Will the 2018 French Open boast the first unseeded Grand Slam champion since 2004?

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The Grand Slam tournaments are considered the most prestigious of tennis events. Held annually, they offer the most ranking points, publicity, and lucrative cash prizes.

The four events that make up a Grand Slam calendar year, in chronological order, are the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Prior to 1968, these events were reserved specifically for amateur players only. Professional players were not allowed to compete against amateurs in any of the grand slams until after 1968 – otherwise known as the start of the Open Era.

Over the years, the Open Era has witnessed many tennis players (both seeded and unseeded) defy expectations to win these distinguished tournaments. The most unforeseen and surprising of victories were usually made by unseeded players – players who are not given an official rank by the competition’s organisers.

The men’s singles tournaments have seen 29 unseeded players reach the finals, since the start of the Open Era. Of these 29 unseeded finalists 22 of them became runners-up, while the remaining seven of them went on to become champions. Three of these unseeded victories were at the French Open, with two at Wimbledon, and one each at the Australian Open and the US Open. The last of these unseeded victories was achieved by Gaston Gaudio at the 2004 French Open.

The closest any unseeded player came to winning a Grand Slam tournament since Gaudio’s 2004 French Open victory, was when Jo-Wilfred Tsonga reached the 2008 Australian Open final, but was defeated by Novak Djokovic. For the next 10 years, there would be no unseeded finalist in any Grand Slam tournament, as tennis has since been, almost entirely, dominated by the ‘big four’ – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – since Gaudio’s victory at the 2004 French Open.

Since Wimbledon in 2008, there have also been no unseeded semi-finalists in any Grand Slam. That streak was broken 10 years later in the 2018 Australian Open, where there were two unseeded semi-finalists – Kyle Edmund of Britain, and Chung Hyeon of South Korea. Both failed to make it past the semi finals, however, as they were beaten by their seeded competitors, Marin Cilic (6) and Roger Federer (2), respectively. Roger Federer would go on to win the championship, making him the first male tennis player in history to achieve 20 grand slams men’s singles titles.

With almost a decade and a half going by without an unseeded Grand Slam winner, this poses the question regarding the upcoming major – will the 2018 French Open be the tournament to boast the first unseeded Grand Slam champion in 14 years?

Of all the Grand Slams unseeded victories since the start of the Open Era, the French Open has produced the most (43%) unseeded wins in comparison with the other tournaments. Since 2008 however, the French Open saw the second lowest number of unseeded players of the four slams advance to the 4th rounds and quarterfinals.

Who’s more likely to advance through the tournament?

At the fourth round stage of the slams since 2008, Spain has been the most represented country – as 15 (14.2%) of the 4th round unseeded players were Spaniards. France was second most represented, with 12 French players present at the 4th round matches. Australia and America came in joint third, both with 8 players each.

Since 2008, Australia and Spain were the two nationalities to reach the quarterfinals most often – both achieving this feat four times each. Argentina came in second, with two players.

This data seems to partially mirror the calibre of the 29 unseeded finalists since the start of the Open Era to 2008; four of them were from Australia – the most represented country, with America and Sweden coming in at joint second with 3 players each. Spain, Argentina, France, Croatia and Great Britain were represented by 2 players each.

As two of the previous unseeded French Open champions were South American, with the other being Swedish, is it sensible to back an unseeded Australian or Spaniard, who have, more often, advanced through the competition further than other competing nationalities since 2008, but never actually won? Or is it better to stick with the ‘tried and tested’ method, by supporting players from the same nationalities as previous champions, even though unseeded French Open wins have only happened thrice since the start of the Open Era?

In addition to nationality, should the player’s age be taken into consideration when predicting how far one will go? The table below displays the average ages of unseeded players at each stage of the slams, in comparison with the average ages of unseeded players at each stage of the French Open.

It is widely accepted that the peak age of a professional tennis player is usually in the range of 28-32 years. However, there have been exceptions to this rule – most recently, Roger Federer won his 20th Grand Slam at the 2018 Australian Open at the age of 35yrs, making him the second oldest Grand Slam champion of the Open Era, only behind Ken Rosewall, who won the 1972 Australian Open at 37yrs.

According to the data displayed above, however, it seems that unseeded players younger than the agreed peak age perform better – the younger the player, the further they seem to advance through the tournament.

Rafael Nadal is usually the favourite to win the French Open, as he currently holds a record 10 French Open titles – the most for any player at the French Open, and the most for any player at any single Grand Slam event ever. However, given that French Open has produced the most unseeded champions of all the four slams, keeping certain traits in mind, the 2018 French Open is probably the best time to bet on an unseeded player.

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