Earlier today, I noted how the women’s draw at the French Open had been thrown out of whack by Maria Sharapova’s low ranking and low seeding. On the men’s side, things have gone in the opposite direction. With Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer both safely back in the Top 4, and safely spaced across the draw, it appears that order has been restored in Paris. That is, until the first upset throws everything off-kilter again. Here’s a look at where those upsets might, and might not, occur at Roland Garros.
The men and women do have one thing in common: Last year’s finalists are scheduled to meet in the quarterfinals. When those players are Sharapova and Serena Williams, it seems unfair; but when it’s Nadal and David Ferrer, a mid-tournament showdown feels about right.
The state of Rafa, and his prospects for Paris, have been the dominant topics in tennis for the last month. As he finally arrives there, I’d say the glass is half full and half empty for Nadal. By winning in Madrid and reaching the final in Rome, he put all of his doubts, except one, behind him. But that doubt—how do I match up against Novak Djokovic?—is the most important of all. After losing to Djokovic in Rome, Nadal can’t feel as if he has the upper hand against his biggest rival. No matter how well Rafa plays over these two weeks, and how much confidence he gains as he moves toward the final, the doubts about his chances against Nole will linger.
But he, and we, aren't there yet. Nadal opens against 31-year-old Robby Ginepri; in the second round, he could face a test from big-hitting, fast-rising, 20-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem. After that, a fourth-round meeting with Nicolas Almagro, who won his first match in 11 tries against Rafa last month in Barcelona, might await. I don’t see a repeat of that upset.
Nor do I see a repeat of another upset from this clay season, Ferrer’s win over Nadal in Monte Carlo. As far as Ferru's draw goes, his biggest test could come from the second seed in his half, Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian would seem to be primed for a breakout run at Roland Garros, as long as he can maneuver his way past Ivo Karlovic in the first round. Baby Fed and Dr. Ace have split their two meetings.
If Simona Halep is the question mark of the women’s draw, that goes double for Stan Wawrinka on the men’s side. He’s ranked a career-high No. 3, he’s the Aussie Open champ, he won the Masters event on clay in Monte Carlo, and he owns wins over Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and Ferrer this year. Yet he’s looked lost in his last two events, in Madrid and Rome, and he’s begun this one talking as if Rafa and Nole exist on a different plane from him. Cards don’t come any more wild than Wawrinka does in this draw.
Stan will have to get his act back together right away, as he faces a quality opponent, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, in the first round—GGL has beaten him twice on clay. Other than that, though, this section looks winnable for Wawrinka. The highest seed on his side is Fabio Fognini, and the highest seed on the other side is Andy Murray; Stan is 3-1 against Fognini, and has won his last two matches over Murray.
First-round match to watch: Richard Gasquet vs. Bernard Tomic
Player of interest, if he plays: Gael Monfils. He’s on Wawrinka’s side.
What should we think of Federer’s chances? His wife just had twins, he didn’t play Madrid, and he lost his opener in Rome. Plus, Wimbledon, his event, is on the horizon. Still, the 2009 champion, who has reached at least the quarters here every year since 2004, can’t hate what he sees in his immediate future. Federer starts with Lukas Lacko, and the highest seed on his side is Mikhail Youzhny.
The top man on the other side is Tomas Berdych, but he’s hardly someone to count on. A semifinalist in Paris in 2010, he also lost in the first round there in 2009, 2011, and 2013, and he’s had a mediocre clay season.
Question Mark: No. 10 seed John Isner has had success on clay, but not so much in three-out-of-five-set matches, on any surface. He starts against Pierre-Hugues Herbert, a stylish but 133rd-ranked Frenchman.
—Roberto Bautista Agut: The 27th seed is scheduled to play Berdych in the third round.
—Ernests Gulbis: The Latvian has a chronic case of Isner-itis. He’s dangerous in two-of-three, and he’s had a good season so far; but he hasn’t been past the third round at a major since 2008. If Gulbis breaks that streak this year, he might play Federer in the round of 16.
In 2012, Djokovic lost to Nadal in the French final in four sets; that match ended his quest for four straight majors. In 2013, Djokovic lost to Nadal in five sets in the semifinals; that match, the best of the season, cost him the year-end No. 1 ranking. Is this, finally, the moment when Djokovic conquers his last Grand Slam demon and wins his first French Open? As of right now, I’m thinking yes.
But Nole’s campaign may not start so smoothly. He opens against 41st-ranked Joao Sousa, a 25-year-old from Portugal who knows his way around a clay court. In the second round, he could face Jeremy Chardy, who beat Federer in Rome. Though I wouldn’t put that one on Upset Alert just yet: Djokovic has played the Frenchman eight times and hasn’t dropped so much as a set.
Of more concern is who he could face later. In the fourth round, that might be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Jo has been struggling, but he’s usually inspired at Roland Garros. After that, Djokovic could find himself in a quarterfinal against either Milos Raonic, who was a few points from beating him in Rome, or Kei Nishikori, who was the hottest player in tennis just two weeks ago. Plus, there's Novak's recently painful right wrist; it will have to hold up through a lot of tennis.
Question Mark: Nishikori. It’s hard to question a man who’s now in the Top 10, but it’s also hard to know how Nishikori’s brittle body will withstand two weeks on clay. In the 18 Grand Slams he’s played, Kei has reached the quarterfinals just once.
Also here: Alexandr Dolgopolov and Lukas Rosol; both are in Raonic’s half.
Reeling: Jerzy Janowicz has lost nine straight matches; he’ll try to end that streak against Victor Estrella Burgos.
First-round match to watch: Milos Raonic vs. Nick Kyrgios
New avatar vs. old: Nishikori and Nikolay Davydenko could face off, PlayStation-style, in the second round.
Semifinals: Nadal d. Wawrinka; Djokovic d. Federer
Final: Djokovic has been closing the gap, even on clay, against Nadal for the last four years. He’s beaten him in Monte Carlo, Madrid, and Rome on dirt; at the Aussie Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open in three-out-of-five-set finals; and in their last four matches, Djokovic has lost just one set. That leaves Paris as Rafa's last redoubt, but you have to think it's going to fall to Nole someday. If his wrist stays pain free, this would seem to be that day.