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The Rally: 2013 French Open

Wednesday, May 22, 2013 /by
Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA, Inc.
Susan Mullane/Camerawork USA, Inc.

With the French Open just days away, senior writers Peter Bodo and Steve Tignor are here to give their thoughts on the tournament, in a back-and-forth exchange not dissimilar to the rallies you'll see in Paris. Check back throughout the day for updates; editor Ed McGrogan leads off the conversation.

MCGROGAN: I'm not sure if either of you realize it, but we're about halfway through the tennis calendar and at the midpoint of two very symmetrical seasons. In January, Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka, two relatively new entrants into their tours' uppermost echelons, rode their two-handed backhands to title defenses Down Under. But neither picked up another hard-court title in Indian Wells or Miami, and by the end of March, three of the four top men and the three top women each had a big tournament win under their belt. Then clay came, and one player from each tour has won pretty much everything in sight—I'm of course talking about Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams. They are both massive favorites to cap off their dirt runs with a title on the terre battue.

Of course, many people think the season truly begins now, with three Grand Slam events to be contested in roughly the next three months. I think there's some merit to that, but regardless, who do you think needs a title at Roland Garros the most, across the sport? Will Nadal's comeback, amazing thus far, look different to you if he doesn't win the ultimate prize? Will the pressure begin to bubble over for Djokovic, who needs just a French Open to complete the career Slam, if he fails to back up another clay Masters win over Rafa in Paris? What about Serena, who inexplicably went out in round one last year? There's certainly pressure on her to perform. Is it someone like Azarenka or Maria Sharapova, needing to escape Serena's shadow, or an outsider like David Ferrer, who's playing at his peak? Or Roger Federer, just to shut everyone up about his demise?

BODO: That’s an interesting analysis, Eddie, and the way Djokovic and Azarenka were caught and then surpassed in recent weeks shows just how much parity there is in today’s game. I want to get back to that and pose a question to Steve on the subject, but let me answer your direct question first.

The player who most needs this title is Sharapova—far and away. And that’s especially true if form holds and she faces Serena in the final. You just know what pundits and astute fans will say if Serena crushes Maria in yet another big match, running her winning streak to 13 matches, dating back to 2004.

It may already too late to revise the judgment that the Russian was a placeholder number one and Grand Slam champion, as incapable of beating Williams as the WTA journeywomen are of beating Sharapova. It’s truly bizarre that there’s such a huge gap between Sharapova and Williams. Their matches haven’t even been competitive.

On the men’s side, the guy who needs this most is a Frenchman—any Frenchman—while the guy who could most use the title (there’s a big difference there) is Federer. Let’s focus on the French for a moment. They’ve established themselves as perhaps the most diverse—and diversely talented—national block of players. They’ve had numerous Top 10-level players in recent years, going way back to the Cedric Pioline/Sebastian Grosjean era. Yet none of them have even had a whiff of their native title. Imagine if England had produced a dozen Tim Henmans instead of just one, and they had comparable lack of success at Wimbledon (where Henman played above his head consistently). It wouldn’t be a pretty sight.

Now let me pose my question for Steve: Don’t you find it interesting that despite the growing similarity in the playing properties of the surfaces, players seem to be carving out fiefdoms based on surfaces (e.g. Nadal on clay, Djokovic on hard courts)? Does that tell us something about the surfaces, or is it that we’re entering an era in which tennis has grown so popular and remunerative that we’ll regularly have four or five players—both WTA and ATP—content to divvy up the spoils, feeling no real pressure to dominate on a 10-month basis? And is that good for the game?

TIGNOR: Hey Pete, let me take a crack at Ed's original question in this back and forth before I get to yours about surface fiefdoms. I think the player who "needs" this French Open the most is Serena Williams—I put that word in quotes because it's hard to say anyone needs any Grand Slam title when there's another one coming two weeks later. But Serena would suffer if she didn't win this one. She was the favorite last year and went out in the first round; she's an even bigger favorite this year, and you have to think that if she just plays at 80 percent of her best throughout she'll still win the tournament. All of which means that there will be sky-high expectations—from the outside, from all of us who have called her a virtual shoe-in, and from the inside as well. Last year Serena came to Roland Garros on a similar roll, but she got tight in the first round in Paris when she suddenly didn't find herself playing as well as she had been. Serena has always had a reputation as the ultimate competitor, someone who doesn't succumb to the doubts that the rest of us do. If she loses here again, after crushing Maria and Vika the last two weeks, it will look as if the pressure got to her.

Pete, you mention that the surfaces have been divvied up, at least on the men's side. It's true that, going by this season, Novak is at his best on hard courts and Rafa is still the king of clay. But if you take the long view, to me this is still an all-surface era on the men's side compared to the past. Federer and Nadal are two of only four men since 1968 to own career Grand Slams, and Djokovic is threatening to become the fifth. Nadal just lost to Djokovic in Monte Carlo, and Federer made the final in Rome. And while Federer has been second-fiddle to Nadal on clay over the years, he's also reached five French Open finals, compared to zero by Pete Sampras.

Do you think the players could become content to divvy up the spoils and carve out their own niches? I can't say that I see that—Djokovic, Serena, and Maria have all made intensive efforts to win at Roland Garros, on their least-favorite surface. It may be true of Rafa and Federer out of necessity. Each will have to do what they need to do, schedule-wise, to stay healthy and play their best at the big tournaments—Rafa because of his knees, Federer because of his age.

But back to this year's French for a minute; I know you're getting ready to head over there, Pete. I think we can agree that, as the tournament begins, Nadal is the favorite to win the event on the men's side. But if he were to play Djokovic in the semis or the final, who do you think would be the favorite in that match? I don't think Rafa is the overwhelming choice then. Do you?

BODO: Steve, I think Rafa is actually in the boat that you put Serena in above, and let me first explain why I don’t think she belongs there. At this stage of her career, I think Serena is bulletproof. She’s 31, and by consensus on the short-list for greatest female player of all time.

In some ways, Serena is the WTA version of Lew Hoad—the Aussie icon who doesn’t have quite the same record as some of his rivals (partly because he was forced to retire prematurely because of a bad back). Legions who saw him play, including that ultimate chorus of his countrymen and peers, say that at his best, Hoad’s power was such that he was well-nigh unbeatable (those who don’t share that opinion tend to say the same of Pancho Gonzalez). That’s said of Serena too, and she’s been far more prolific than Hoad—and is still at it. She may not catch the five women who have more than her number of Grand Slam titles (15), but the testimony of her generation counts.

The long and short of it, though, is that to me Serena is already beyond judgment—as is Roger Federer. It’s all gravy now. And a part of me wishes that they just stopped keeping records when players pass 30, because apart from the chance that they’ll do something spectacular and unexpected, they get mostly punished for having the devotion, game, and physical gifts for extending their careers to the maximum. I mean, does anyone really think that the results between Rafa and Roger going forward will be as meaningful as they were back when both men were at their physical peak?

As for Rafa, he’s just about to turn 27. He’s coming off a long layoff, which presumably had benefits other than those that applied strictly to his knees. He’s demonstrated that those knees are working just fine—at least for the moment. Which brings Rafa right back to where we left off last July at Wimbledon, where he was still trying to solve his nasty Djokovic problem. That could mean big trouble at Roland Garros.

Djokovic simply isn’t as intimidated as others by Rafa, and he’s not dragged nearly as far out of his comfort zone when they play. And some elements in Djokovic’s game reinforce and justify the psychological comfort he seems to feel. His superb backhand tends to neutralize the advantage Nadal has over most players simply by virtue of being left-handed and, frankly, Rafa’s good-but-not-great serve is less of a threat to Djokovic than to most because of the Serb’s returning skill. It just seems that there are special playing-field levelers at play in the match-up—just as there are a number in Rafa’s favor in his mastery of Federer.

On top of that, the pressure certainly will be on Rafa. I mean, just look at the degree to which he’s dominating the early discussions and handicapping! There were some very shaky moments from both men when they met in last year’s final at Roland Garros, and my gut tells me that Rafa may have more trouble dealing with them this year. So let me ask you, do you think these “mental” or “emotional” factors are over-estimated in our coverage of these games and players?

TIGNOR: You mean, do we overplay the pressure that a player might feel? Or do we overplay the idea that another player might be someone's head? Or both?

I'm not sure the mental aspect of tennis can be overplayed—even the greatest champions, after all they've achieved, get nervous and choke. But we can definitely misinterpret, overestimate, or underestimate how much of an effect it has on a player on a given day. Players can tighten up or melt down when you least expect it, and confidence can wax and wane from one set to the next against anyone. Take for example Djokovic vs. Berdych last week in Rome. When Novak was up a set and 5-2, who would have thought that it was remotely possible that he would let that lead go, against a guy he was 13-1 against in his career?

And I do think—and know, from experience both good and bad—that players can get in other players' heads. Nadal admitted it as much about Djokovic last year. Coming into the French final, Rafa had been utterly dominant for two weeks, and he had won his two matches against Djokovic on clay that spring. Yet he still struggled to get past him in the championship round that mattered. Losing four straight Slam finals to the same guy, including one where you were up 4-2 in the fifth set in Melbourne, will do that to you.

How about if they play this year? I think you're right to say that Djokovic presents a special case and special problem for Rafa, both from a technical and a psychological point of view. Nadal exorcised the Djokovic demon in 2012, but it reappeared in Monte Carlo this spring. In the final there, when Djokovic came out firing early, Rafa seemed to lose belief, even on clay—it felt like 2011 all over again. This year, instead of coming to Paris 2-0 on clay against Djokovic, Nadal comes in 0-1. If the two of them played the Roland Garros final today, I would make Nadal the favorite, but not a huge favorite, and a Djokovic win wouldn't surprise me.

They'll play five or six matches before they would meet in Paris, and a lot can happen in that time as far as expectations go. I think back to Wimbledon in 2011, when Nadal had just won the French, and Djokovic had suffered that deflating defeat to Federer in the semis in Paris. It seemed to many of us, including me, that Nadal had the momentum going into the final, but Djokovic stopped him in his tracks. I know this is clay, not grass, but Djokovic has the best game for Rafa on any surface.

As for Serena, there's no question she's going to go down as a legend and a warrior and an all-time champion no matter what happens at the French Open; like I said, there's another major, her favorite, coming right up, and she can make us forget about Paris in a hurry with a win at Wimbledon. But I also think Serena believes she should end her career with more than just one title at Roland Garros. She said she was crushed by last year's loss here to Virginie Razzano, which came after she had experienced a clay renaissance in the spring. A win this time would put that Razzano defeat behind her, to some degree. A loss—and, let's say, for a kicker, another title run by Sharapova—would hurt.

With regards to Federer, I understand that as champions age, their head-to-heads with rivals can get precipitously, and meaninglessly, worse. Jimmy Connors lost his last 17 matches to Ivan Lendl, but that doesn't mean he was a lesser player than Lendl overall. And after Rome, it does seem like the chances of Federer even competing with Nadal on clay again are slim. But I don't think we can start to downgrade his losses to Rafa just yet. Federer beat Nadal in straights at Indian Wells last year, he's the defending Wimbledon champ, he was a set from the Aussie Open final this year, and he finished 2012 at No. 2 in the world. If, later this year, Nadal shreds him on an indoor hard court the same way he did in Rome, then things might begin to look different to me.

Thinking of the draw now, Pete, could things work in Federer's favor in Paris? Andy Murray has withdrawn, which means that the top four seeds will be Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Ferrer. It's possible that Djokovic could play Rafa in one semi, and Federer could play Ferrer in the other. That's not a bad set-up for Rog, who has never lost to Ferrer.

We know who won the last time Nadal lost in Paris.

BODO: That’s a great question Steve, regarding Murray’s withdrawal in Paris. My feeling is that it’s a real shame he’s out of action; this is a real playing-field “unleveler” as far as the four seeds go. As much as I admire Ferrer for his doggedness, his inability to really take it up a notch, probably mentally more than physically, somewhat dampens my enthusiasm. It’s easy to respect the workmanlike but difficult to love.

But in all fairness, let’s look at this as a potentially great opportunity not for Federer, who’s not exactly the first person who pops to mind when you list people who can use a leg up, but for. . . Ferrer.  I mean, which of the top three guys would you want to face in the semis if you were Ferrer? And should a Federer vs. Ferrer semi be in the offing, the motivation for Ferrer ought to be off the charts. Let’s remember, he’s 31; time is running out. He’s terrific on clay. He’s never been in a Grand Slam final. This is a career moment waiting to happen, and while I don’t much like his chances against Nadal (good picadors all know who the matador is), I think the lapses Djokovic has shown now and then throughout the clay season can be exploited by a guy as steady as Ferrer.

I freely admit that this scenario—a Ferrer win at Roland Garros—may seem implausible, but that’s only because we’ve been so conditioned in recent years by the dominant nature of the three top players. A part of me feels that the dam has to break at some point, the forces and stresses just continue to build, and let’s face it, nobody is rolling into Roland Garros with clear superiority over his rivals.

For Djokovic, I think his recent lapses, and perhaps even his state of fitness (ankle) could become an issue. For Nadal, I sometimes think the dramatic way he’s approached and spoken of his comeback almost makes him a little vulnerable emotionally.

Rafa will face a lot of pressure in his drive to win a mind-boggling eighth title, and nothing, not even his facility on clay, lasts forever. At some point, this attitude he projects—that he can’t believe he’s that much better than everyone else—could come back and haunt him. And then there’s Federer—we’ll see if his decision to cut back on his tournaments and more or less focus on the majors leaves him well-prepared to face all the eventualities.

In some ways, the climate is very different from the conditions over on the WTA side, so let me ask you this: Do you think there’s a greater chance that the top three men will survive to make semis than there is that their WTA counterparts—Williams, Sharapova, and Azarenka—will pull that off? And are we more likely to see headline-generating upsets on the WTA or ATP side? I have a gut feeling that this will be a more exciting tournament than it has been in years past, but that’s just a feeling, not a well-thought out conviction.

TIGNOR: The Picador: Do I hear a new nickname for David Ferrer being born as we speak? I like it; beats Little Beast, anyway. Though I'm not sure Ferru himself would cotton to it.

You're right, though, if Ferrer goes into Federer's half, that's an opportunity for the Spaniard. Still, it would be even nicer for Ferrer if someone else knocked Federer off for him. Federer is 14-0 in their head-to-head, and he has dropped just three sets in those 14 matches; he's also 5-0 on clay. Maybe Ferrer should hope he lands in Djokovic's half instead. He has beaten Nole in the past, and if Djokovic is shaky, he could be the man to grind him down and send him around the bend. Either way, I'm hoping, for logic's sake, that Djokovic and Nadal avoid each other in the semifinals. If they face off, it should for the title.

To answer your question, as strong as the Top 3 women have been over the last year and a half, I would still bet on more of the Top 3 men reaching the semifinals. Nadal is the King of Paris, Djokovic hasn't lost before the semis of a Grand Slam since 2010, and Federer, whatever his recent struggles, is still a regular in the late rounds at majors. On the women's side, I think that if Serena is going to lose, it will be earlier rather than later; she hasn't made a semi in Paris in a decade. Azarenka, based on past results here, is even less of a lock—she's been to the quarters at Roland Garros twice, but no farther. That said, I'll probably pick all six of them to survive until the semis.

I'll finish with what I think are the two most important questions coming to Paris, one for each draw:

Djokovic has suffered upsets in his last two clay tournaments, and he has had ankle issues this spring. But will those struggles carry over to Roland Garros? Recent history says no. As I just wrote, whatever else has happened to Djokovic over the last two-and-a-half years, he has put it aside and reached the semis or better at the last 11 Grand Slams. If that continues, and he's still around on the second Friday in Paris, Djokovic will have a very good shot at winning this tournament, because we know he can beat Nadal on clay.

On the women's side, I don't see Serena losing in the semifinals or the final, or to Sharapova or Azarenka. She has crushed those two this spring. But she hasn't been at her best in every match, either. In the semis in Madrid, Serena was listless enough to nearly lose to Anabel Medina Garrigues. I don't think we'll see that kind of performance from her, exactly, but she's had her bad days in the middle of majors before, for no apparent reason—in fact, it's something of a tradition with Serena, in particular at Roland Garros. We know she can put a beat down on anyone, but can Serena win seven straight matches at Roland Garros? She hasn't won five in a row there since 2003.

I know Paris isn't your favorite city, Pete, but I hope the tournament is a good one for you. Like you said, we have two big favorites, but there's also reason to believe that we could be in for a few surprises.

Have a question of your own? Ask Steve on Thursday at 11 am EST, and Pete at 4 pm EST.


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