FRENCH OPEN PREVIEW
Every time we move toward another Grand Slam championship, before the first ball is struck, before the tournament has taken shape and the players have rounded into form, before all of the drama unfolds, the men’s and women’s singles draws are eagerly anticipated by all of us. At the least, the draws provide us with a sense of the many possibilities for the fortnight ahead. They give us a sense of what should or might occur, of which players have the toughest paths to the latter stages of the event, of what might be the most intriguing matchups.
This time around at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal is the overwhelming favorite to rule on the red clay. He has never lost a match at the French Open, and no one has ever taken him to five sets at the world’s premier clay court event. Across his career in best of five set matches on clay, he has an astounding 45-0 record, and in that span has only twice been extended to five sets (by Guillermo Coria in the 2005 Italian Open final and by Roger Federer at the same event a year later). This season on clay, Nadal swept through Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome at the cost of only one set, winning those titles convincingly. Last weekend, he lost to Federer in the final of Madrid, suffering only his second loss in eleven career head to head clashes against the Swiss. But Nadal had come off a debilitating four hour, three minute duel with Novak Djokovic, saving three match points in that contest.
I believe that loss (which took place in high altitude in much faster conditions than Roland Garros) will only make Nadal more intense and motivated to win his fifth straight title at the French Open. A year ago, he did not concede a set in seven nearly impeccable matches, finishing his run with emphatic triumphs over Djokovic and Federer. That feat will be difficult but not impossible for Nadal to replicate. He might lose a few sets this year, but how can anyone topple him in a best of five set match on this surface? His ferocity as a competitor, his nearly inexhaustible supply of energy, and the immense consistency of his game will carry him to a seventh Grand Slam championship crown.
Let’s examine the draw. Nadal opens against a qualifier and should move through to the third round with ease. In that round, he might play Ivo Karlovic or former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. They meet in a compelling first round match. If it is Karlovic who earns the right to play Nadal, he will extend a few sets with his huge first serve. But the 6’10” Croatian--- who took Nadal into a final set tie-break on the grass at Queen’s Club last June--- would not be able to impose himself on the clay and would bow in straight sets. Hewitt could make Nadal work hard for a while, but the 28-year-old Australian will not be able to contain Nadal from the back of the court for long. Nadal would advance in straight sets.
Thereafter, the task gets more challenging for the world No. 1. He figures to meet No. 14 seed David Ferrer in the round of 16. Ferrer was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world early in 2008, and he is one of the fastest players in the sport. He has been runner-up to Nadal the last two years in Barcelona, and is capable of making this an absorbing contest. Ferrer has a chance to take a set, but will do no more than that because Nadal will force his countryman to go for too much and Ferrer will inevitably start missing off both sides as he attempts low percentage shots.
On Nadal will go to the quarterfinals, where another Spaniard will almost surely be waiting for him. That player is No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco, the man who fought so valiantly against Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open this year. Verdasco battled for five hours and 14 minutes in that suspenseful encounter at Melbourne before falling gallantly in five sets on the hard courts. They have met twice during this clay court season and Verdasco, despite some impressive passages, did not take a set from Nadal. In Madrid, with Nadal so uneasy in the high altitude, Verdasco led 4-0 in the second set but won only one more game in a 6-4, 7-5 defeat.
Verdasco will almost certainly play a much closer match than he had against Nadal a year ago at Roland Garros. On that occasion, Nadal advanced 6-1, 6-0, 6-2. But Verdasco has made significant strides since then. He is fitter, more solid and thoughtful from the baseline, more willing to win with grit instead of going so frequently for explosive winners. He will test Nadal but, in the end, Nadal will be too cagey and resilient. Nadal will win in three tight sets. The guess here is a 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 victory for Nadal.
In the semifinals, Nadal should be confronting world No. 3 Andy Murray. Murray has not yet been at his best on the European clay after an excellent start to the year on hard courts. He lost to Nadal in the semifinals of Madrid in straight sets, then fell surprisingly to Juan Monaco after winning a 6-1 first set in Rome, and was beaten for the first time by Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals of Madrid. I still get the feeling that Murray is improving on the clay and will play his best at Roland Garros.
Murray opens against the experienced Juan Ignacio Chela, the 29-year-old from Argentina. Murray will get through that one in straight sets. He may have a tough third round assignment against either Janko Tipsarevic or the No. 28 seed Feliciano Lopez. Either way, I like Murray’s chances for a straight set victory. In the round of 16, he should take on either No. 18 seed Radek Stepanek or No. 13 Marin Cilic, but by then he should be gaining confidence and playing well.
The seedings indicate that Murray would play No. 7 seed Gilles Simon of France in the quarters, but I have my doubts that Simon will get that far. He has not played with much authority for most of this year, and I believe he is more comfortable and a better player on hard courts. I look for No. 12 seed Fernando Gonzalez to come through that section of the draw and thus garner an appointment with Murray in the last eight. Gonzalez has one of the game’s most daunting forehands and he enjoys competing on clay, but Murray will eventually pick him apart in four sets.
That would put Murray up against Nadal in an enticing semifinal. Murray had never beaten Nadal in five previous meetings before upending the Spaniard in the semifinals of the 2008 U.S. Open on hard courts. He posted another win in their next meeting earlier this year in Rotterdam, although Nadal was playing hurt through much of that match. In their most recent showdown, Nadal was outmaneuvering Murray skillfully from the baseline in building a 6-2, 5-2 lead in Monte Carlo, but Murray fought back impressively to take that second set into a tie-break.
In the latter stages of that contest, Murray raised his game decidedly while Nadal became too cautious. Murray surely learned that he needed to be bolder in the rallies and take some calculated risks. He will undoubtedly approach this meeting determined to unsettle Nadal by being as aggressive as possible. But Nadal’s consistency will be too much for the British No. 1. In the end, Nadal will exploit his inside-out forehand to break down Murray’s forehand, and his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt will hurt Murray as well. Murray will be made to play too many high, awkward balls off his two-handed backhand. Nadal will win a hard fought battle 6-4, 7-6, 7-5.
That win would take Nadal into the final. The guess here is that the No. 2 seed Roger Federer and No. 4 Novak Djokovic will make it through to the penultimate round and on that occasion will give us perhaps the match of the tournament. Federer faces 30-year-old Alberto Martin in the first round. That is an ideal opening match for the Swiss, who will hit just enough balls but will not ever be unduly worried. Federer will win easily in straight sets. He could take on No. 32 seed Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round but not even a vociferous French crowd will prevent Federer from achieving another routine victory.
In the round of 16, perhaps No. 15 seed James Blake, No. 19 seed Tomas Berdych or the intriguing Frenchman Jeremy Chardy will play Federer. Blake just lost badly to Federer in Madrid and was thoroughly outclassed. Berdych is more comfortable on clay than Blake but the No. 19 seed---- who took the first two sets from Federer this year at the Australian Open before fading in five--- is overmatched against the No. 2 seed on clay.
Andy Roddick is seeded sixth, and would theoretically meet Federer in the quarters. Roddick took a break from the clay court circuit before returning in Madrid. On the faster clay there, he took a set off Federer in the quarters. He will meet French wildcard Romain Jouan in the first round, could play the capable Spaniard Oscar Hernandez in the second round, and should he survive he would conceivably play the German Rainer Schuettler (the No. 27 seed) in the round of 32.
No. 11 seed Gael Monfils --- a semifinalist in 2008--- is expected to meet Jurgen Melzer in the third round, with the winner to play Roddick in the round of 16. I can’t see Roddick advancing to the quarterfinals, but it is awfully difficult to figure out who will face Federer in that round. There is an outside chance it could be Roddick, it might be Schuettler. Perhaps Monfils--- despite being short of match play after an injury--- will get on a good roll.
In the end, it doesn’t matter much. Federer will move through that section of the draw confidently, most likely without the loss of a set. In the penultimate round, it will be Djokovic standing across the net from the Swiss. Djokovic will need to be sharp from the outset. He plays 32-year-old Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador in the first round. Lapentti was once a world top ten player, and remains formidable these days. But Djokovic will settle in by the middle of the second set and win in four sets.
In the third round, Djokovic should meet either Philipp Kohlschreiber, 2003 Roland Garros victor Juan Carlos Ferrero, or the revitalized Ivan Ljubicic. In any case, Djokovic will navigate his way safely through one of those players. In the round of 16, he will beat Tommy Robredo and then it should be time for Djokovic to play No. 5 seed Juan Martin Del Potro. Djokovic will be too quick, cunning and commanding for the big man from Argentina and he will win in straight sets.
Djokovic versus Federer: what more could we ask for? In 2008 and 2009, Djokovic went all the way to the semifinals before losing to Nadal both times. He has recently beaten Federer two times in a row for the first time in his career, upending his adversary in Miami on hard courts and in Rome on clay. Both times, Djokovic struck back from a set down to defeat Federer. Federer fell apart in Miami and lost seven straight games at one stage as his forehand all but disappeared. In Rome, Federer was up a set and a break and then led 3-1 in the final set. He never won another game.
In that match, Djokovic played remarkably well to pull out the triumph. It was a higher caliber contest and he competed impressively. Federer, however, picked up a good dose of confidence by winning Madrid after having not won a tournament since last autumn. He will carry that with him into Roland Garros. But Djokovic has had a terrific clay court season. He won a tournament in Serbia, made it to the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome before losing excellent matches to Nadal, and then lost honorably to Nadal in the Madrid semifinals despite reaching match point three times.
He is playing some of the most consistent tennis of his career. And so both men will go into this battle fully believing in themselves and their chances. It will come down in the end to a few crucial points. Federer may have the slight edge on serve and will win more free points with his delivery, but Djokovic might be slightly superior from the baseline, as was the case in Rome. Djokovic will be probing constantly, looking to use his crosscourt backhand to puncture holes in Federer’s backhand, trying to create openings to make Federer play difficult running forehands.
Federer will mix it up as only he can, using the backhand drop shot and the short backhand slice to draw Djokovic forward. There will be little to choose between two men absolutely determined to win a match of this consequence. Federer--- who has lost only to Nadal the last four years at Roland Garros-- will win a close first set and then Djokovic will strike back to control the next two sets. Federer will answer by claiming the fourth set in a tie-break, and then they will play on majestically through a gripping fifth set. Djokovic will wipe away some critical break points against him, and then at 5-5 he will break his opponent. It won’t be easy but Djokovic will serve out the match and gain the victory as a classic clash ends in style.
Djokovic will take heart from his stirring performances against Nadal en route to Roland Garros. He was the only player to take a set off Nadal before Madrid, and then it took some startling shot making from Nadal to oust Djokovic in Spain. On two of the three match points he saved, Nadal produced gutsy forehand winners; on the third, a deep, penetrating serve to Djokovic’s backhand coaxed the Serbian into hitting a two-hander long.
This will be a compelling final. Nadal will be aggressive and tenacious from the start and will win the first set, but a resolute Djokovic will come back strong to take the second. The third will be tight. Djokovic will realize it is a must win set, and know that he can’t afford to go down two sets to one. Nadal will gradually gain the upper hand by pounding away at Djokovic’s backhand until he can get just enough openings for inside-out forehands. Nadal will get too many tough returns back into play. He will win the third set 6-4, and drive his way relentlessly to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory. No one will say he hasn’t earned it.
I believe that Dinara Safina will live up to her status as the top seed and come away with her first major title. Safina was a finalist at Roland Garros a year ago, losing to a top of the line Ana Ivanovic. Safina then made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open, and was runner-up at the Australian Open to Serena Williams. That is a string of consistency not to be overlooked.
Safina should come through the early rounds despite a few tough tests, and then will meet No. 15 seed Jie Zheng in the round of 16. Zheng is a find counter-attacker, agile and cagey, determined and purposeful. She will push Safina into a hard fought, three set contest, but Safina will pull away 6-2 in the final set. In the last eight, Safina should play either the No. 8 seed Ivanovic, or the No. 9 seed Victoria Azarenka. Safina will be primed to play either woman. She would like nothing more than to turn the tables on Ivanovic, and would do so in three sets. If she meets the rapidly improving Azarenka, Safina would prevail in two close sets with her slightly greater weight of shot.
Venus Williams--- the No. 3 seed--- has had a disappointing history at Roland Garros. She did reach the final in 2002, and in her 12 previous appearances at the French Open she has made it to four other quarterfinals, the most recent in 2006. But she has too often lost early in Paris. Venus could have an interesting first round clash with her countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands. A second round meeting with either Lucie Safarova would not be easy. And in the third round, Venus would surely have some serious problems overcoming Agnes Szavay, the No. 29 seed from Hungary.
If she manages to prevail in her first three matches, Venus might play No. 16 seed Amelie Mauresmo, who has played some surprisingly good tennis in 2009. Mauresmo is a more relaxed competitor these days than she was in the heart of her career, when she was under so much pressure to win majors. She now has two Grand Slam championships in her collection, and is playing more for sheer enjoyment than ever before. Williams and Mauresmo would produce a spirited three set clash which could go either way. I go with Mauresmo.
No. 6 seed Vera Zvonareva played much better tennis at the end of 2008 and earlier this year than she is at the moment. She could play No. 25 seed Li Na in the third round, and might take on No. 11 Nadia Petrova in the round of 16. But I see Zvonareva earning a quarterfinal assignment with Mauresmo. Zvonareva will win that match with her speed and ground stroke consistency overcoming Mauresmo’s shot making sparkle.
Safina will be confident by the time she plays Zvonareva in the semifinals. Her power and control off the two-handed backhand will be too much for Zvonareva, and Safina will be back in the final with a straight set win.
In the bottom half of the draw, Serena Williams--- the No. 2 seed--- will be looking to rediscover her clay court game after being injured recently. Serena is on a great run at the majors. Since losing early at Roland Garros a year ago, she reached the final of Wimbledon and won the U.S. and Australian Opens. This is a big occasion player of the highest order.
But the fact remains that she has not played well over the years at Roland Garros. She won the tournament in 2002 over her sister Venus when she was at the absolute peak of her powers. In her next three appearances, she was once a semifinalist and twice reached the quarters. But then she fell in the third round to Katarina Srebotnik a year ago. Her preparation for this tournament has not been what she would have wanted.
Serena might have to play Shuai Peng of China (the No. 31 seed) in the third round and that will not be easy. She could well lose that match. If she wins, she would probably face No. 14 seed Flavia Pennetta. And if Serena somehow manages to keep on course, her quarterfinal opponent figures to be Svetlana Kuznetsova. I believe Kuznetsova, who is having a very good year, will take out Serena or anyone else and reach the semifinals. In the top section of that bottom half of the draw, the two players to watch most closely are No. 5 seed Jelena Jankovic and No. 4 Elena Dementieva.
Jankovic finished 2008 at the No. 1 ranked player in the world. She made it to her first major final at the 2008 U.S. Open. She was playing top of the line tennis. This year she has not been close to her best. She has suffered one surprising loss after another. And yet, if she can find her form, she is an excellent clay court player. In 2007 and 2008, she was a semifinalist at Roland Garros. Last year, she was serving at 4-3 in the final set against Ivanovic, on the verge of making the final. Had she won that match, she might have gone on to claim the title.
Jankovic faces a potentially stern test in the round of 16 against either Alize Cornet of France or the rapidly improving Caroline Wozniacki, the recent runner-up against Safina in Madrid. I believe Wozniacki will beat Cornet and then will spring the upset and beat Jankovic in three sets. In a hard fought quarterfinal, Wozniacki will topple Dementieva 7-5 in the final set.
So the surprising semifinal pairing will be Kuznetsova versus Wozniacki. Kuznetsova has a ton of big match experience on her side. She won the 2004 U.S. Open. She was runner-up to Justine Henin at Roland Garros in 2006. She made it to the U.S. Open final in 2007 and was a semifinalist at Roland Garros a year ago. Wozniacki will push Kuznetsova long and hard though three sets, across a number of momentum shifts. But Kuznetsova will be a three set winner in the end.
And so it will be Safina and Kuznetsova playing for the title. Both players will be filled with apprehension at the outset, but Kuznetsova will be marginally more stable from the baseline and will attack at opportune moments. She will win that set 7-5, but Safina will not be swayed. She will start taking control of the rallies and will cut down substantially on her unforced errors. Safina will come on strong and take the match 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 for her long awaited first Grand Slam championship.
Nadal and Safina will be the champions. That is the view from here.