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French Open: Tough task awaits Andy Murray in Paris as new faces begin to emerge

Britain's Andy Murray looks up during a training session for the French Open tennis tournament, at Roland Garros in Paris. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena
Britain's Andy Murray looks up during a training session for the French Open tennis tournament, at Roland Garros in Paris. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena
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When Andy Murray hit top spot in the world standings, it looked to have demonstrated the fourth and final changing of the guard between the game’s so-called ‘big four’.

Just six months on, the tennis world is on edge to see where the land lies between generations.

Defending champions Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Spain's Garbine Muguruza pose in front of the cups during the draw for the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena

Defending champions Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Spain's Garbine Muguruza pose in front of the cups during the draw for the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena

Murray’s expected dominance has not materialised. There have been a string of shock defeats on the ATP tour, with only a tournament win in the second-rate Dubai Championships in February adding to his trophy cabinet.

Given Novak Djokovic’s similar slump and the emergence of a fresh crop of talent, this week’s French Open looks the most open on the men’s side since the unseeded Gaston Gaudio won at Roland Garros in 2004.

Rafael Nadal leads the favouritism following his sparkling return to form while a new figure could emerge as a household name from a pack of richly talented youngsters.

For Murray, who has reportedly suffered a virus in the lead-up to the tournament, the route to becoming Britain’s first French Open champion of the open era has thrown up severe challenges.

For Murray, who has reportedly suffered a virus in the lead-up to the tournament, the route to becoming Britain’s first French Open champion of the open era has thrown up severe challenges.

The YP’s Ed White

The world No 1 has avoided Nadal and Djokovic in his side of the draw but still could meed his US Open conqueror, Kei Nishikori, in the quarter-finals, while matches against power-hitters Juan Martin Del Potro and Tomas Berdych may come his way first.

The top seed faces Andrey Kuznetsov, a 26-year-old Russian, in round one. Murray has beaten him in both of their previous encounters.

Slovakian Martin Klizan or French wild-card Laurent Lokoli lie in wait in round two before the intriguing challenge of Del Potro, a player still fighting his way up the rankings after almost three years on the sidelines through a wrist injury, looms.

Murray’s game has improved significantly since his first appearance at Roland Garros in 2006 but his form – five wins in his last 10 matches – heading into the second slam of the year is his worst since 2010. This time last year, Murray headed to Paris off the back of final appearances at the Rome and Madrid Masters and consequently finished runner-up to Djokovic.

Britain's Andy Murray checks his racket during a training session at Roland Garros on Friday. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena)

Britain's Andy Murray checks his racket during a training session at Roland Garros on Friday. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena)

This time around, defeats to lower-ranked Fabio Fognini, Berna Coric, Dominic Thiem and Albert Ramos-Vinolas blot his clay-court copy book.

Eight-time winner Nadal, however, has history once again in his sights. Following titles in Madrid, Barcelona and Monte Carlo in recent weeks, the Spaniard returns to Roland Garros as favourite for the first time since his last title triumph in 2014. The Spaniard will meet home hope Benoit Paire in the opening round with a potential quarter-final against Milos Raonic in the offing.

Of the rising stars, Alexander Zverev reached the final in Rome last week, while Dominic Thiem has wins over Nadal and Murray on his 2017 CV and caused problems for Djokovic, who starts against Marcel Granollers, in the last eight.

Yorkshire’s Kyle Edmund also remains part of the emerging pack.

Edmund has reached the second round for the last two occasions at the French Open and will be favourite to make it a third in succession when he opens his championship against Portugal’s Gastao Elias.

Many analysts have pointed to clay as Edmund’s best surface with his ability to generate great speed off his forehand side.

The Beverley player will be keen to make his impression after a mixed year on tour, which has seen him run into Nadal, Thiem and Del Potro in the clay-court season.

The 22-year-old is ranked 50 but a couple of big scalps will move him towards a ‘Slam seeding’. A potential second round meeting with Jo Wilfried Tsonga would present that very occasion.

Fellow Brit Dan Evans faces Spain’s Tommy Robredo in round one while Aljaz Bedene meets Ryan Harrison.