In terms of sheer shock value, none of the matches lined up today will match upto something that happened off the court in the Tennis Galaxy, yesterday. 9 time French Open Champion, Rafael Nadal announced his withdrawal from the 2016 French Open due to a wrist injury.
The announcement took the tennis world by surprise and a men’s draw already reeling under the no-shows from Roger Federer and Juan Martin Del Potro – 2 of the most adored players in our sport, was dealt another curve ball. As for the on-court repercussions, Nadal’s withdrawal leaves an already lopsided top half even weaker with 3 of the remaining 4 highest ranked players in the bottom-half.
That said, the well informed tennis fans will be aware there are quite a few tennis players who can put up a show for the spectators. Here are my picks among the matches lined up today in the French capital:
1. Dominic Thiem (AUT)  vs Alexander Zverev (GER)
This is the most interesting match up of the day – a clash between two of the next would-be stars of the Tennis Galaxy. The two youngsters have already developed a rivalry with 2 showdowns on the red clay this season. As one would expect from these two gifted players, both the matches were 3 setters with Zverev winning the first set in the Munich semifinal and Thiem winning the first set in the Nice final.
Thiem however won the all important final set in both those encounters and the onus is on the younger Zverev to show us what he has learnt from those battles. Thiem will try to keep executing the patterns that brought him the wins in those matches. There is similarity in the strengths they possess – big serve and stronger off the backhand than the forehand and stronger from the back court.
The match might come down to which of the two is willing to gamble on their weaker suits and make sure they are not stuck too far behind the baseline and willing to move forward to finish the points.
Prediction: Thiem has built up a good deal of momentum on the dirt and with Nadal’s withdrawal, he has a golden opportunity to bring his clay campaign to a rousing end. He will be ready for everything Zverev will be throwing at him tomorrow and will register his 3rd win over the German youngster in 3 months.
2. David Goffin (BEL)  vs Nicolas Almagro (ESP)
Another match-up that pits a rising youngster against a veteran. Almagro’s prowess on the clay is well known, but he will be entering this match as the underdog given the season Goffin has put together thus far. Already in the top 10 in the atp race, a deep run at this tournament will see the diminutive Belgian enter the top 10 in the rankings.
He has been in scintillating form in the first two rounds of the tournament and he will be thoroughly tested by Almagro’s experience and big game that translates well to the red clay. Almagro leads the head to head 3-0 but the two of them have not played in about 3 years.
Three years is a long time and things are definitely looking up for the Belgian while the Spaniard has regressed due to injuries and wear and tear that comes with passage of time. Almagro will try to turn back the clock and continue his unbeaten record against the Belgian, while the Belgian will be trying to continue his good season to enter the second week of the tournament.
Prediction: Goffin has been having a strong season and he will use his strong baseline game to rush Almagro for time and reduce his margins and force him to commit one error too many. Goffin in 4 sets.
3. David Ferrer (ESP)  vs Feliciano Lopez (ESP) 
This match makes our list for the contrast it provides rather than for its competitiveness. Lopez is now the active player with most consecutive slams played and he will have to play some of the best tennis he’s played in all those slams to trouble Ferrer on a surface that will aid Ferrer’s baseline game more than Lopez’s serve and volley game.
Ferrer has not had a year/clay season on par with the previous years when he was at the peak of his game, however he seems to be finding some of his best tennis in the French capital. In one of the best matches of the tournament, Ferrer out slugged Juan Monaco in the previous round and seems to be primed for a good run at the second slam of the tournament.
Lopez for his part as used his attacking game to confound a couple of the dirtballers in heavy conditions that reduce his disadvantage against conventional clay courters. Today he will meet one of the very best of clay courters in Ferrrer and his serve will need to be firing and overpower one of the best returners in Ferrer.
Prediction: This is going to be a fun match with Lopez’s exciting serve and volley game against Ferrer’s poweful ground game. Expect some wonderful passing shots, jaw dropping volleys, clutch serves and pin-point lobs and athletic overheads. However, the result will be a straightforward win for Ferrer in not more than 4 sets.
4. Ernests Gulbis (LAT) vs Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) 
This has the potential to be another French Open classic, much like Tsonga’s previous match up against Baghdatis. For his own tournament prospects, however, Tsonga would like to avoid a 5 setter here. That is easier said than done with the opponent he is going to face on the first saturday of the tournament.
Gulbis is as mercurial a player as you could come across on the ATP tour. He was barely able to win sets for the better part of the last 18 months and he has suddenly found some inspiration to put up a dominating performance against some tricky clay court players. As he is, when he is on his game, Gulbis looks dangerous and Tsonga will have his hands full with another gifted player who on his day can make even the best look ordinary.
Tsonga leads the H2H 3-2, but the two of them have never played on clay. The slower terracota should not give unfair advantage to either of these aggressive power baseliners and the player who gets the first strike in consistently and controls the rallies will get the all important W
Prediction: Expect some big time ball bashing from both ends of the court as well as some deft touches from these super gifted athletes. Tsonga will have to recover well from his last round – a marathon 5 setter against Baghdatis and keep up his best game for at least 4 sets to see off the Gulbis threat. With his home crowd egging on, I think he will do exactly that and win this match in 4 sets.
–Prakash Potukuchi [ Prakash is the founder of Sportz Cosmos. He tweets here.]