Zverev got what he wanted — does he still want it?

May 26, 2024

Is Djokovic the favorite by default? Can Alcaraz and Sinner reach a semifinal showdown in Paris?

Zverev got what he wanted — does he still want it?

For nearly 20 years, the men’s favorite at Roland Garros was never in question: Whatever form Rafael Nadal was in that spring, you knew he would raise it to peak levels once he got to Paris. Can we say that again in 2024? Even the hardest-core Rafa believers might admit to some doubt this time around.

So who is the favorite? Who has the easiest and the hardest draw? What are the early match-ups to watch for? Here are five takeaways from the men’s brackets in Paris.

1. Alexander Zverev got what he wanted - but a little sooner than he wanted it

“It’s probably the biggest challenge in tennis,” Zverev says of playing Nadal in Court Philippe Chatrier. “I would love to do it one more time...I would love to play him in a semifinal, in a big match again.”

That’s what Zverev said last week in Rome. Would he say it again? As you know by now, he drew Nadal in the first round at Roland Garros. The last time they met there, in the 2022 semifinals, Zverev was playing the match of his life until he tripped on the clay, tore a ligament, left the court in a wheelchair, and was out for the rest of the year.

“It was one of the best tennis matches I’ve ever played in my career,” Zverev said. “But it was the worst ending I’ve ever had to a tennis match in my career.”

Zverev is one of the favorites, but he’ll be facing a lot. Nadal in the first round; his nemesis Daniil Medvedev, possibly, in the quarters; Novak Djokovic in the semis; and potentially Carlos Alcaraz or Jannik Sinner in the final. As well as, not incidentally, a trial for domestic abuse in Berlin. I’ve picked Zverev to win the whole thing. Now that I look at that list of obstacles, I’m starting to wonder what I was thinking.

Zverev knows what he’s up against, at least in his opener.

“He becomes different,” Zverev said of facing Rafa in Chatrier. “His ball becomes all of a sudden a few kilometers an hour faster. All of a sudden his footwork and foot speed becomes a lot faster. It’s more difficult to hit a winner, especially on Philippe Chatrier, which is a massive court, so he has a lot more space. It is very difficult.”

2. Is Djokovic, the top seed and defending champion, the favorite by default?

Along with his thoughts on Nadal, Zverev had an equally interesting-and probably correct-take on Djokovic at Roland Garros.

“Nole is going to be at his best,” Zverev said. “You’ll see. It’s just the way it is.”

Not many fans would argue with that, even though, right now, there are questions marks surrounding Djokovic. He has recently split with his coach and physio. He had a bottle dropped on his head in Rome. He lost to Alejandro Tabilo there, and looked bad doing it. But, like Rafa, whatever Djokovic’s form is like coming into a major, it gets much better once he’s there. He knows how to manage his way through a Slam better than anyone.

So yes, I’d say that makes him the favorite by default. His path through the first four rounds looks manageable. Lorenzo Musetti and Tommy Paul are probably the toughest of his potential opponents. After that, though, he could face Casper Ruud in the quarters, which would be a test. No one is talking much about Ruud, but he recorded his first win over Djokovic earlier this spring in Monte Carlo.

3. Will the future boys, Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, make it to a semifinal showdown?

For three months, Sinner and Alcaraz appeared ready to take over the tour. Sinner won in Melbourne and Miami, Alcaraz in Indian Wells. Then the clay season happened. The last time we saw them was in Madrid, where Sinner left with a hip injury, and Alcaraz was nursing a sore right arm. Neither made it to Rome.

Sinner has signaled his readiness for Paris, but Alcaraz is still practicing with a sleeve. The chances that one of them will win Roland Garros have dropped; the question now may be whether they both make it to a potential semifinal showdown.

Alcaraz has the slightly tougher draw. He could face Sebastian Korda in the third round; the American beat him on clay in Monte Carlos two years ago. If Alcaraz makes it to the quarters, he could face either Andrey Rublev or Stefanos Tsitsipas, each of whom has won a clay Masters 1000 this season.

As for Sinner, he may have to contend with Rome finalist Nicolas Jarry in the fourth round, and Hubert Hurkacz in the quarters. Sinner may have lost his early-season momentum, and clay wouldn’t seem to be the best surface for his pace-based game these days. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be a factor over the last two rounds.

4. Should we take any of the dark horses seriously?

Over the course of the clay season, we’ve seen Tsitsipas, Ruud, Rublev and Jan-Lennard Struff make title runs. We’ve seen Taylor Fritz reach the semis in Madrid and the final in Munich, and Tommy Paul make the semis in Rome. We’ve seen Felix Auger-Aliassime, with some help from his opponents’ injuries, return to form and nearly win Madrid. We’ve seen Nicolas Jarry make the final in Rome.

Will any of it matter at Roland Garros? Can any of them threaten for the title, or knock off a top contender?

Few are talking about Ruud, who has been to the final here twice, and who beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo. He may get a chance to do it again in the quarters, but I still don’t like him in best-of-five against the Serb.

With Alcaraz and Sinner possibly ailing, that opens up a potential bottom-half path to the final for either Tsitsipas or Rublev. For one of them, at least: They’re scheduled to meet in the fourth round.

Paul could play Djokovic in the round of 16, and Fritz could play Ruud in the same round. History says that could be the end of the road for American men on clay this season.

5. Who is going to win?

First, a few first-round matches to watch:

Casper Ruud vs. Jakub Mensik: Two-time Roland Garros finalist against the 6’4” Czech teenager.

Alexander Zverev vs. Rafael Nadal: Rafa leads their head-to-head 7-3

Stan Wawrinka vs. Andy Murray: They split two semifinals at Roland Garros. Murray leads the head-to-head 13-9

Richard Gasquet vs. Borna Coric: Is this the last hurrah for Richard G?

Semifinals: Zverev d. Djokovic; Alcaraz d. Sinner

Final: Zverev d. Alcaraz. -Tennis.com

Zverev got what he wanted — does he still want it?