The first round of the 2021 French Open at Roland Garros (May 30th – June 13th) in Paris is underway and it should come as no surprise who is the sportsbooks’ favorite to win the trophy on the men’s side, the King of Clay himself, Rafael Nadal.
Seeking what would be his fourteenth French Open crown and twenty first major title overall, which would pass Roger Federer for the most of all-time, Nadal opened as –120 to win yet another tournament on clay.
In second favorite, was world number one Novak Djokovic at +400. The discrepancy between the two top players is clear: When it comes to clay there is no one better. Not now, not then, and perhaps when all is said and done, not ever.
Nadal vs the Field…Yep, Again
This may sound like a broken record but here’s the thing: Until someone comes along and proves otherwise, when it comes to the French Open, Nadal is always going to be the favorite, and the main story of the men’s draw is always going to be Nadal vs the field.
This year the field has its biggest chance to take down the king. Because for the first time ever in any major, Nadal, Djokovic and Federer will all be in the same half of the men’s draw. Federer and Djokovic will be in the same quarter, meaning if everything holds to form and Federer and Djokovic face each other in the quarters, one of them will meet Nadal in the semis, not the finals this year. So that means that Nadal’s road to the title has to go through either Djokovic/Federer and another game competitor, perhaps a Dominic Thiem, who finished in second to Nadal at both the 2018 and 2019 French Open tournaments. Then there is Stefanos Tsitsipas, who recently beat Nadal at the Australian Open, played him tough on clay in Barcelona and won the Monte Carlo Masters this year.
Case for Djokovic
Djokovic has made it clear that he feels this is the year Nadal is finally going to be unseeded at Roland Garros, but he may not be the best man to do that. While Djokovic will likely have his shot at Nadal in the semifinals, like all of his contemporaries to this point, the world #1 has failed to best his rival on clay.
Nadal and Djokovic have one of the tennis’ most even rivalries, with Djokovic leading the head-to-head 29-28. If you were to consider only their meetings on clay courts, which amount to just under half of their total head-to-head, it is not even close as Nadal holds a 19-5 lead.
It was Djokovic, who after their first-ever meeting proudly told the media that Nadal was beatable on clay. Djokovic has been the only man to have won more than a handful of times against Nadal on this surface. Djokovic is also one of just two men all time, the other being Robin Soderling, to beat Nadal on the Roland Garros courts, doing so in straight sets in the 2015 quarterfinals.
Since that loss however, Nadal has defeated Djokovic in five of their next six clay court meetings. This includes their only other French Open match in that span, the 2020 finals, which was won by Nadal in a relatively easy straight-set victory. Djokovic just turned 34 and Nadal will turn 35 over the course of the 2021 edition of this tournament.
It is easy to say that if there was a time for Djokovic to beat Nadal in a final at Roland Garros (something no one has ever done), it would be now. That narrative has been debunked over the years. Every so often someone will mention Nadal’s knees and how he hasn’t been moving as well, only for the Spaniard to come out and sweep his way through his favorite major anyway. Nadal can never be overlooked in this major, even if he were ever considered an underdog. There is a reason he isn’t, because when it comes to clay court season, the smart money continues to be the right money.
Case for Tsitsipas
If Nadal gets through Djokovic in the semis, which he is likely to do if his 2021 clay court season has been any indication, he will probably face one of a few men in the finals. It could be Dominic Thiem, who has played Nadal in two previous championship matches and is one of only a handful of men to take a set off of the king during the French Open’s final match.
It could be Thiem’s semifinal opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is one of just a few men to say they’ve beaten Nadal in a clay court tournament, doing so in the semifinals of the 2019 ATP Masters 1000 in Madrid Spain. Tsitsipas enters the French Open this year as the tournament’s second-seeded player and also enters with some momentum at his back. Tsitsipas had a strong clay court season, winning both of his titles this year on that surface. He was victorious in the ATP Masters 1000 Monte Carlo as well as an ATP 250 level tournament in Lyon, France. Tsitsipas also played Djokovic tough in the quarters of the Masters 1000 in Rome, and Nadal in the finals of an ATP 500 level tournament in Barcelona.
There is certainly wind at his back but for the 22-year-old, who is the third favorite to win at +450 with the sports betting sites, might the pressure being put on him to dethrone Nadal be too much? Everyone has been looking for Nadal’s clay court successor for a while now.
It’s not that they don’t want to see the man continue to dominate more than any athlete has ever dominated at a single event. It’s that they want to know who if anyone, besides Father Time, can actually beat him on that surface. Those wins have been far and few, and they have been nonexistent in the French Open finals where Nadal is a perfect 13-0.
Tsitsipas is young, he’s talented and he looks like the best clay court player not named Nadal on the tour right now. Many are saying if anyone can do it, it would be him. Then again, they used to say the same about Thiem and all he has to show for it are two French Open runner-up prizes.
Our French Open Tennis Predictions and Pick
100-2. That is Nadal’s record as he enters the 2021 French Open. 100-2. He’s lost just twice in 102 matches in this tournament. No athlete can boast that kind of winning percentage. It’s simply unheard of. There is something about the French Open, about that clay court surface, that Nadal has always thrived on, ever since he entered his first one in 2005. To that point, not only is Nadal is 100-2, but he has also only dropped 26 sets in the 275-or-so sets he’s played. He has contested four tournaments out of 16 where he hasn’t dropped a single set and another three where he’s only dropped one set. Incredible.
As said in this French Open preview above, many have challenged for the crown but as the saying goes, if you swing at the king, you best not miss. Thiem (2x) Federer (4x), Djokovic (3x), Soderling, Mariano Puerta, David Ferrer, Stan Wawrinka: All of them have tried to defeat Nadal in a final and all failed. They swung at the king, and they missed. So until someone can finally land their shot, Nadal will remain the favorite at Roland Garros.
Money can be had if you are willing to take a risk that Nadal will lose just the third ever French Open he has entered in 18 tries. Djokovic and Tsitsipas offer some value there. If you believe that chalk will hold as it so often has, bet on Nadal to make history with his 14th French Open Championship and 21st major title overall, the most of all-time.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.