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Nadal back in Paris, no title to defend, no Federer to face

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PARIS — Through the years, Rafael Nadal grew accustomed to a couple of givens at the French Open: He would arrive as the defending champion, and Roger Federer would be somewhere in the draw, often awaiting a showdown in the final.

This time around, neither is the case.

Federer withdrew a few days before Sunday’s start of the clay-court Grand Slam tournament, ending his record run of 65 consecutive major appearances.

“For the fans, for the tournament, for the world (of) tennis, in general, is … very negative news, no?” Nadal said.

Nadal won the title at Roland Garros every year from 2005-08 and from 2010-14 – a record nine in all, beating Federer in four of those finals – but returns to town trying to earn back the trophy after relinquishing it in 2015.

He is seeded fourth.

“It’s a tournament that I know I can play well,” said Nadal, who lost in the quarterfinals to Novak Djokovic a year ago. “If I am playing well, I know I can do good things.”

Nadal, who owns 14 major championships in all, could face No. 1 Djokovic in about two weeks in the semifinals – on what would be the Spaniard’s 30th birthday.

Asked about that milestone, Nadal waxed philosophical.

“You know, time never stops. Nobody stops the time,” he said. “That’s not a good thing, but at the same time, I am happy with my life. I enjoyed all these years on the tour, and I hope to keep enjoying the next couple of years.”

After dealing with health problems and a crisis of confidence last season, Nadal has been playing better on his favorite red clay of late.

He is 19-4 on the surface this season, including titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Not bad, but not up to his old standards. In his past two tournaments, Nadal lost in the Madrid semifinals to Andy Murray, and the Rome quarterfinals to Djokovic.

“A lot of tournaments in a row playing well,” said Nadal, who faces Sam Groth in the first round in Paris. “I need to just keep going.”

Other things to know about the French Open, which begins Sunday:

SERENA’S `DROUGHT’: Much was made of Serena Williams’ title in Rome last weekend being her first trophy in nine months. She does not consider that gap a big deal. “I guess when you win all the time, if you go a couple of tournaments and don’t win them, it’s like you’re in a drought,” Williams said. She is the defending champion and seeded No. 1 at Roland Garros, and another title would be her 22nd at a Grand Slam tournament, equaling Steffi Graf for the most in the Open era, which started in 1968.

SECURITY STEPPED UP: From patdowns at entrance gates to a 25 percent rise in the number of security agents, there is an obvious increase in protective measures at the tournament, about six months after terrorist attacks around the French capital. “I notice more security pretty much everywhere,” No. 2-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska said.

OLYMPIC PUSH: A Grand Slam tournament is a Grand Slam tournament, so there is plenty at stake as always over the next 15 days, but there is an added incentive for some players: the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The ATP and WTA rankings of June 6 – the day after the men’s final in Paris – will be the basis for Summer Games qualification.

DOPING TALK: Two recent events put the topic of performance-enhancing drugs on the table in tennis. Maria Sharapova’s positive test for meldonium and provisional suspension are keeping her out of the field at a tournament she won in 2012 and 2014. And Nadal filed a defamation lawsuit in Paris last month against France’s former minister for health and sport, Roselyne Bachelot, after she said on a television show the player’s seven-month injury absence in 2012 probably was due to a positive drug test.

CHEATING: A report about whether tennis was doing enough to investigate possible corruption stirred things up at the start of the Australian Open in January. While the chatter has mostly subsided, the French Open revoked the wild-card entry granted to a French player, Constant Lestienne, because the Tennis Integrity Unit said he violated a rule.

 

French Open 2017: 30 is the new 25 in men’s tennis right now

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PARIS — The very top of men’s tennis has never been this old.

For the first time in the history of the ATP computer rankings, which date to the early 1970s, the men sitting at Nos. 1-5 are all 30 or older, the latest sign that the current crop of stars has enviable staying power.

It’s also the latest reason to wonder when a new face will emerge among the elite, because there eventually will come a point – yes, there really will – when the group that was once known as the Big 3, then came to be called the Big 4, and now is considered by some to be a Big 5, is no longer running the sport.

With the French Open starting Sunday, No. 1 Andy Murray, No. 2 Novak Djokovic, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 4 Rafael Nadal (No. 5 Roger Federer is skipping Paris) all have designs on another major trophy. But could someone such as Alexander Zverev, who just turned 20 last month, or the supremely talented – and supremely enigmatic – Nick Kyrgios, 22, or Dominic Thiem, 23, make a breakthrough for the up-and-coming kids?

“We’re probably coming to the end of one of the greatest eras of tennis that, certainly, I’ve ever seen,” ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode said, “and what we need to do as a sport is look to the next generation of players.”

Federer is 35, Wawrinka is 32, Nadal turns 31 on June 3, and Djokovic and Murray turned 30 this month. That quintet has won 46 of the last 48 Grand Slam titles, a dozen-year stretch of dominance.

Zverev’s victory over Djokovic in the Italian Open final last weekend might have symbolized coming change. Zverev was the first man born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 title, the youngest champ since Djokovic about a decade ago.

That title also pushed Zverev into the top 10, making him the youngest member since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008.

“It’s nice … for the tour, as well, to have a few younger guys, few younger girls, as well, to be able to play at the top,” said Zverev, who is German. “As I said many times, unfortunately for tennis and unfortunately for the spectators, the top four cannot play forever. So it’s good that younger players are starting to get through.”

So then the question becomes: Why has it taken so long?

Why does someone such as former player and coach Brad Gilbert, now an ESPN commentator, say, “Today’s 30 is like 25 used to be,” as he did this week? Why have these 30-somethings had such staying power? And why is it taking so long for newcomers to make a mark?

There is a similar situation in women’s tennis, where Serena Williams has kept winning Grand Slam titles into her 30s and is the oldest No. 1 in WTA history. Current No. 1 Angelique Kerber was the oldest woman to make her debut at that spot.

“Tennis has changed in the last 15 years … since they slowed down surfaces and there is not much difference in speeds of the surfaces,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach. “You rarely have many easy shots now. You have to work the points much more, and one of the consequences is you need to be physically much better and able to play long rallies.”

He points out that when Wimbledon’s grass courts, for example, used to play much faster than they do now, a player could succeed there hitting aces by the dozen and going for one winner after another, because “you don’t need the same maturity and understanding of tactics” that are required today.

Gilbert points to Andre Agassi – a man he used to coach, and who is assisting Djokovic during this French Open – as an inspiration to the current old-timers still in charge.

“It used to be, you turned 30, you were completely on the downside of your career. A lot of these guys can remember Andre making a deep run at 2005 at 35 years old. I think that was the turning point in belief, that guys could play a lot longer,” Gilbert said. “You’re seeing Tom Brady be the best quarterback in all of football, maybe ever, and he’s approaching 40, which is dinosaur for a quarterback, but not anymore. Athletes are pushing the envelope all year round. There’s no offseason. Offseason is for more training, diet, technology.”

Nadal leads Djokovic, Murray, Thiem on French Open odds

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The overarching presence of Rafael Nadal, who has won a record nine times at Roland Garros, has inflated prices on the other top men at the French Open.

Nadal is listed as a better than even money -125 favorite on the French Open men’s champion board at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com. The Spaniard has won 17 of 18 matches on clay this year and will not have to worry about longtime nemesis Roger Federer, who’s saving himself for the grass and hard courts. The event begins in Paris on Sunday.

While Nadal is undoubtedly the most consistent clay-court player in the world, many threats loom. Novak Djokovic (+300) might be ready to come out of his lull now that he has swapped out his support staff, bringing on Andre Agassi as a personal coach. Nadal and Djokovic are on the same side of the draw, so either would benefit if the other falls prey to an upset.

Dominic Thiem (+900) could also be undervalued, given that he defeated Nadal in the Italian Open, one of the tune-ups for the French.

Top seed Andy Murray (+900) has not won an event on clay this season and his place on the tennis betting lines might reflect the notion that some bettors will always go for a big name with a track record of winning Grand Slams. In terms of someone who is coming into the tournament playing well, Stan Wawrinka (+1000) has had an impressive run at the Geneva Open after having so-so output for most of the clay-court season. Wawrinka is also a recent champion, having won in 2015.

It seems like it is just a matter of when 20-year-old Alexander Zverev (+1400) will win his first Grand Slam singles title. Zverev turned heads when he extended Nadal to five sets in a third-round defeat at the Australian Open in January, and he defeated Djokovic in the Italian Open final to become the youngest player in 10 years to win an ATP Masters event.

As far as the women’s champion board goes, Simona Halep (+450) has top odds but is battling an ankle injury. World No. 1 Angelique Kerber (+1600) has also been inconsistent throughout the season. Young Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (+700) is an intriguing possibility by virtue of her results (four singles titles already in 2017) and her strong return game, since the soft clay at Roland Garros dictates having longer rallies.

Garbine Muguruza (+900) is the defending champion, but it’s a little glaring that she has not reached a Grand Slam semifinal in three tries since that 2016 breakthrough.