The 2016 French Open has barely started, but already the list of challengers is one lighter. World number three Roger Federer is out, having thrown his back out of whack in the run-up to the Madrid Masters in April. Once, Federer was a player the gods singled out for their favour. Not just for his style of tennis – so graceful it would make a ballerina weep – but for his charmed imperviousness to injury. From 2000 through 2016, the Swiss didn’t miss a Grand Slam, snagging 17 of them as he put together the greatest CV tennis has seen.
But the cruel winds of circumstance are finally beginning to blow Roger’s way. In February he tore a knee cartilage while running a bath for his twins, necessitating the first surgery of his career. Then came a stomach virus and now a flare-up of the back problem that ailed him throughout his annus horribilis, 2013. With Wimbledon round the corner, and Federer’s 35th birthday in August, are the great man’s chances of major number 18 going-going-gone?
No such problems weigh on world number one Novak Djokovic. Since the start of 2015, the Serb has swept through all opposition like a devouring flame. Such is his dominance that it’s become an act of idiocy not to back Djokovic for every single tournament sight unseen. You don’t even need to watch the matches, so wearyingly predictable has been the result. But just for once Novak isn’t the presumptive no-brainer shoo-in favourite. Firstly, his form has slipped (a little) of late. He lost early in Monte Carlo to Jiri Vesely, while Andy Murray clipped him in the final at Rome. And secondly, Roland Garros is the only major he hasn’t won. If we can be sure of anything in this world, it’s that Novak Djokovic, with every burning fibre of his being, desires to win the French Open. Can he master his inevitable nerves, can he calm his quaking fingers if, say, Nadal (a potential semi-final opponent) starts connecting on his forehand again?
Indeed, Djokovic can be forgiven for feeling a bit overwrought about the Spaniard’s recent resurgence. Lately written off as a busted flush, Nadal has been on a springtime tear, winning in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, then pushing Djokovic uncomfortably close in a 7-5, 7-6(4) quarter-final loss in Rome. A step quicker and seemingly half a head taller, Rafa has rediscovered his mental mojo right on time. With – count them – nine French Open titles to his name, you don’t need advanced analytics to realise that Rafa will be a threat in Paris. But the true, the only, test of whether Nadal is ‘back’ comes over the following two weeks.
And what of Andy Murray? The Scot has a case to be considered the second favourite ahead of Nadal – which just two years ago was a logical absurdity too ridiculous to contemplate, let alone take seriously. For most of his career, Murray had little confidence on the red stuff, believing himself outgunned and – crucially for his counterpunching style – outmanoeuvred. But after back surgery in 2013, Murray improved his movement, and with it his results, beating both Nadal and Djokovic in recent weeks. With those two duking it out on the other side of the draw, you have to fancy him to reach the final.
A not insignificant roadblack in his path might be Stan Wawrinka. I say ‘might,’ because you never know with Stan: is he going to win the tournament or lose limply in the first round? Given his poor recent form, I incline towards the latter. But it could just as easily be the former. Such is the unknowable enigma that is Wawrinka.