Woodbridge: Nadal favourite but faces threats at Roland Garros

  • Matt Trollope

Rafael Nadal already owns 13 titles and 100 singles match wins at Roland Garros.

Just a week out from his 35th birthday, he is a heavy favourite to boost those figures to 14 and 107.

Another title run in Paris would deliver him a men’s record-breaking 21st Grand Slam singles trophy.

As is customary, it is hard not to see Nadal triumphing in the French capital. Predicting success for the Spaniard at Roland Garros is the safest forecast one can make in tennis.

But could it be different in 2021? 

According to Todd Woodbridge, Nadal was actually not his pick for the title until “five minutes that changed the narrative”.

"He is going to take no prisoners. That is the only way that you're going to be able to beat Rafa; hit a lot of winners, take those risks, and hopefully pull it off on the day.”
Todd Woodbridge on Andrey Rublev

"Three weeks ago, it looked like it was going to be one of the young contenders that might break through (in Paris),” said the Australian doubles legend.

“That five minutes was obviously against Shapovalov (in Rome’s third round), when he saved two match points late in the third set after earlier being down a set and 3-0. 

“In those moments there's often a pressure-valve release, and in getting out of that match, it helped Rafa find form. He then wins Rome, and from that moment on, you think: He's back, he's ready.

“It's just completely changed the storyline as we go into another French Open.”

Nadal’s quarterfinal exits in Monte Carlo and Madrid were quickly forgotten thanks to titles in Barcelona and Rome, boosting his win-loss record on clay in 2021 to 14-2. 

Rafael Nadal beat Denis Shapovalov in the third round of the Rome Masters.
Rafael Nadal trailed Denis Shapovalov 6-3 3-0, then 3-1 in the final set, and later saved two match points, before defeating the Canadian in the third round in Rome. He went on to win the title. (Getty Images)

Despite his incredible Roland Garros record, and dominance on clay, there are legitimate challengers to his French crown.

Woodbridge believes Andrey Rublev, who stunned Nadal in the Monte Carlo quarters, represents Rafa’s biggest threat in Paris. And it all depends on the draw, where Nadal will be seeded third – potentially complicating his path.

"For Rafa not to win, he has to get an incredibly tough draw that lines up the dangerous players one after the other,” Woodbridge said. 

“Seedings will be really important – he may be in Novak's half, and he's got to avoid (potential quarterfinal threats in) Tsitsipas and Rublev.”

Andrey Rublev

After beating Nadal in Monte Carlo, Rublev went on to reach the final, won by Tsitsipas.

Quarterfinals in Barcelona and Rome followed – either side of a third-round finish in Madrid – to help him build a clay-court record of 9-4.

"Rublev might hit him off the court. He reminds me very much of Robin Soderling, who also beat Nadal there,” Woodbridge observed.

“He is going to take no prisoners, and he can hit through Rafa. That, to me, over five sets, is the only way that you're going to be able to beat him; hit a lot of winners, take those risks, and hopefully pull it off on the day.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas

Tsitsipas built a nine-match clay-court winning streak in reaching the Barcelona final, where he held a match point against Nadal before falling in a three-hour, 40-minute epic.

He rebounded to win the Lyon title after falling in another marathon to Djokovic in the Rome quarters, improving to 16-3 on clay.

"Tstsipas certainly has a chance of winning Roland Garros this year, but a lot will depend on where Rafa sits in the draw,” Woodbridge said. 

“I don't see his AO 2021 comeback against Nadal happening on clay. He’d have to start fast with his fantastic, aggressive, all-court game, and hold Nadal back. This surface is the hardest on which to do that – and five sets is even harder. He cannot afford a lapse in concentration.

“But maybe he's been building up to that?”

Novak Djokovic

Despite a subdued clay-court season, the world No.1 did advance to the Rome final – where he pushed Nadal to three sets – and is into the Belgrade quarterfinals.

"We can't discard Novak obviously, because he's brilliant,” Woodbridge said. 

“But I've found him to be slightly irritated this whole season. And when he seems to carry that onto the court, it's not as free, easy and natural for him. 

“He's playing this week, indicating that he's searching for that little bit of extra form. We don't normally see him do that before a Grand Slam. 

“But maybe he does find that extra form leading in? Maybe that's the difference for him.”

Alexander Zverev

Aside from Rublev, Zverev was the only other player to beat Nadal on clay in 2021, ousting the Spaniard in straight sets in the Madrid quarters.

And Woodbridge thinks he could push Nadal in Paris, where he is twice a quarterfinalist.

"He's been a work in progress and is starting to mature in that Grand Slam space. His game this year has been consistent,” Woodbridge assessed. 

“At this point though, I see Sascha as that player that's there to win matches if you're not playing your best.

“Does he have that extra in his game to step up and blow the big guns away?”