By Andrew Komarov
Since Federer’s dominance began, it’s been improbable, if not impossible, to pick someone outside the big names to win a Grand Slam. In today's NBA, you wouldn’t pick the Portland Trail Blazers to win the title. If their odds were 50-1, I wouldn’t waste ten bucks to potentially win 500. In the NFL, you wouldn’t pick the Detroit Lions who barely creeped into the playoffs; you’d make that safe bet and go with Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots. We like dominance; dominance is safe and steady. We love to root for Roger and Rafa to meet in the finals every time because not only do we love their rivalry, but we don’t want to see Berdych and Tsonga play four sets with the score being 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. However, we do want drama and the flare and passion it creates. So why not root for underdogs in tennis like we do in other sports? The sports world overwhelmingly cheers against LeBron James and Tom Brady in championship games and chastises them for being great by creating agendas against them. In tennis, though, we always cheer for the greats: Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Unless you’re a random fan of a guy outside the top ten, you’re probably not a die hard Pablo Carreno Busta fan. Since it is particularly difficult to predict breakthroughs in tennis, we hardly pause to even consider them. No one expected Del Potro and Cilic to shock the world at the 2009 and 2014 U.S. Opens, respectively, or Stan to win his first Slam at the Australian Open in 2014. Nonetheless, with our Big Four now all in their thirties, it’s time to consider new guys on the rise. There are those who we expect to be great in a few years and those who we expect to just stay average. Even so, there are a select few who are primed to breakthrough next week at Roland Garros. This may be the year for another surprise Grand Slam champion, a true dark horse that has the potential to make this a very memorable tournament.
To find this dark horse, we need to look back at history to see who has the potential to make a deep run at the French Open. When wondering who may be able to overpower favorites like Rafa and Novak, we often think of the big hitters. But do you think that Raonic and Cilic are going to give you a beautiful final that has books written about it and re-runs sold for $20 each? Every time you ask for a big hitter to breakthrough in tennis, just remember the 2014 U.S. Open semis when Cilic smoked Federer, and Nishikori let Djokovic make 35 unforced errors to set up the ugliest final of the last decade. Honestly, I enjoyed watching Justine Henin retire in the Australian Open Final against Amelie Mauresmo more than I enjoyed watching Cilic run Nishikori around like a dog just to see Nishikori hang his head after every point and walk around like someone just killed his puppy. Instead, the final we all loved was the true "mano a mano" baseline battle that featured Stan blasting Novak off the court at Roland Garros 2015. Even though he had already won a Slam, Stan was the dark horse in a matchup that provided drama and compassion as we saw Novak cry and hug Stan, letting the crowd know how much Stan deserved the title. Seeing the raw emotion come out of a legend of the game when encountering a superior dark horse is a moment we all cherish as tennis fans. We even enjoyed Murray beating Djokovic to win his first Wimbledon title despite it being a pretty terrible tennis match. I swear, it looked like Novak honestly wanted his good buddy Andy to win that match just so the tennis world would leave him alone. I don’t even need to mention the countless classics that Roger-Rafa, Novak-Rafa, Roger-Novak have all provided for us. This is why we need the 2017 French Open to feature both the greatness of familiar Roland Garros icons and the excitement of a new contender.
With the recent success from guys like Thiem, Zverev, and Kyrgios, we’re starting to see future greatness from guys who are starting to creep into the conversation of winning Grand Slams within the next several years. What do these guys have in common? They are not small men. Thiem is the smallest of the group, being 6’1”. Kyrgios is 6’4”, and Zverev is 6’6”. Not only are they tall, but they are all great athletes-- physical specimens. In the modern game, you can’t be a star if you aren’t a superb athlete.
Look at the last few generations of consistent champions. You have Federer, who probably weighs 175 soaking wet but can most likely dunk a basketball and glides around the court like a ballerina. Nadal is a workhorse and was told he needed to lose muscle because he was so strong that his muscle mass was putting stress on his body. You have Murray who looks like he’s sculpted by Michelangelo himself. And lastly, I consider Djokovic the best athlete in the world right now (sorry LeBron). These are the kind of men who are slated for great success. Thiem, Zverev, and Kyrgios are our Next Gen champions, and while there is a good chance that any of those three guys will be competing with Rafa, Novak, Andy, and Stan in this year’s Roland Garros, my pick is a man who defies the rules of modern tennis. He’s not a freak athlete, he doesn’t have a monster serve, and he doesn’t have the scintillating groundstrokes of Murray and Djokovic. The French Open dark horse is a man ranked just outside the top ten -- a man who shows little emotion but a clear love of the game: Belgium’s finest, David Goffin.
I was Goffin’s biggest critic just a year ago. I watched him play and thought to myself, “this guy has no weapons”. I’ve only slightly digressed. Goffin has a below average serve, pretty solid footwork, and flat groundstrokes that may not hold up on clay against guys like Rafa. He isn’t a jerk and doesn’t really get too deep into people’s heads. Moreover, he’s not a great athlete like the players I mentioned earlier. What does he have, though? A golden opportunity. The field is at its weakest right now with the world’s two top players on one of the worst collective stretches of each of their careers. Stan shows up about three times a year so there is no guarantee that he’ll be himself. Thiem, Zverev, and Kyrgios may have to get over a hump they have not previously gone over in the second week, and if the stars align for Goffin in terms of the draw, he can make a deep run. He’ll need to have the top guys take care of each other, though. I don’t think he can win more than two big matches (against Top 5 opponents) in one tournament. In Monte Carlo this season, arguably the second biggest clay court event of the year, he beat Thiem and Djokovic back-to-back before getting walloped by Nadal. If Goffin can coast through the first three rounds, then play guys like Raonic (who he beat in Madrid) and Del Potro (who physically can’t withstand a two week grind and may not even play), he’ll be sitting pretty in the semis. If he draws Thiem in the semifinals, whom he’s beaten twice this year, he can make it 3-0. Awaiting him in the final will likely be Rafa Nadal, the undisputed King of Clay. Now, clay is also Goffin’s favorite surface so there is a strong possibility Goffin performs well on a stage where he is comfortable and has a lot of support from the French crowd. To beat Rafa in the final of the French is a task no one has ever achieved, but the pressure of fighting for that tenth title might get to Rafa as it has in his previous several attempts to surpass Pete Sampras in the Grand Slam standings.
From a technical perspective, Goffin has the foot speed, consistency, and determination to succeed. His backhand has looked as hot and solid as ever, and he can create some nice angles with his forehand (I won’t go as far as calling it a “fear-hand” quite yet). He can grind from the baseline as long as he has to, and I would say his touch is a little underrated. Although he’s not too long, he covers ground well at the net and can finish a point as well as anyone. With regard to rivals near him in the rankings, he matches up well with Thiem, a guy who will try to move you around to your death, and can definitely hang at the baseline with Zverev as long as he has to. On the other hand, I think the other Next Gen star in Kyrgios would blow him off the court, so Goffin better be crossing his fingers that he doesn’t draw him. Another wildcard on clay is Cilic and although he has had Goffin's number recently, Cilic plays good tennis about once a year. Since it's usually not on the red dirt, there are not a lot of guys seeded both slightly lower or higher for the Belgian to fear. Goffin is still 26, one of the younger guys who when we keep in mind our Top 25, and has been relatively injury-free. While he can’t impose his will with sheer power, he’ll try to do it with grit. There is nothing I would love to see more than Goffin sprinting corner to corner with counterpunches against Nishikori just to see Goffin straighten out his chest while Nishikori limps around looking disheveled. If there’s ever a time for a breakthrough for the Belgian, it’s now.
Goffin is currently the eighth favorite to win Roland Garros. His odds are odds I mentioned earlier, 50-1. If you put $10 on Goffin to win right now, and he does it, you come out with $500. We’re talking about a man who has never gotten past the quarters of ANY major. However, the French Open has a history of giving us unexpected champions: Tomas Muster, Gaston Gaudio, and Michael Chang, who is arguably a slightly craftier and more exciting version of Goffin. If you put a gun to my head and asked me who would win the French Open this year, I would say Rafa, and I’ll probably be right. But if I was forced to put $10 on someone for this year’s French Open, it would and will be David Goffin. It is, in fact, the year of the little guy.