South Africa

Next Gen ready to follow Thiem’s lead at Roland Garros

London — The stars aligned perfectly for Austria’s Dominic Thiem to become the first new member of the Grand Slam winners’ club for six years at the US Open in September.

With defending champion Rafa Nadal absent, Roger Federer injured and Novak Djokovic defaulting in the fourth round, Thiem seized his chance to claim a first Major by beating Germany’s Alexander Zverev in the final.

The chances of another new name making a career-defining breakthrough at Roland Garros look far slimmer, though several members of the so-called Next Gen will fancy their chances in an anything-but-normal French Open.

Nadal will be gunning for a record-extending 13th title, Djokovic, desperate to make amends for his humiliation in New York and Thiem, runner-up to Nadal in 2018 and 2019, will be fuelled with confidence after his triumph.

But what of the rest? Zverev, 23, has taken baby steps towards claiming the first Grand Slam predicted since he was a teenager. It took the world No 7 a dozen attempts to reach his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, at the 2018 French Open and another year to again reach the last eight, also in Paris.

At the 2020 Australian Open he reached his first semifinal. His big moment appeared to have arrived when he served for the title against Thiem in the fifth set at Flushing Meadows, but glory slipped through his fingers.

The hangover of that defeat might linger but if anything could be a tonic it is another Grand Slam starting exactly a fortnight after that showdown.

Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, 22, lost a classic against former champion Stan Wawrinka in 2019’s fourth round and has a powerful all-round game suited to clay. The world No 6 showed by winning the ATP Finals last November that he can deliver on the big stage, though a first-round loss to rising Italian Jannik Sinner in Rome was hardly ideal preparation for Roland Garros.

Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, seeded fourth, already has the mentality to win a slam, as he showed in a toe-to-toe 2019 US Open final defeat to Nadal. Firepower and resilience from the baseline, allied to a destructive serve, should mark the 24-year-old out as a title threat, though so far the French Open has proved an unhappy hunting ground for him with three first-round defeats in a row.

With the courts expected to be damper and less skiddy than usual, however, it might be the opportunity to bring his hard-court game to the red dirt.

“I think the conditions will favour those that like playing on hard courts,” former winner Mats Wilander said. “Maybe the big, strong guys that don’t slide as well.

“The younger generation play with less variation on a clay court, they take it early and try to hit through the court. That might work this year.”

The 19-year-old Sinner will surely challenge for a Grand Slam soon but the Italian challenge in Paris will be led by the powerful 24-year-old Matteo Berrettini. Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, 21, will arrive having broken into the world’s top 10 for the first time and will bring his usual array of dazzling shot-making.

But compatriot Felix Auger Aliassime, armed with a huge serve and a forehand capable of leaving craters in the clay, looks the better bet on his Roland Garros main draw debut.

Reuters

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