Another year, another hotly debated, highly anticipated French Open men’s tournament. And in the end, another foregone conclusion, right? It’s remarkable how much anticipation remains for these two weeks despite the fact that since 2005 they've been controlled, more tightly each year, by one player. Did we look forward this way to Wimbledon during the often-stultifying reign of Pete Sampras? Yeah, I guess we did. The remote but dumbfounding possibility of seeing the king deposed, like the possibility of buying a winning lottery ticket, keeps us coming back for more against our better judgment.
This year, the possibility that Rafael Nadal will not win the French Open feels just about as remote as it has the last few springs, which is to say, distant. But it feels a little more plausible than it did a week ago, before Roger Federer proved that the Spaniard can be beaten on clay. Granted, it took a four-hour match the day before and an altitude he didn’t like, but the point is, it happened. There are 127 players lined up below Nadal on the French Open drawsheet who will try to make it happen again. Who has a chance?
In his presser today, Nadal sounded happy to get back down closer to sea level, where, according to him, the ball doesn’t fly off the strings so haphazardly. Separating Paris and Madrid so distinctly in his mind is probably a good strategy; it will allow him to think of his loss on Sunday as an aberration rather than a harbinger. And instead of rattling him, I think it will make him come out with a fighter’s, rather than a defender’s, mindset. He has a little bit to prove again, which isn’t a bad thing.
Who or what stands out in Nadal’s section of the draw? Actually, kind of a lot, now that I look at it. There’s a Hewitt-Karlovic opener that could provide him with his third-round opponent—neither is a gimme, though neither is as dangerous as he used to be. After that, there’s fellow clay dog Ferrer, who pushed him hard for a set in Barcelona; Davydenko, another dirtballer who has troubled Nadal on the surface and has reached the French semis; Wawrinka, a solid Top 20 kind of guy; Almagro, a flashy but perpetually disillusioning fellow Spaniard who was drubbed here by Nadal in 2008; and Verdasco, a, um, flashy but perpetually disillusioning Spaniard who was drubbed here by Nadal in 2008.
This could be a slog for Rafa, but would he want it any other way?
First-round match to watch: Gulbis vs. Querrey
With that many strong players migrating to the top of the draw, Andy Murray has been left with, on paper at least, fairly easy pickings. Lopez, Stepanek, Cilic, Gonzalez, Safin, Hanescu (?), and Simon are the other seeds here. Of those, Gonzo is most likely to succeed. This is a positive for Murray, who has shown his lack of total acclimation to clay since Monte Carlo, at which point I thought he might be the biggest threat to Nadal in Paris. Now, just a couple weeks later, his passive game seems to leave him vulnerable to heavy hitters, like Monaco and del Potro, his recent conquerors, who can hit through the court more easily than he can. Murray will face one of those guys, sorta, in the first round when he plays Juan Ignacio Chela.
Wildcard to watch while you can: The last pre-Nadal French champ, Gaston Gaudio
It seems like old times, doesn’t it, wondering which side of the draw Novak Djokovic will fall on? It makes a certain cosmic sense that he and Federer get each other—Djoko and Nadal must be sick of each other’s faces at the moment. The Serb is in high form again and would make a fine sleeper pick to win it all. He believes in his fitness, he’s found that precious and precarious balance of control and aggression, and he realizes that he’s a cut above the pack, a fact that seemed to escape him for a few months there.
Which members of that pack will be chasing him? First there’s del Potro, who I would consider a threat except that he’s never taken a set from Djokovic, or even reached a tiebreaker—the Serb seems to relish facing him. Other than that, we’ve got Tsonga, a home fave who has never won a match at Roland Garros; ex-champ J.C. Ferrero; the savage forehand of Igor Andreev, and, buried far from Djokovic, Monaco, who opens against Marcos Baghdatis.
Player to watch for the last time in Paris: Fabrice Santoro, who opens with C. Rochus
Player to watch for the first time in Paris: Bernard Tomic, who opens with Kohlschreiber
There are some names to consider in Roger Federer’s quarter—Berdych, Blake, Monfils, Roddick—but are there any threats to the three-time finalist? The only one who sticks out as of now is Berdych, who was up two sets to love against Fed in Australia. So he is a possibility, but they wouldn’t play each other until the fourth round, plenty of time for Federer to find his footing on Chatrier, a court he has had to learn to tolerate over the years.
Federer seems more relaxed in Madrid than he has all year. The racquet-bashing was out of his system for the moment, and I think he feels like he has a shot at the whole thing after not just beating Nadal on clay, but doing it on his terms, and doing it without playing his absolute best. The bottom line? Federer doesn’t lose before the semis, of any Slam.
Semifinals: Nadal d. Gonzalez; Djokovic d. Federer
If Federer and Djokovic face each other, it will be a battle of two players who come in with a lot of confidence, and a lot of confidence that they can beat the other guy. Djokovic must feel like he’s figured out a rope-a-dope method of coaxing Fed to self-destruct, while Federer must feel like he’s in good enough form to put their last two matches behind him and exact revenge on a cocky whippersnapper who has always bugged him. But I think the stronger self-belief, as well as the more natural clay-court game, belongs to the Serb.
Final: Nadal d. Djokovic in straights
It took a little while for a central storyline to develop in women’s tennis this year, but it has finally happened, just in time for the Grand Slam season. Through the early part of 2009, there were wins, there were losses, there were a few surprises, a few meltdowns, a few tears, a few absences, a few winners, a few errors, a few shrieks. But the WTA was missing two key ingredients needed for a full-fledged narrative: a conflict, and a compelling new career arc.
Leave it to Serena Williams to put both of those things in motion. As you undoubtedly heard, last month in Rome she stated that she was the “real No. 1,” not Dinara Safina, who had recently ascended to the top ranking for the first time. It was hard to argue with Serena: The most memorable of the aforementioned meltdowns had been provided by Safina in the final of the Australian Open, as she was being given a thorough and at times even casual thrashing by Serena herself. But if losing so badly to the American didn’t stir the competitive fires in the Russian, it seems that her words have. Safina beat Venus Williams on her way to winning in Rome and followed that up with a title at the Premier level event in Madrid last week.
Which means that the French Open, where Safina was runner-up a year ago, will begin as a referendum on her, and on her status as the No. 1 player in the world. If all goes well, this storyline will continue for two long weeks and culminate with a showdown between Safina and Serena to decide who is the real-est No. 1. But two weeks is a long time in women’s tennis. Let’s see how likely it is that our wish comes true.
Before we can begin to speculate about final rounds, of course, we need to consider the first week’s activities. The possible negatives for Safina are: Did she peak a little too early? Will she react badly to the pressure that will come as she tries to win her first Slam and prove once and for all that she’s deserving of her ranking?
The draw hasn’t made it easy; if Safina goes all the way, she’ll have earned it. She begins against Britain’s Anne Keovathong, who has reached the semis this week in Warsaw. More ominously, in this quarter are the defending champion, Ana Ivanovic, who beat Safina in last year’s final, the talented clay-courter Carla Suarez Navarro; the hard-hitting Jie Zheng; the young and also hard-hitting Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova; and this season’s breakout player, Victoria Azarenka. But while I wouldn’t call Safina a natural clay-court player by any stretch—she’s too tall and gangly to be a ground-hugging dirt devil, a la Justine Henin—she has already proven beyond doubt that she feels at home on the surface. Couple that with her recently added motivation and seeming burst of confidence, and I think she’ll survive this difficult test.
This section is headlined by last year’s finalists at the WTA Championships, Venus William and Vera Zvonareva, neither of whom have had a high a profile during the clay season—the Russian for good reason, since she turned an ankle in Charleston and hasn’t played since. Also, neither of these two has gone deep at Roland Garros recently: Williams lost in the third round each of the last two years while Zvonareva went down in the fourth in 2008 and has only reached the quarters once, back in ’03.
Which means that there’s an opportunity here for someone to sneak through to the semifinals. Who can seize it? Lisicki? She’s strong but not seasoned. Petrova? She was ill in her defeat to Schnyder in Madrid last week, but has been to the semis in Paris before. Mauresmo? She just had a decent run in Madrid, and it would be a nice story if she finally made good in front of the home crowd. But it would require reversing the forces of history.
Wait, I just spotted one more name hidden deep within these brackets: Maria Sharapova. She begins against a French wild card, then might hit Petrova in the third round. All in all, not a bad place for her to be…
Semifinalist: Venus Williams
Elena Dementieva is No. 4 in the world? That might seem hard to believe until you look at her week-to-week record this year. She’s been steady if not spectacular, and that steadiness has continued on clay. The same cannot be said for the second seed in this section, Jelena Jankovic, who began the year at No. 1 but comes to Roland Garros all the way down at No. 5—exactly the nosedive I predicted JJ would not make in 2009. While she showed a few signs of life early in the European swing, Jankovic has hit a mediocre plateau since, losing to Penetta, Kuznetsova, and Schnyder in the quarters of the last three events.
Trying to threaten Dementieva and Jankovic will be Frenchwoman Alize Cornet, who seems to like the home-court pressure, but who remains underpowered; Caroline Wozniacki, a breakout performer of 2009 who reached the final in Madrid; another Frenchwoman, the always unpredictable Marion Bartoli, owner of a 5-8 career record at Roland Garros; the perhaps dangerous up-and-comer Urszulu Radwanska, little sister of Agneiszka; and the eternally present Daniela Hantuchova. I’m going to take a risk and go with one of the new faces.
There are many reasons to doubt Serena Williams’ chances of winning her second French Open. She retired in Madrid with a leg injury. She’s been complaining about over-scheduling. She hasn’t gone past the quarters here since 2003. The problem for the humble forecaster is finding the woman who is going to beat her, or, failing that, finding the player who will take advantage of a loss by her to reach the semifinals.
The women with the best chances of doing the latter are Svetlana Kuznetsova, former finalist here and winner recently in Stuttgart over Safina; Patty Schnyder, who made the semis in Madrid and, like Hantuchova, is always hanging around; and Agnieszka Radwanska, who upset Ivanovic in Rome a couple of weeks ago. I’ll take Kuzzie, who has been better than she has been worse lately, which is about all you can hope for from her.
Semifinals: Safina d. V. Williams; Kuznetsova d. Wozniacki
If the draw does work out this way, which I’m absolutely certain it will, Safina may face her biggest test against Williams, who she recently beat in Rome in three sets, but whom she had never taken a set from in the past. Here the Russian would have to do it on the major stage. I’m going to say she’s ready.
Final: Safina d. Kuznetsova