Bengaluru, May 21: A tricky draw for the French Open 2022 could see defending champion Novak Djokovic and clay court king Rafael Nadal run into each other in the last-eight itself, possibly depriving the fans of a dream final.
As the second Grand Slam of the season begins at Roland Garros on Sunday (May 22) in the Parisian clay, fans and aficionados are not looking beyond the Big Two for title challengers.
However, India's former No 1 tennis player Gaurav Natekar has a different take and has chosen his pick for the tournament.
"The top half of the men's draw is heavily loaded. Rafa (Nadal), Novak (Djokovic), Carlos (Alcaraz), Stan (Wawrinka), Diego Schwartzman... are all on the same half of he draw. It remains to be seen who'll can come through.
"With Nadal and Djokovic drawn on the same half, a dream final is out of question now. And don't take it for granted that the Big Two are going to meet in quarterfinals. Therefore a bunch of exciting youngsters who can create an upset," Natekar told a select group of journalists in a virtual media interaction hosted by Sony Sports Network, who have the official broadcast rights of French Open 2022 in India.
So, does Natekar see a potential dark-horse who can come through from the bottom half, especially considering the fact that French Open is known for unheralded champions? Natekar feels so, and thinks Stefanos Tsitsipas is the man to do it.
"I had said a couple of years ago that Stefanos is the best among the emerging players and I still stick to my stand. He came close to winning a Grand Slam last year (The Greek player lost to Djokovic in French Open 2021 final despite winning the first two sets). Though he's coming off an injury, he has enough experience to win it. If there's one player who can upset the applecart then it's probably Tsitsipas," Natekar, the double gold medalist at 1994 Asian Games, said.
Much has been said about Alcaraz, after the 19-year-old's recent exploits which saw the Spaniard win Madrid Open, where he defeated both Nadal and Djokovic en route to the title. Some pundits have even tipped Alcaraz to go the distance in Paris, though Natekar diffe.
"Carlos has never progressed beyond the third-round in a Grand Slam. So first, he should get the monkey off his back. Playing a Grand Slam requires a very different mentality and French Open is the toughest of the Grand Slams.
"He'll dig deep in Roland Garros, But I don't see him winning the tournament. His time will come, but he has to wait. I'm sure in the years to come, he'll be the flag-bearer of men's tennis."
Seven-time national champion Natekar, said Russian Daniil Medvedev could also pose a challenge.
"The good thing about Medvedev is that he plays and wins matches when he isn't on form. Clay may not be his favourite surface. But, still he can be really dangerous," Natekar said.
Djokovic is one title away from equalling Nadal's record 21 Grand Slams and has sounded early warning to his rival by winning in Rome, where he beat Tsitsipas in the final.
Natekar said the Serb will end up with minimum 25 Grand Slams in his career.
"Djokovic has a few more years and Grand Slams to play compared to Nadal. So he'll easily end up with say, something like 25 Grand Slams.
"As far as Rafa is concerned, for him, it'll be like one match, or rather one set at a time, since he's coming back from an injury,"
Natekar was spot on when asked to pick the favourite in the women's draw.
"Anybody who doesn't pick Iga Swaitek as the favourite isn't living on this planet. The Pole has had an amazing run in recent times. Iga has already won the French Open once, is the WTA world No 1 and is on a 28-match winning streak.
"Players like defending champion Barbora Krejcikova, Paula Badosa all have a chance, but Iga definitely has the edge. There's lot of depth in women's tennis. We've seen that in some years, the four Slams are won by four different players," he added.
Former world No 1 Naomi Osaka is back in Paris, after battling her recent issues related with mental stress. While sympathising with the Japanese star, Natekar said issues pertaining to mental stress have been plaguing the sport for many years.
"It has been there before as well. Only difference now is that it has come more to the forefront and multiplied many folds because of social media. Pressure is part and parcel of the game.
"One has to strike a balance here as that's the beauty of any sport - be it tennis, golf, badminton or swimming - you're playing against yourself in your mind after a certain point and you must be able to handle those external factors," Natekar concluded.
Watch French Open 2022 Live from Roland-Garros Live (May 22 to June 5) on SONY SIX, SONY TEN 2 (English), SONY TEN 3 (Hindi) and SONY TEN 4 (Tamil & Telugu) channels.