The shock withdrawal of Roger Federer from the 2017 French Open at Roland Garros leaves questions for the men’s draw heading into the tournament in Paris on May 22.
Federer, who will concentrate instead on his preparation for the grass-court season, has been resurgent in 2017 and would have been one of the leading contenders to win his second French Open.
Instead, the draw has opened up a little. Here are the men who can expect to profit from Federer’s absence.
Rafael Nadal hardly needed to confirm his dominance on clay this spring but he did so again on Sunday in beating Dominic Thiem in the final of the Madrid Open.
Nadal, 30, has also won in Monte Carlo and Barcelona on clay so far in 2017. The world No. 4 was already the favorite before Federer’s withdrawal but without the Swiss it is difficult to see past him.
Nadal, a nine-times winner of this event, will of course have to avoid the injury problems that have prevented him gaining on Federer’s Grand Slam total in recent years.
The young pretender
Dominic Thiem has been threatening to break into the top echelon of men’s tennis for a while now. The Austrian world No. 7 pushed Nadal hard in the Madrid Open final, taking the first set to a tiebreak decided thrillingly 10-8 in the Spaniard’s favor.
The 23-year-old’s best surface is clay—he has a 14-3 record on the surface this year, compared with ten wins and six losses on hard courts. The Madrid final suggests he is coming into form at the right time, too. He reached the semifinal last year, losing to eventual champion Novak Djokovic.
The world No. 1
It has been a strange year for Andy Murray—his first as world No. 1. His progress was slowed by an elbow injury that caused him to miss the Miami Open at the end of March and Britain’s Davis Cup tie against France.
On the clay of Madrid, Murray lost in straight sets to Borna Coric of Croatia in the round of 16. A good performance at the Italian Open in Rome this week would be welcome for Murray, who continues to search for form ahead of Roland Garros. He begins against Fabio Fognini in the round of 32 on Tuesday evening.
The 2016 French Open was perhaps the starting point for Murray’s remarkable second half of the season, as he beat Stan Wawrinka in four sets in the semifinal then took the first set in the final from Djokovic before the Serb won the next three.
Murray’s recent record at the French Open is enviably consistent—three semifinals and a final in the past three editions—but question marks surround him this time around unless he can make a deep run in Rome.
The fallen champion
A little less than a year ago, Novak Djokovic bestrode men’s tennis imperiously. Djokovic’s victory at the 2016 French Open meant he held all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously.
What happened next? No one is really sure. Djokovic’s coach, Boris Becker, left his team following a Wimbledon defense that ended with a shock defeat to the American Sam Querrey in round three. Over the second half of the year, Djokovic saw a massive lead over Murray in the rankings evaporate so that the Scot had overtaken him by the year’s end. In the second round of the 2017 Australian Open, Djokovic suffered a bigger jolt than the Querrey defeat, losing to journeyman Denis Istomin.
What’s clear is that the invincible ship Djokovic has leaks. The decision to part with his entire coaching team at the start of May, including long-time coach Marian Vajda, did nothing to convince his doubters that Djokovic has sorted out this strange mid-career blip. It can be sorted, of course. No one gets to 12 Grand Slam singles titles by being unable to overcome the kind of waves that Djokovic is traversing right now. Whether things can be put right in time for the French Open is, for now, the great question.
The joker in the pack
Everyone with an interest in seeing a shake-up at the top of the men’s game has been clamoring for Nick Kyrgios to put his game together on a consistent basis.
In 2017, there have been signs that could actually happen. Kyrgios has performed impressively against the elite, though he was rolled over by Nadal in straight sets in Madrid last week at the last 16 stage.
Perhaps his game, based on a powerful first serve, doesn’t translate particularly well to clay. If Kyrgios does win a major in his career—and talent alone dictates he should—it will almost certainly be at one of the hard-court Slams.
Once the Australian gets momentum, though, he can be difficult to stop. At No. 18 in the world he could present a danger in the first few rounds for one of the top seeds.