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2021 French Open Men's Singles Section-by-Section Preview

Section 1

Seeds: 1) Novak Djokovic, 13) David Goffin, 21) Alex de Minaur, 29) Ugo Humbert

Who's Hot?

Novak Djokovic - There really isn't anybody in this section that I would consider "hot," so for completeness I will have to settle for Djokovic, who's 19-3 start to 2021 is pedestrian by his standards. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Djokovic defeats World No. 255 Alex Molcan in the Belgrade final at 8:00 AM. A win there will mean that Djokovic, who started very slow in the clay season, will enter the French Open with a title and a tight three-set loss to Rafael Nadal in the Rome Masters as his last two results.

Who's Not?

Ugo Humbert - The 22-year-old had a breakout year in 2020, but has been abysmal on clay this season with a 1-5 record.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - It pains me to say it, but it is probably time for the 36-year-old Frenchman to retire. The veteran is just 1-7 over the last two years in his return from injury. I wouldn't be surprised if this was Tsonga's final appearance at his home major.

Biggest Storyline - Will anybody challenge Novak Djokovic?

The World No. 1 and 2016 champion enters the 2021 edition of Roland-Garros attempting to become the first man ever in the Open Era to win all four Grand Slams multiple times. While Djokovic will certainly be challenged eventually, especially because he unluckily drew Rafael Nadal in his half, he lucked into a great section. To answer the posed question, no, nobody in this section will be able to challenge the 18-time Grand Slam champion.

Best Round One Matchup: Lorenzo Musetti vs. David Goffin - There aren't many compelling matches in round one of section one, but a battle between the oft-struggling 13 seed Goffin and the exciting 19-year-old Musetti should be worth watching.

Best Potential Matchup: Novak Djokovic vs. Marco Cecchinato (Round Four) - The lack of compelling matches goes beyond just round one, as I have to settle for a match that would have a massive favorite. Cecchinato upset Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the 2018 French Open, so that would make for a fun storyline, however the result would be much different this year.

Player to Watch: Alex de Minaur - The 22-year-old Australian actually has an awful 5-15 career record on clay, but I've always thought his game can translate well to the surface. Not a deep pool of intriguing players in the section, so I'm going to keep an eye on de Minaur to potentially get to round four.

Section Winner: Novak Djokovic - This is as big a lock as there can be. Djokovic should cruise through this section and be well on his way towards a blockbuster semifinal clash with Rafael Nadal.


Section 2

Seeds: 8) Roger Federer, 9) Matteo Berrettini, 20) Félix Auger-Aliassime, 30) Taylor Fritz

Who's Hot?

Matteo Berrettini - The 25-year-old has found great form as of late on the clay, winning the Serbia Open and losing a three-set final at the Madrid Masters in his last two tournaments.

Who's Not?

Roger Federer - The living legend has only played two tournaments this year following over a year away from the sport due to a pair of surgeries. There were positive signs in both tournaments, but he still enters Roland-Garros with a 1-2 record in 2021.

Biggest Storyline - What should we expect from Roger Federer?

Could Federer lose in straight sets to qualifier Denis Istomin in round one? Yes. Could he roll through a somewhat open section and get to the quarterfinals? Also yes. I'm leaning more towards a loss in the fourth round for the 39-year-old, but I truly have no idea to expect. What I do know for sure is that Federer is simply using these best-of-five matches as Wimbledon preparation.

Best Round One Matchup: Matteo Berrettini vs. Taro Daniel - Not a great slate of round one matches in this section, so I'll go with the veteran Daniel, who went though qualifying without dropping a set, against the potential "contender," Berrettini.

Best Potential Matchup: Roger Federer vs. Félix Auger-Aliassime (Round Four) - The young Canadian star "FAA," born 19 years to the day after Federer, has never played against the Swiss legend. It may be unlikely given Federer's uncertain range of outcomes and Auger-Aliassime's history of struggling at majors, but this would be a fantastic fourth round matchup.

Player to Watch: Félix Auger-Aliassime - The 20-year-old Canadian still hasn't made a Grand Slam quarterfinal but now, with "Uncle" Toni Nadal in his coaching box, he has his best chance in a relatively open section.

Section Winner: Matteo Berrettini - This was a toss up for me between Berrettini and Auger-Aliassime, but I'm going with the Italian who has been better both this clay season and in his career at the Grand Slams.


Section 3

Seeds: 3) Rafael Nadal, 14) Gaël Monfils, 18) Jannik Sinner, 26) Lorenzo Sonego

Who's Hot?

Rafael Nadal - While he looked off at times during the European swing, the "King of Clay" still won titles in Barcelona and Rome and defeated players such as Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas along the way.

Cameron Norrie - The 25-year-old has been, out of nowhere, incredible on clay this season with a 12-4 record and runner-up finishes in Lyon and Estoril.

Who's Not?

Gaël Monfils - He was red-hot prior to the pandemic-induced stoppage last year, but ever since Monfils has been a shell of himself. He is just 1-4 in 2021 and has lost five of his six clay matches since the tour restarted.

Biggest Storyline - Rafael Nadal's early round level.

As previously mentioned, Nadal has struggled at times throughout this clay season. He will be able to play his way into shape in two easy early round matches, but rounds three and four will provide a great measuring stick for where the tournament's heavy favorite's level is at.

Best Round One Matchup: Rafael Nadal vs. Alexei Popyrin - As a diehard Nadal fan, I have to make his match against the talented Australian the best in section three.

Best Potential Matchup: Rafael Nadal vs. Jannik Sinner (Round Four) - The 19-year-old Sinner played Nadal extremely close at the French Open last year, and was also very competitive in their match a few weeks ago in Rome. This would be a great Round Four match and could be a rare time that Nadal has to win in Paris in more than three sets.

Player to Watch: Lorenzo Sonego - The Italian dazzled his home crowd all the way to the semifinals in Rome, and his unique style of play should make him a pesky opponent for Nadal in round three.

Section Winner: Rafael Nadal - While I think Sonego and Sinner will be great tests, the 13-time champion should ultimately reach another quarterfinal in Paris with relative ease.


Section 4

Seeds: 7) Andrey Rublev, 10) Diego Schwartzman, 24) Aslan Karatsev, 28) Nikoloz Basilashvili

Who's Hot?

Aslan Karatsev - The surprise semifinalist at the Australian Open this year has continued his success with a 21-8 overall record, an ATP 500 title in Dubai and become one of the biggest stories on tour. He has had some success on clay with an 8-5 record this year, including an epic win over Novak Djokovic in Serbia.

Carlos Alcaraz - The 18-year-old rising star probably should have received a Wild Card into the tournament, but he got in the hard way by winning his three qualifying matches and dropping just 11 total games. He also won a challenger tournament on clay in the previous week.

Who's Not?

Diego Schwartzman - A semifinalist in Paris last year, the veteran Argentine has struggled this year with a 12-10 overall record, including a 7-6 record on clay.

Fernando Verdasco - Similar to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, it may be time for the 37-year-old veteran to retire, he is 0-4 in 2021.

Adrian Mannarino - The 32-year-old lefty from France comes to Paris winless in his five clay matches in 2021.

Biggest Storyline - Can Aslan Karatsev's breakout season continue?

Karatsev shocked the tennis world with a run to the semis in the year's first major. Now, in the second major of the year, there will be some pressure, especially with a favorable draw, for the Russian to at least get to round four and prove himself as a consistent force.

Best Round One Matchup: Jan-Lennard Struff vs. Andrey Rublev - The veteran Struff is 7-5 on clay this year and could present a challenging round one match for the fringe contender Rublev.

Best Potential Matchup: Andrey Rublev vs. Aslan Karatsev (Round Four) - The Russians squared off in a great Dubai final, won by Karatsev, and a rematch in the fourth round of a slam would be quite a treat.

Player to Watch: Carlos Alcaraz - The teenager should be favored to win his first two matches, which will likely set up a third round affair with Rublev. Any run beyond round three will allow for Alcaraz to really introduce himself on a big stage.

Section Winner: Andrey Rublev - The Russian, 29-8 this year, has just been so consistent and has reached the quarterfinals in his last three Grand Slam appearances. I think he is a safe bet to make it four-in-a-row here.


Section 5

Seeds: 6) Alexander Zverev, 11) Roberto Bautista Agut, 23) Karen Khachanov, 25) Dan Evans

Who's Hot?

Alexander Zverev - There really isn't a "hot," player here in section five, so I'll go with Zverev who beat Rafael Nadal, Dominic Thiem and Matteo Berrettini en route to a title on the fast clay in Madrid two tournaments ago.

Who's Not?

Miomir Kecmanović - He's one of my favorite young players on tour, but the 21-year-old Serbian has slumped to a 9-11 record so far in 2021.

Biggest Storyline - Has Alexander Zverev finally shaken his Grand Slam struggles?

The 24-year-old Zverev spent much of his early career bowing out in the first week of Grand Slams. Now, the German has made the second week in seven of his last eight grand slams, and that includes a semifinal, final and quarterfinal finish in his last four events. He has already made two quarterfinal appearances at the French Open, and now the pressure will be on the World No. 6 to navigate his way through this section.

Best Round One Matchup: Miomir Kecmanović vs. Dan Evans - Overall I am pretty disappointed with all of the round one matchups, but at least it shows that the draw is "random." I think Kecmanović against the 25-seed Evans has the best chance in this section of being a five-set match.

Best Potential Matchup: Kei Nishikori vs. Alexander Zverev (Round Four) - These two played a great match earlier this month in Rome, Zverev won in three sets, and the German would be the favorite once again in Paris. Regardless, Nishikori has played in so many big matches that this is one of the best potential pre-quarterfinal matches.

Player to Watch: Kei Nishikori - The 31-year-old is just 10-10 in 2021, but on the biggest stage he is a very dangerous unseeded floater. He could lose in round one or he could make the semifinals, neither would make me overly surprised.

Section Winner: Kei Nishikori - I feel like my picks have been too chalk, and that never works out, especially on clay, so I'll take a chance with the veteran Nishikori getting to his 13th Grand Slam quarterfinal, fourth at the French Open and first since 2019.


Section 6

Seeds: 4) Dominic Thiem, 15) Casper Ruud, 19) Hubert Hurkacz, 27) Fabio Fognini

Who's Hot?

Casper Ruud - Fair label or not, Ruud has established himself as one of the ATP's top "Clay specialists." The 22-year-old is 15-4 on clay in 2021 and that includes a title in Geneva and semifinals at the Masters tournaments in Monte-Carlo and Madrid.

Federico Delbonis - The Argentine, high ball toss and all, has a solid 16-9 record on clay in 2021.

Who's Not?

Dominic Thiem - In the biggest shock of the year, the 2020 US Open champion, and two-time French Open runner-up, is just 9-7 in 2021. The last time he was on court was May 20 when Cameron Norrie crushed him 3-6, 2-6 in his first match at the Lyon Open.

Hubert Hurkacz - Hurkacz shot up the rankings after winning his maiden Masters 1000 title in Miami, but he is just 1-3 on the dirt in 2021.

Fabio Fognini - The unpredictable Italian has had a really down year in 2021 with just a 12-12 record, including 5-6 on his favored clay.

Benoît Paire - Speaking of unpredictable, the 32-year-old has been on his worst behavior ever (I'd argue he shouldn't even be allowed to play in his home slam due to his outbursts and tanking earlier this year) and that has led to a 2-13 record in 2021.

Biggest Storyline - Dominic Thiem's Bad Health?/Poor Fitness?/Slump?

Thiem's 9-7 record in 2021 is really unexplainable because he refuses to fully blame it on an injury but is vague enough to keep us guessing. If he is upset in the first week, it may be officially time to panic.

Best Round One Matchup: Pablo Andújar vs. Dominic Thiem - Speaking of Thiem in the early rounds, he will get an immediate test from Andújar who recently took out Roger Federer in Geneva. Thiem will want to prove his level and win this one in straight sets, but I wouldn't be surprised if Andújar turned this one into a long, physical match.

Best Potential Matchup: Casper Ruud vs. Dominic Thiem (Round Four) - This would be a great match in any year, but Thiem's drop in level would make this especially compelling and evenly matched.

Player to Watch: Casper Ruud - I think Ruud is a great sleeper pick to get all the way to the semifinals, or maybe even the finals. He has a great draw in the early rounds, and if Thiem falters early he will become a heavy favorite to reach his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal.

Section Winner: Dominic Thiem - All that being said, I am going to put my faith in Thiem to find his form and get to the last-eight in Paris for the sixth consecutive year. The draw is favorable enough that he should be able to play himself into good form.


Section 7

Seeds: 5) Stefanos Tsitsipas, 12) Pablo Carreño Busta, 17) Milos Raonic, 31) John Isner

Who's Hot?

Stefanos Tsitsipas - The 22-year-old is having the best season of his young career. The Greek is 33-8 on the year and 16-3 on clay. His improvement on clay this year has led to his first Masters 1000 title in Monte-Carlo, a title in Lyon and a runner-up in an epic final against Rafael Nadal in Barcelona.

Who's Not?

Thiago Monteiro - Pretty irrelevant but the Brazilian's record on clay this year is 3-5 (37.5%), down from his 48.1% career win rate on the surface.

Biggest Storyline - Can Stefanos Tsitsipas dominate?

The World No. 5 has to be the favorite to reach the final on the bottom half of the draw. This is a unprecedented amount of pressure for the young star, and he will have to get through a very tough draw just to get to the second week.

Best Round One Matchup: Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Jérémy Chardy - Tsitsipas will be tested right away against the veteran Chardy who is a respectable 14-11 in 2021.

Best Potential Matchup: Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. John Isner (Round Three) - This just feels like five-setter. If Isner can get to round three, Tsitsipas' improved return game will face the ultimate test.

Player to Watch: Milos Raonic - The 17-seed hasn't played since Miami, and isn't really a threat on clay, but I respect him enough to monitor him as a sleeper candidate to challenge Tsitsipas and get to his first quarterfinal in Paris since 2014.

Section Winner: Stefanos Tsitsipas - The section is definitely a challenging one, but I think that Tsitsipas is ready to become a consistent force in these Grand Slams.


Section 8

Seeds: 2) Daniil Medvedev, 16) Grigor Dimitrov, 22) Cristian Garín, 32) Reilly Opelka

Who's Hot?

Tommy Paul - Pretty weak section here but Paul is at least coming off of a semifinal appearance at the challenger in Parma.

Who's Not?

Daniil Medvedev - The World No. 2 is 17-3 on hard courts and 1-2 on clay in 2021. For his career, the Russian is 145-56 on hard and 11-20 on clay. His hatred for the surface is well publicized and he enters as "cold" as possible.

Guido Pella - The clay specialist is shockingly only 1-6 on the surface in 2021.

Juan Ignacio Londero - Another Argentine "clay specialist," Londero is 0-8 overall and 0-6 on clay in 2021.

Biggest Storyline - Who will win the only wide open section?

The seeded players are not built for clay (Medvedev and Opelka) or inconsistent (Dimitrov and Garín) and the clay specialists in the section (Pella, Londero, Jaume Munar, who is at least 7-7 on the surface this year) have been less than special this year. This makes for a wide open section that will definitely produce the "worst" quarterfinalist. Medvedev, Dimitrov and Pella are the only players in the section to even make a slam quarterfinal in their careers.

Best Round One Matchup: Daniil Medvedev vs. Alexander Bublik - Bublik alone is entertaining enough, but all eyes will be on the two-seed struggling on his most hated surface.

Best Potential Matchup: Grigor Dimitrov vs. Cristian Garín (Round Three) - I think this potential matchup will decide who wins the wide open section number eight. I also think it feels like a five-setter.

Player to Watch: Daniil Medvedev - The ATP No. 2 ranked player is still seeking his first career win at Roland-Garros. Maybe the fifth time will be the charm for the Russian who has actually looked good on clay at times in the past, he beat Novak Djokovic in 2019 in Monte-Carlo. Despite all this, if he gets in a groove, the section is so open that he may be able to actually make a run to the quarters.

Section Winner: Grigor Dimitrov - I'm rolling with experience for my pick in the most open section. The 30-year-old, yes he is actually 30 already, has made six career Grand Slam quarterfinals, and I think this is the year he finally does it at the French Open.


My full, official predictions for both the men's and women's draws will be out later today. Also, be sure to look out for today's premiere episode of Serve and Volley with Jack & Joe, where my co-host Jack Ravitz and I will cover all of the storylines surrounding the tournament, dig deeper into this section-by-section preview and explain our official picks.


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