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Three To See, French Open: June 1

Friday, May 31, 2013 /by

(1) Novak Djokovic vs. (26) Grigor Dimitrov
Head-to-head: Djokovic leads 2-1

Dimitrov dazzled in defeating Djokovic last month in a wild, three-plus hour Madrid marathon. Can the ultra-talented Bulgarian deliver an upset encore?

Dimitrov has all the shots and has expended minimal effort so far, playing just four sets to arrive in his first Grand Slam third-round match. Dimitrov was inspired in Madrid and should gain confidence from his accomplishment, but I think there are some significant differences in the rematch. Djokovic, who rolled his right ankle and was hobbled a bit in Madrid, looks completely healthy and has been moving beautifully; the Serbian is the physically fitter player and should benefit from the best-of-five set format, whereas Dimitrov has been prone to cramping. Djokovic is also a Grand Slam veteran, while this is uncharted territory for his opponent.

Three of the last five sets these two have played have been decided in tiebreakers, so discount Dimitrov at your own peril. Still, I think Djokovic will be vigilant and very determined to get off to a good start. The crowd-pleasing Dimitrov can be electrifying, and if he's landing his first serve he can be tough to break, but Djokovic looks like a man on a mission here, and I don't see him losing to the same man twice in a row.

The Pick: Djokovic in four sets

(9) Samantha Stosur vs. (18) Jelena Jankovic
Head-to-head: Jankovic leads 6-2

Former No. 1 Jankovic has won their last three meetings, but Stosur slammed the Serbian, 6-1, 6-2, in the 2010 Roland Garros semifinals—their lone clay-court clash. Stosur will blast her devious kick serve to set up her authoritative forehand, while Jankovic will try to use her movement to spread the court, and her two-handed backhand to break down the Aussie's weaker backhand wing. Stosur, who is playing for her fourth trip to the fourth round in the past five years, has not dropped serve in the tournament.

Three-time semifinalist Jankovic can default to drama-queen mode under stress, but she's a savvy player adept at making mid-match adjustments. Down 0-3 in the second round, she figured out Garbine Muguruza and reeled off 12 consecutive games. She's also good at feeding opponents precisely what they don't want. Jankovic knows Stosur's forehand is more dangerous when she's hitting it from the backhand corner, so look for her to use her best shot, the backhand down the line, to force Sam into hitting running forehands. JJ must first establish the backhand cross-court to set up that pattern, and she must be quick off the mark moving forward when Stosur plays the short slice.

I believe Stosur's high note is a more commanding chord, but I think Jankovic is more balanced. She's won 16 of her last 20 clay-court matches and if she holds her nerve—never a given—I see her advancing.

The Pick: Jankovic in three sets

(13) Kei Nishikori vs. (24) Benoit Paire
Head-to-head: Nishikori leads 1-0

Two stylists with a shared flair for shotmaking face off in Paris for the second time in the past seven months. Last fall, Nishikori swept Paire at the Paris Indoors.

Clay is Nishikori's least favorite surface, but he will be motivated in playing for his first trip to the fourth round against a first-time seed, who concedes he feels more pressure playing in front of the home crowd. The Avignon-born Paire may feel an even bigger burden now that fan favorite Gael Monfils has exited.

Tactically, look for Nishikori to attack Paire's forehand, which has a bit of a funky swing and can be shaky under pressure, and to try to jam the bigger man with some body serve. Paire prefers to hit his best shot, the two-handed backhand, on return. He can also serve big and has fine feel, though his love affair with the drop shot borders on obsessive.

The 6'5" Paire is the better server (Nishikori owns a sneaky-fast first serve), while Nishikori is a bit more dangerous on return: Kei is sixth on the ATP in return games won (32 percent). If it becomes a long grind, Paire is physically stronger, though Nishikori is mentally tougher: The latter is 6-1 in matches decided in a fifth set. I think the surface better suits Paire's style, he's won nine of his last 12 clay-court matches, is fresh off the Rome semifinals, and if he doesn't implode pursuing whimsy, he should reach his first Grand Slam round of 16.

The Pick: Paire in four sets


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