PARIS—The fashionable must-see of the moment in this city, aside from the tennis that's about to be played on its outskirts, is a titanic Manet exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. There were long, twisting lines of art lovers and tourists waiting to see it yesterday, just as there will be long, twisting lines of the fanatical and the stylish waiting to get into the grounds at Roland Garros starting on Sunday.
Manet was kind of like the Sacha Baron Cohen of 19th century painting—from one room to the next, his work is so different that you can’t believe it’s the same guy behind it. He created modernist outrages, polite society portraits, misty seascapes, and gritty war scenes with equal skill. But my favorite is the room of paintings that came from his time in Madrid; he did austere Spanish drama like he’d been born there. And my favorite of those paintings is his elegantly stark depiction of an immaculately dressed bullfighter flat on his back, his black shoes and white stockings pointing up, his right hand laid across his body, a trickle of blood beside his face. In French, the painting is called L’Homme Mort—“Dead Man.” In English, when it hangs in its permanent spot in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., it’s known as The Dead Toreador.
It’s a striking piece, but it reminded me of a much less somber moment in tennis from two years ago: Rafael Nadal flat on his back in the same city where Manet was inspired to make this painting. In 2009, inside the Magic Box there, Nadal finished his four-hour semifinal win over Novak Djokovic on his own back, as if, like the toreador, he’d been obliterated. This year the roles between the two players have been reversed. In their struggles in Madrid and Rome, it’s Djokovic who has survived, and Nadal who has been left looking for answers.
Now they come to Paris, prepared for the final duel in their series, prepared for the final death in the afternoon. As we start the tournament, there’s a jockeying for position—who’s the favorite, the guy on the historic hot streak or the guy who owns these courts? Who, if they meet two weeks from now, will be the bullfighter, and who will be the bull? And is there anyone who can keep them out of the ring?
It seems that Robin Soderling, after a flirtation with No. 4 status earlier this year, has found his level again: Once more he’s the dangerous, highly unpredictable quarterfinalist. After knocking off Federer in that round in Paris last year, he’s slotted to play Rafa in it in 2011. Will the Swedish ball-belter be able to shrug off his recent struggles—he’s been hurt, he fired his coach, he lost 3 and 0 to Djokovic in Rome—and find his giant-killing form again? He’ll be, at the very least, the proverbial player no one wants to face.
As for the rest of Nadal’s quarter, there are a bunch of names that are closer to interesting than they are to scary: Davydenko, a great dirtballer and past threat to Rafa who appears to be past his best; Querrey, who has been going through another down cycle of motivation; Verdasco, who has been mostly bad; and Simon, who will be playing in France, never great news for a Frenchman. Perhaps the man who could trouble Nadal the most is Ivan Ljubicic, who has beaten Rafa before and might face him in the round of 16.
First-round matches to watch: Verdasco vs. Monaco and Tursunov vs. Malisse, in a Battle of Talents Mostly Squandered
Young player to watch whom I've mentioned many times before, but whom you should still watch: Grigor Dimitrov
Andy Murray: Is he a forgotten man who has been left in the dust by Rafa and Nole, or, after taking sets from both of those guys this spring, is he a man back on the make? We may not be alone in wondering: Murray often doesn’t know what to think of himself. He has the arrogance and bullheadedness needed to believe he can beat anyone, but he loses that belief at just the wrong moment—i.e., in third-set tiebreakers against Nadal and Djokovic.
Murray can play on clay, but you know, deep down, that it’s the next major, Wimbledon, that’s on his mind—the French is the only Slam where he hasn’t reached at least the semifinals. If he’s ever going to put an end to that, it should be this year, because he has a very good draw. The seed closest to him is Dolgopolov, who has bottomed out this spring. Next is Troicki, who is always up and down, then it’s Almagro, the man who never lives up to expectations, Florian Mayer, Kevin Anderson, and, all the way on the other side of the section, Jurgen Melzer.
Intriguing, but most likely not threatening, players to watch: Milos Raonic, who opens against Michael Berrer, and Bernard Tomic, who plays Carlos Berloq.
Roger Federer: We can probably agree that he looks, as much as he has in a long time, vulnerable. He played a strong match against Nadal in Madrid, but as well as Richard Gasquet played in Rome, Federer was too passive and aimless at the end. The slashingly decisive Annacone version from 2010 was nowhere to be found. And he just barely avoided the same fate against Feliciano Lopez the previous week.
Nevertheless, Federer’s long-running quarterfinal run at Slams is intact—as unpredictable as his game can be everywhere else, he remains almost as consistent, if not nearly as dominant, as he ever has at the big ones. Could that change in the first round here? Federer starts with Lopez. If he gets past the gradually, very gradually improving Spaniard—maybe Feli will be the Nadal of the coming decade—things look up. A world of pretenders awaits: Tsonga, Wawrinka, Tipsarevic, Monfils, and Ferrer are all here.
Player to watch immediately, before he disappears: Adrian Mannarino
So this whole Djokovic thing has gotten pretty big, even in the States—a nation of numbers lovers, stat lovers, streak lovers, we’ve finally turned our attention to tennis’s other guy. In other words, the pressure is on. For a time, I thought this scrutiny would get to the formerly nervy Serb. But then I watched him last weekend in Rome, watched him refuse to lose against Murray and utterly frustrate Nadal at every turn on clay, and I began to think that he may be beyond pressure at this point, so solid technically and physically that he can’t crumble mentally.
But even Djokovic may have been given a little bit of pause when he looked at his draw. There he sees a potential third-round matchup with Juan Martin del Potro, the men’s consensus sleeper at this event. That could be a danger moment for Novak, though the recently injured del Potro will have to fight past Karlovic and possibly Gulbis to make it happen.
Also here is the semi-streaking Richard Gasquet, eternal disappointment to the home folks; Tomas Berdych, semifinalist in 2010; Thomaz Bellucci, almost-conqueror of the Serb in Madrid; and Thiemo de Bakker, a sour, hard-hitting underachiever who Djokovic will get first. If nothing else, he’ll have to be ready to move out of the gate. But that’s something, as we’ve seen recently, that Djokovic does quite well.
What can trip him up? Let’s see what a hot day and a hot opponent brings—despite his dominance, there have been close matches, some heavy breathing, and a patch of old-fashioned poor serving against Nadal this spring. Two-week events have been hard on Djokovic in the past; I’m guessing there will be at least one moment of peril as he makes his way through this one. But I’m not picking against him.
Semifinals: Nadal d. Murray; Djokovic d. Federer
Final: If we do get another death in the afternoon between Nole and Rafa, what can we expect? Djokovic has been the better player in all facets during their last two match-ups. But this is Nadal’s second home, his favorite dirt, the spot where he is 38-1 lifetime. There will also be less pressure on him than usual to win—despite his past record in Paris, Rafa has called Djokovic the “big favorite” at this event, and if you eliminate “big,” he’s right. In Rome, Nadal, learning from his loss in Madrid, tried to vary his attack, and he still lost in straights.
There are two reasons to think Djokovic won't make it a third. First, in the past, he's pushed Nadal around for a period of time on clay before starting to misfire. This spring his aim has stayed true. But can it stay true for an extra set? He'll need to hit a ton of winners, and then a few more, to beat Rafa in three-out-of-five.
For the second reason, I'll go back to their final at the U.S. Open last fall. It was Djokovic who had the winning record over Nadal on hard courts, but the Spaniard was the favorite because, while Djokovic was a great player for his era, Nadal was for all-time, and it's the all-timers who win Slam finals. Djokovic is currently making a bid for all-time status, but he’s not there yet—a win here would take him a big step closer. For now, I’ll go with the guy who already has made that step, many times over. I'm going to guess that, like our toreador, it will be Nadal who we'll see flat on his back in the middle of the bullring on June 5th, alive once again.
Champion: Rafael Nadal