A draw is a conversation starter, but it may be more valuable as a conversation killer. Once the men and women are locked in their brackets, we can leave behind the airy speculation about “favorites”—a meaningless word if you’re a player—and stop pondering the endless “what ifs” about who might play whom in what round. Now everyone has their path, and they must walk it. Or, if they can, slide it.
Who has the easy road, and who has the tough one to the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2013? Let’s take a look at what awaits us over the next two weeks. (Draws are here.)
The primary question on the men’s side, to my mind, concerns Novak Djokovic and his recent form. Will his early losses in Madrid and Rome, and his ongoing recovery from an ankle injury, carry over to Paris? Judging from his play over the last three years, it won’t: No matter what he’s done at the Masters events, Djokovic has reached the semifinals or better at the last 11 Grand Slams. Whether he continues that streak could decide who wins this French Open.
Djokovic has said that Roland Garros, which would complete his career Grand Slam, is his highest priority in 2013. He has also wanted to prove that he can knock off Rafael Nadal here since at least 2006. That year in Paris the two played the first of their 34 professional matches against each other. Nadal won, but afterward Djokovic stunned many by claiming that Rafa was “beatable” on clay—in this gentlemanly era, that was enough to put the stamp of brashness on Nole. Since then, Djokovic has proven himself correct by beating Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome; everywhere, that is, except Paris. Rafa is 4-0 in their head-to-head at Roland Garros, but Djokovic won his first set from him there in last year’s final. He also walked away believing that the experience of playing his first French final had helped him.
This year Djokovic and Nadal are scheduled to play in the semifinals. But each needs to win five matches first, and given Djokovic’s recent form, that’s not a lock for him. He has, relatively speaking, a difficult opener against Belgium’s David Goffin, a talented player who made his mark with his run to the fourth round here in 2012. It might not get any easier for Djokovic in the third round, where he could face Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian who upset him in Madrid two weeks ago.
Theoretically, though, things should get better for Nole after that. He’s scheduled to play Philipp Kohlschreiber in the fourth round, and his countryman and whipping boy Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters. And there don’t appear to be many dangerous types in this section—Dolgopolov, Haas, Isner, and Youzhny are the other seeds. If trouble comes for Novak, it looks like it will come early. But if he makes it to the fourth round with his body intact, he becomes a co-favorite with Nadal to win the tournament.
Americans in Paris: Isner and Ryan Harrison. They could face each other in the second round.
Question Mark: Tommy Haas. The Ancient German is having a good year, but will he struggle with three-out-of-five on clay? He's been ill this week, and he lost in the first round in the year’s other major, in Australia.
First-round match to watch: Djokovic vs. Goffin. They’ve never played each other.
Nice to have you here: Bernard Tomic. He opens against Victor Hanescu.
As of this morning, the second big question of this draw was: Where will the fourth-seeded Rafael Nadal land? Now we know he’s on Djokovic’s side. Does it make a difference if they play in the semis or the final? Probably not. Nadal does tend to raise his game for finals, and he did that in Rome and Madrid; but this match would have all the trappings of a final anyway. It’s possible that it could end up hurting the winner, who will have to go out and play another match two days later.
Nadal comes into the event in his usual excellent clay form. Rome in particular forced him to deal with very different opponents in Gulbis, Ferrer, Berdych, and Federer; Nadal improved as he went. He should also be in a good frame of mind. He already owns the all-time record for titles here, and whatever happens, he'll still have to be happy with his season thus far. Nadal opens against Germany’s Daniel Brands. The two have never played. On the one hand, Brands’ height—he’s 6-foot-5—and big serve might make him a tricky opponent; on the other hand, his one-handed backhand might not. Of more interest to most is Nadal’s possible third-round opponent, Lukas Rosol, though Rosol would have to beat 27th-seeded Fabio Fognini to get there.
Nadal’s presumed fourth-round and quarterfinal opponents are Kei Nishikori and Richard Gasquet, respectively. More intriguing, though, are the presences of Stan Wawrinka and Jerzy Janowicz, both of whom are on Gasquet’s side. Stan and JJ could play each other in the third round.
Also here: Benoit Paire, who opens against Marcos Baghdatis. How will the new French hope deal with that status when he plays in Paris, perhaps in Chatrier? There’s a chance Paire could play Rafa in the fourth round.
Is this David Ferrer’s shot, at long last? As the fourth seed this time, he has avoided his traditional quarterfinal against one of the Big 4. Even better, he has landed in the opposite half from Nadal and Djokovic. There is that little issue of his potential semifinal opponent, Roger Federer—Ferrer is 0-14 against the Fed—but why be so negative so early? For now, Ferrer, who lost to Nadal in the semis here last year, opens with Marinko Matosevic and has what looks to be a nice draw into the quarterfinals.
If everything goes as planned, his opponent there would be Tomas Berdych. Like Ferrer, the Czech should be thinking of this draw as an opportunity. Nadal and Djokovic are on the other side. Murray and the man who beat him here last year, del Potro, are out. While Berdych is just 3-7 against Ferrer for his career, he won’t mind him as far as potential quarterfinal opponents go. And if Berdych does make the semis, we know what he can do against Federer.
Unfortunately for the Berdman, he’s been handed a scary opening two rounds: A hot-hitting Gael Monfils in the first, and, most likely, Ernests Gulbis, the self-proclaimed most dangerous unseeded player in the tournament, in the second.
Question Mark: Xavier Malisse. Does he have what it takes to knock off a struggling, between-coaches Milos Raonic in the first round?
First-round match to watch: Berdych vs. Monfils
Potential second-round match to watch: Berdych vs. Gulbis
Player who could go out in the first round or make the final: Gulbis
What a difference a few days can make. On Sunday, Roger Federer looked helpless against Rafael Nadal in Rome; today, as he scans the draw in Paris, things are suddenly looking up again. Federer will avoid playing either Nadal or Djokovic until the final, which means he could avoid Rafa, the one player he almost surely can’t beat in this draw, altogether. Instead, Federer is scheduled to play Ferrer in the semis, a player he has never lost to in 14 matches.
But Federer has to get there, right? There’s good news on that front as well. Federer will open against a qualifier, Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain—he's not a pushover, but he is ranked No. 166—and then get the winner of two other qualifiers in the second round. In the third, Federer may face Julien Benneteau, who beat him earlier this year in Rotterdam, but who has been slumping of late. Federer’s scheduled quarterfinal opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, would certainly be challenge; Jo had match points on Djokovic here in 2012. But he also has to make it to the quarters. Tsonga lost to Janowicz early last week, and has said that he doesn’t feel especially confident at home on clay. Jo does have a decent draw this time, though; the next highest seed in his half is Marin Cilic.
Americans in Paris: James Blake, who plays Viktor Troicki in the first round, and Sam Querrey, who gets Lukas Lacko
First-round match that may or may not end: Gilles Simon vs. Lleyton Hewitt
Nadal d. Djokovic: Nadal is the favorite to win the tournament, but he’s less of a favorite to beat Djokovic specifically—Novak won their last match on clay, in Monte Carlo, and we know his style troubles Rafa. Each will play five matches before they face each other, and we won’t know what their form will be until then. What we do know is that Nadal tends to get on a roll at Roland Garros.
Federer d. Ferrer: This could be the Spaniard’s moment, to finally make a Grand Slam final and finally beat Federer. But I can’t pick against the guy who is 14-0 in the head to head.
Final: Nadal d. Federer