• Tom Grant

5 players to watch out for at the French Open

It was Audrey Hepburn who famously said, 'Paris is always a good idea.'

And seldom will you find a better one than turning your attention to the French Capital for the next fortnight where history will be made one way or another.

The early summer magic of 'Gay Paree' in June awaits as the tennis world settles on the banks of the Seine and the land of love and romance.

It is the conclusion of near two months of sweat, struggle & graft as the second Grand Slam of the year is up for grabs on the clay courts of the French Open.

The Roland Garros website describes a clay court as follows: 'The earth is covered with a total of five layers each around 80 centimetres in-depth: the first is made up of stones, followed by gravel, clinker (volcanic residue), limestone and finally a thin layer of crushed brick about two millimetres thick, giving the courts their ochre hue.'

Of all the surfaces that the sport can be played on, clay is arguably the most physically demanding & it's this aspect, this 'ochre hue', that has fans around the world particularly excited for this one.

We look at five players in the men's draw who stand out from the rest to win this year's French Open.

Rafael Nadal

We can't start out anywhere without talking about Rafa Nadal. 13-time champion, the Spaniard, who this week unveiled his very own statue at Roland Garros, is bidding to create history in winning his 21st Grand Slam singles title. This would edge him in front of great rival Roger Federer in the all-time list and presents his best chance of the year to do this. Absurdly, Rafa is seeded number three despite looking for his fifth triumph in a row. Nadal still enjoys a sense of aura on the clay court but did suffer two early-ish defeats in Monte Carlo and Madrid. However, he rarely goes through a clay court season without a tournament win and duly obliged, winning in Barcelona and Rome, the latter in the final against Novak Djokovic.

Prediction: Final

Novak Djokovic

There's only one Novak Djokovic. One of the finest players in history, the man who holds 18 Grand Slam titles and the most weeks ever as the number one player in the world; you can never count this guy out. Djokovic won his ninth Australian Open in February and has since admitted the Grand Slams are his sole focus. That's why there is little doubt the Serb will bring his A-game to Paris despite an indifferent clay-court season so far. He's only played four events since Melbourne and, although winning over the weekend in a home event in Belgrade, can count clay defeats this year to Britain's Dan Evans, Aslan Karatsev and that man again Rafa Nadal in the final in Rome. The pair are in the same half of the draw here and could meet in the semi-finals. Djokovic dominates this rivalry on hard courts, with nine straight wins, all in straight sets over the last eight years over the Spaniard. But on clay, Nadal has won the last five, one a year since 2017, including a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 defeat of Djokovic in last years final.

Prediction: Semi-final

Alexander Zverev

Germany's Zverev is becoming the Bovril character in tennis. With allegations about his personal life never far from the conversation when talking about the 24-year old from Hamburg, he's not exactly everyone's cup of tea. But there is no doubting his talent & he is in the group of players classed as 'the next gen', patiently waiting for the big three to move aside. Zverev appears to have put his US Open final heartbreak behind him, where he was two sets up on Dominic Thiem and then lost the match. He loves the clay, claiming the high-altitude Madrid title this year, beating Nadal along the way. The draw has been kind to Zverev with qualifiers in the first two rounds & if he makes it to the quarters could face either Thiem or Ruud.

Prediction: Semi-final

Matteo Berrettini

It's very hard not to love the Italian world number nine who speaks three languages and is getting better all the time. Three of the four ATP titles he's won have been on clay, including recently in

Belgrade & he almost made it back to back wins before losing to Zverev in the Madrid final after winning the first set. Big things were expected at his home event in Rome earlier this month, but in truth, he looked like all that match time had finally caught up with him when he fell in straight sets to Stefanos Tsitsipas. He hasn't picked up his racket since & the two-week rest should aid his cause. He's in the heavyweight top half of the draw and could face Roger Federer if both make it to the last 16. Likely to meet Djokovic in the quarter-finals & that might just be a step too far this year.

Prediction: Quarter-Final

Stefanos Tsitsipas

Here we have the man who has won more matches in 2021 than any other player. Tsitsipas, at 22-years old, is the standout player and the man most likely to take Nadal's French crown. He's claimed two clay titles so far, in Monte-Carlo and Lyon and counts among his victims on clay this year the likes of Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger Aliassime, Jannik Sinner and Matteo Berrettini. His three losses came to Nadal – after holding a championship point in the Barcelona final – to Djokovic, 7-5 in the third in the Rome quarter-finals, and to in-form Casper Ruud in the last eight in Madrid. He had a run to the semi-finals at the 2020 event, succumbing to Djokovic in five. But he has improved no end and looks fitter, more composed & it is just a matter of time before he claims his first Grand Slam. Don't be surprised if that is on Sunday 13th June in Paris.

Prediction: Winner