Over the last nine years, Rafael Nadal has dispatched nearly every challenger at the French Open, winning eight of the last nine slams at Roland Garros.
The likes of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer haven’t slowed the Mallorca native, but back in 2009 his lone slip up came against the relatively unknown Swede and former No. 23-ranked Robin Soderling, who ended Nadal’s record 30-match win streak in Paris and served as his only blemish at the French in his entire career.
This year any of the five players below could emerge as 2014’s dark horse, or Soderling, and knock Nadal off his high perch.
Fognini has been in the headlines for everything but his game. Despite a steady rise towards the top 10, Fognini is known best for his feisty spirit and antics. Recently, he tried to fight a well-respected umpire, Mohamed Lahayni, after the match because of a disputed call. Last year, Fognini threw a match in Cincinnati after disagreeing with the line judge over a foot fault.
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But what lies beneath the surface and tirades is an endless amount of talent. Fognini is one of the tour's streakiest players, who will go for winners from any part of the court. If he can get rolling, watch out. Fognini can only stop himself.
Only 20 years old, Thiem shocked the tennis world by upsetting Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka earlier this month in Madrid. Thiem draws Nadal second round. While that may seem like the kiss of death, Nadal is seen as more vulnerable this year than in the past, especially in the early rounds. Nadal’s been tested early in the French in the last two years, with Daniel Brands and John Isner both pushing him to five sets.
Is this the year Thiem does the same or perhaps even knocks off the king? Possessing a huge serve and a great one-handed backhand, he probably won't breakthrough and beat Rafa but acquaint yourself with Thiem. He will be around for a long time. He also has an unorthodox training style highlighted here.
Last year, this 23-year-old Argentine broke into the top 100 with a win over Federer. This year the lefty grabbed his first ATP title (Brazil) and broke into the top 50. Bonis could make a deep run at the French behind a big first serve and forehand. If he can win 70 percent of his first serve points like he did in the warm up tournament in Nice, it will be hard to beat him.
Gulbis is known more for breaking rackets then making deep run in majors, but that could change this year. The Latvian will say anything publicly, including comments suggesting that Federer is boring with the way he handles the media. No one has ever questioned his talent, but people have always questioned Gulbis’s desire.
He has made certain changes to his game recently indicating some interest in advancing his ranking, most notably switching to an unorthodox forehand that makes tennis purists cringe. His backhand down the line, however, can neutralize his opponents’ best weapons on tour and makes him a threat to upset any one. Gulbis has been the dark horse for what seems like the past six majors but has not been able to make a run at any of the events. If any of the big four do not win this major, Gulbis has as good a shot as anyone.
Known for his unorthodox slices and awkward game, the Dog has finally started to put it together. He beat Nadal on hard courts at Indian Wells this year.
The best-of-five format used at the majors is a huge boost for Dolgopolov. He tends to neutralize the mental lapses he is prone to in smaller tournaments. Dolgopolov’s also played the most tournaments of any player this year.
Reporting by Adam Chemerinsky