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Who will win Nadal-Nishikori, Khachanov-Thiem, Djokovic-Zverev and Federer-Wawrinka?

By Stanley Kay
June 03, 2019

Just eight men remain in contention at Roland Garros. Four of them—Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka—have combined to win every French Open since 2005. Three of them—Dominic Thiem, Karen Khachanov and Alexander Zverev—are among the game’s brightest young stars, full of promise but yet to topple the sport’s hegemons at a Grand Slam. And then there’s Kei Nishikori, 29 and without a major title, who doesn’t really fall into either category.

For all the drama of the tournament’s first week, the ultimate outcome still almost seems a foregone conclusion: Nadal, the 11-time Roland Garros winner, defending his title against Djokovic, the clear best player in the world on anything but clay. Still, there's sure to be plenty of drama along the way. Here’s a look at this year’s men’s quarterfinals, ranked from least to most intriguing. 

No. 7 Kei Nishikori vs. No. 2 Rafael Nadal

Nishikori has never reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, though he’s made the quarterfinals three of the last five years. He needed five sets to overcome unseeded home favorite Benoit Paire in the fourth round—nearly four hours of mileage that will make dethroning the King of Clay that much more challenging. Nadal, meanwhile, after dropping a set to David Goffin on Friday, breezed by Juan Ignacio Londero 6-2, 6-3, 6-3 on Saturday; if there were any questions about his form, he answered them. Nishikori hasn’t had much success against Nadal on clay in the past—no wins, four losses—and he seems unlikely to reverse that trend on Tuesday.

Prediction: Nadal in three sets

No. 4 Dominic Thiem vs. No. 10 Karen Khachanov

Thiem and Khachanov have only met once, a straight-sets win for the latter at last year’s Paris Masters. They’ll face each other on clay for the first time on Wednesday, as Thiem looks to return to the Roland Garros semifinals for the fourth straight year. The last time Thiem lost at the French Open to a player not named Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic was 2015, when he fell to Pablo Cuevas in the second round. But while Thiem could end up facing Djokovic in the semifinals (and perhaps Nadal in the final), he shouldn’t overlook his quarterfinal opponent. An aggressive baseliner, Khachanov—who beat another good clay-courter, Juan Martin del Potro, in the fourth round—considers clay his favorite surface, and he rarely seems fazed by a big moment.

After a shaky start to the tournament, Thiem rediscovered his form in the fourth round against Gael Monfils, beating the Frenchman in three sets. It probably won’t be quite that smooth on Wednesday, but Thiem will win the first—though almost certainly not the last—match between these two at Roland Garros.

Prediction: Thiem in four sets

No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 6 Alexander Zverev

There’s no shortage of intrigue here. Will Alexander Zverev—and, by proxy, a younger generation—finally break through at a major? Is this the most dominant Novak Djokovic we’ve ever seen? And even if that’s the case, will it enough to beat Rafael Nadal on clay?

It’s no secret that the Grand Slams haven’t been kind to Zverev, but he’s into his second consecutive Roland Garros quarterfinal after a hard-fought win over Fabio Fognini. Zverev and Djokovic have never played at a Slam—a result of Zverev’s early exits to the Philipp Kohlscreibers and Fernando Verdascos of the world—and the young German prevailed in their lone meeting on clay, a 6-4, 6-3 win in the 2017 Rome final. But that Djokovic was far less formidable than the man who will take the court on Wednesday. The winner of the last three Grand Slam events, he has yet to drop a set at this tournament, and only two of the 12 sets he’s played have gone longer than nine games.

Zverev, meanwhile, has struggled this season, so merely reaching the quarterfinal should at least help his confidence entering grass season. What won’t help is a drubbing from Djokovic, the kind he’s doling out to everyone these days.

Prediction: Djokovic in three sets

No. 24 Stan Wawrinka vs. No. 3 Roger Federer

For sheer drama, it won’t be easy to top Wawrinka’s last match, an instant classic of five thrilling sets against Stefanos Tsitsipas. Federer’s fourth-round win over Leonardo Mayer—straight sets, just over 90 minutes—was considerably less epic. Both players have incentive to keep this one short: Wawrinka’s match against Tsitsipas, played in sweltering conditions, lasted more than five hours. And Federer, well—he’s 37. He’ll try to shorten points when he can.

Federer is 22–3 against Wawrinka over his career, though it’s worth noting that all three losses have come on clay, including the 2015 Roland Garros quarterfinals. Wawrinka has a knack for playing his best at majors, and he’s especially tough to knock out on clay, but Federer’s fresher legs make him a slight favorite. And then there’s Federer’s other big advantage, which Wawrinka acknowledged after a reporter noted that Wawrinka is four years younger than his quarterfinal opponent: “Yes, but he’s quite better than me, also.”

Prediction: Federer in four sets    

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