Mats Wilander previews the French Open as he outlines his fears for Rafael Nadal

French Open
Rafael Nadal French Open

Eurosport tennis expert and seven-time Grand Slam champion Mats Wilander has previewed the upcoming Roland-Garros tournament from Paris.

Were you impressed with how the players dealt with everything in New York?

The thing is I was impressed with how the players dealt with everything, the players that survived the first couple of rounds. Maybe the guys and girls that lost in the first round, maybe they felt affected by there being no fans, that’s very possible.

I can think of a few who most probably would be affected by no fans, the Nick Kyrgios type of player or Benoit Paire or Fabio Fognini, the guys that have a great relationship with the crowd and the crowd loves them, the entertainers. Gael Monfils maybe, I think those guys suffer, I think they love the crowd.

I think in the end the tennis was good enough without people but, at the same time, I have to say watching Rome with people, the last couple of days, was an absolute massive change from the first few days so I think it’s crucial for the tournament, for the French Open, or for the sport of tennis, to have a Major with some people and some vibe so that we don’t get too used to having no people.

Do you think Novak Djokovic could feel extra pressure at Roland Garros after what happened in New York?

No, I think it’s the other way round. I think he says “I’m going to prove to you that I don’t have to get angry, I can win everything anyway”. I actually think it was the best thing possible for him to have happened in this situation and if he would have won New York, people would have said who love Roger Federer – which most people do, they would have come up with ‘Well, it shouldn’t count anyway, Rafa wasn’t there and there was Covid-19’.

I think it’s the best thing that’s happened for him and I think it’s great for the sport. Hopefully he doesn’t hit somebody in the face, obviously, but that was unfortunate and unlucky and such a coincidence but at the same time, he broke the rules and he got penalised for it so we’re good. The woman is fine and we know we can’t do that, so it’s good but for the game of tennis I think it’s the best thing that’s happened in a long time.

Do you think Novak has still got it in him to break that record number of Grand Slams titles?

I think he will win the French Open and I think with the temperatures that are going to be in Paris now and over the next two weeks, they are going to be colder than normal which is not great for somebody who spins the ball like Rafa Nadal.

Novak doesn’t really care if it’s cold or warm, he likes both conditions. I think he is the favourite, just ahead of Nadal and Dominic Thiem. I think Novak has this thing where … okay, he screwed up in New York, okay, fine, here I go, I’m going to win the French, I’m going to have 18.

I win Australia every year, I’m at 19, now I’ve got to win, maybe the French again, maybe Wimbledon, yes, US Open? He is going to be looking going past both guys at the end of next year, I’m convinced that’s what he’s thinking and I really am starting to think that that might be the case.

How much longer can the Big Three dominate or is that period already over?

It’s very close to being over, really close. In fact, this French Open, unfortunately, Roger is not there but this French Open could be the last Slam when we see these guys get to the end of it. I think they’ll still be able to, like Serena is still able to, but the young guys who are coming up, they’re not intimidated anymore.

They have respect but they are not as humble, they have trained differently, they are stronger physically, they’re bigger so yes, I think it’s starting to come towards the end and I don’t think they are going to rack up another four or five majors. I see Novak with possibilities but I think that we’re going to have a lot of new Grand Slam winners over the next three years.

As somebody who has had a little bit of success on the clay courts yourself, what would be Rafa Nadal’s secret to winning 12 Grand Slam titles and who are his biggest rivals going into this competition?

The secret of winning 12 French Opens is that you are able to adjust to the different conditions because the French Open conditions change more than any other surface because it’s a natural surface that becomes really slippery; and dry and fast and hard when it’s hot; and it becomes really heavy and slow and slippery in another way and the balls kick up clay when it’s cold and rainy.

So, you have to basically go to bed not thinking about the match at all and wake up and think on the spot when you wake up in the morning of the match. Whereas on other surfaces you don’t do that, you go to bed, you know you’re going to play, you know it’s going to be dry and I think that’s what the secret to Nadal’s success is. He prays going to sleep that it’s going to be 25 degrees and sunny and maybe even windy, because that’s the perfect conditions for him.

I think that Nadal had to win maybe two matches out of seven to win the French Open and the other five he was maybe pushed for 25 minutes and then the other guy realised he can’t beat him. I think now, during these conditions I think he is going to have to win six or seven matches, meaning every player in the locker room is going to know he lost to Schwartzman in Rome.

They are going to know that he has played three clay court matches when usually he has played 25 and won four tournaments. Now they think they have a chance.

So, they are going to think they have a chance and think they have a chance to take a set out of him, then in the second round the guy takes two sets out of him and by the time he gets to the semis and Thiem, or whoever he plays, he’s not as fresh and as confident as he’s been in the past, that’s the worry I see for Rafa, which is why I cannot put him as the favourite because of the conditions.

Dominic Thiem celebrating

So, the main rivals for the men’s tournament? You’re talking Thiem (above) and Djokovic?

Yes, Thiem and Djokovic and I think that there is Shapovalov and Tsitsipas, Zverev, Berrettini, these guys are monsters on clay these days because they are so powerful and they hit the ball so hard. They are not intimidated by Rafa Nadal or anyone, so I think there are going to be upsets. It’s kind of a slow, heavy clay court so you are going to have to hit the ball flat and hard and I think a lot of guys know how to do that so I think it’s going to be a great tournament in terms of the tennis.

Mats Wilander is a tennis expert for Eurosport. All courts and all matches from Roland-Garros from Paris will be live on Eurosport and Eurosport app starting Sunday 27 September.

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