May 9, 2021

A Few More in the Mix

It feels like every year, around this time, I start getting a little nervous.

However Rafael Nadal has done during the clay court season -- whether like in 2005 and 2008 and 2013 he won basically every event on dirt he played, or like in 2015 or even last year, he won barely any -- you start to wonder about his chances to take home the big prize at Roland Garros.

And while he often seems to pull things together when they count the most, each year a couple pretenders start cropping up that might just be able to throw a wrench into his plans.

The most obvious one this week was Alexander Zverev, who captured his second title in Madrid and his fourth Masters championship with a three set win over Matteo Berrettini on Sunday. And while my acknowledgement of his win comes begrudgingly, you have to admit his performance on court was pretty impressive. After taking out Monte Carlo giant-killer Daniel Evans, he stunned Nadal in straight sets, his third straight win over the world #2, and went on to beat two-time French runner-up Dominic Thiem in the semis, avenging that OHSOCLOSE loss to him in last year's U.S. Open final. While he's had a couple early losses on clay before this week, his performance in Spain might have done a lot to erase the memory of those upsets.

But he wasn't the only one to stick out. Runner-up Berrettini has really been showing me he's deserving of his top ten ranking over the last few weeks, first claiming the title in Belgrade and this week taking out tough opponents like Fabio Fognini and Cristian Garin. In the first Masters final of his career, he took the first set from Zverev and kept things tight in the back half too. While I can't say I was expecting him to come out the winner, I was encouraged by the fight he showed and feel there might be a few more top-ten wins coming up soon in the future for him.

And you have to respect the showing we saw from Dominic Thiem, who we haven't seen in action since mid-March and who'd been playing a much quieter season than his breakout last year. After losing early at the Australian Open and then battling through various injuries, there was certainly a big question mark over his head for Madrid. But he performed admirably, taking out a talented Alex de Minaur and even a surprisingly strong John Isner, who'd stunned Andrey Rublev in the third round. While Thiem did lose in straight to Zverev in the semis, it was good to see he seemed to have found his footing again. And, of course, we know that, had this been a best of five match, there's no telling what could have happened.

Maybe the player who made the biggest case for himself this week was young Casper Ruud, who barreled onto the scene early last year and hasn't let up since. While the 22-year-old hasn't added to his trophy case this year, he has scored wins over Fabio Fognini, Pablo Carreño Busta and Diego Schwartzman. And in Madrid, he added to that list, stunning Monte Carol champ Stefanos Tsitipas in straight sets on his way to the semis. Though he lost to Berrettini there, he did earn himself a career-high ranking at #16 in the world. And the way he's playing, there's no reason to believe he isn't going even higher.

So do any of these guys have a real shot at dethroning the king once we get to Paris? Well, we know Nadal is not going to give up his crown easily, whatever happens in the weeks leading up to Roland Garros. But one day soon there is bound to be a changing of the guards, and it sure looks like there are plenty of players more than ready to take up the reins.

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