarter. Nadal better hope de Miñaur upsets Cecchinato or he could be in trouble next week. This is 2020. Just saying.

Watchability Index: 9/10

 

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