As I type this, the first matches of the 2011 French Open are already underway and I believe this could be one of the most exciting Grand Slam tournaments in a long while. On the Women’s side it is absolutely wide open with several players who would normally be considered outsiders being able to make a legitimate claim that the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen could soon be theirs. Whilst in the Men’s draw many people are making it seem that Nadal and Djokovic’s status as finalists is a foregone conclusion, something which I do not agree with. One thing is a certainty though, the next fortnight is going to deliver two extremely hard-fought contests.
As I mentioned above, I really do think the Women’s is wide open and we could well see a new face come to the fore. With both of the Williams sisters out, Clijsters playing her first match since Miami in March and Wozniacki having shown weaknesses in both Madrid and Rome, now seems to be the moment for someone to make their mark:
A few weeks ago I said that I considered Kvitova do be a significant contender and I still stand by that. Her recent form has illustrated that she has the weapons to win on clay, reaching the final in Prague and winning the Madrid title, and her quarter-final showing at this year’s Australian Open along with last year’s Wimbledon semi-final have proved that she is capable of going deep in Grand Slams. Whilst there are some tricky opponents around her in the draw such as Li Na, I am confident she can at least make the quarter finals where she could well face Azarenka who she beat in the final of Madrid and I wouldn’t bet against her to do it again.
I have tipped Azarenka on more occasions than I dare to count but I refuse to give up hope as she has far too strong a game not to win a Grand Slam title soon. I truly believed that she would win last year’s US Open but unfortunately an odd accident involving a running machine led to her dramatically collapsing on court in her 2nd round match. The French Open could well be the Belarusian’s moment though as she has had a good few months winning in both Miami and Marbella as well as reaching the final of Madrid and the quarter-final in Rome. My main hesitation with Azarenka is her fitness and whether she can stay healthy for seven matches back-to-back as in the last three months she has retired in Indian Wells, Stuttgart and Rome. I think she will do well but with Clijsters, Petkovic, Sharapova and Kvitova all in her half I can’t see her reaching the final.
Two weeks ago the phrase Maria Sharapova – French Open Champion wouldn’t even have crossed my mind but after an emphatic performance in Rome where she beat Azarenka, Wozniacki and Stosur back-to-back it would seem crazy to rule her out. It seems that she is truly once again a contender having come back from a series of shoulder problems which led to her falling to 126 in the World in May 2009. A change in coach, support from her new fiancé and renewed belief in her game all seem to to have fuelled her resurgence making her a very dangerous opponent. She is one of the more experienced contenders for the title having won all of the other three Grand Slam titles and she will be desperate to complete her career Grand Slam with a victory at Roland Garros. Her potential quarter-final against Clijsters is an extremely juicy match and one that I think she could win. I think she would then face Kvitova in what on paper is a semi but in my eyes will be the final as I believe the winner will come from the lower half of the draw.
I’m always reluctant to rule Kim Clijsters out because she is such a supreme competitor and athlete but there lies the problem. The Belgian’s greatest asset is her athleticism but I suspect that having been laid low with an ankle injury since March (she hurt herself dancing at her cousin’s wedding!) she may not be at full fitness. There is no doubt she wants to match compatriot Henin and win a French Open title and she certainly has the shots to do so but I think a few long matches could take their toll and a tough last 16 against Petkovic or quarter-final against Sharapova will finish her off. From a selfish viewpoint I am desperate to see her play well at Wimbledon so I really hope she doesn’t exacerbate any ankle problems by playing on regardless of injury.
Goerges / Petkovic
I am desperate to see these two young German’s do well as they are both exciting, charismatic and fun players to watch and are extremely talented to boot. Goerges has proved herself to be a talented clay court player reaching the quarters in Charleston, the semis in Madrid, winning in Stuttgart and beating World Number 1 Wozniacki twice in the process. She also has the advantage of being in what I think is the easier half of the draw but that said she will probably have to beat the likes of last year’s finalist Stosur, World Number 3 Zvonareva and defending champion Schiavone if she wants to make the final. Whilst I don’t fancy Petkovic as strongly, if she plays her best tennis I do not think it is beyond her to reach the quarter-finals but I think Sharapova could well prove too much. I have a real soft spot for Petkovic though as she is such a likeable character so I want her to do well.
Last year’s finalist has had a fairly hit and miss season going out in the 3rd round of the Australian Open to Kvitova and failing to make the quarter-finals at either Indian Wells or Miami. She has picked it up on the clay though reaching the semis in Stuttgart and being runner up in Rome where she lost to Sharapova. Sadly she was ill when she played in the Rome final so it was hard to judge whether she could have beaten the Russian if she was at full strength, my inclination is to say she would have certainly put up an incredible fight. Stosur’s in the top half of the draw but will face a tough third round match against either experienced Argentine Dulko or Pironkova then a potential 4th round re-match of the Stuttgart semi that she lost against Goerges. I think if she can get through that she will be in the final.
I know, I know, I haven’t even mentioned the World Number 1 Wozniacki despite her winning Brussels this week. I just think she looks vulnerable against the best clay courters and I can see her falling at the quarters if not sooner. I’m aware that I’ve also overlooked the defending champion Schiavone and whilst there’s the possibility she could pull it out the bag and repeat last year’s success I haven’t seen anything from her that suggests she will. And whilst I’m desperate to see Zvonareva pick up a Grand Slam title I don’t think the French Open is likely to be it because there are better clay court players out there and she has also seemed a little inconsistent this season.
Whilst many tennis fans are saying the race for the Coupe des Mousquetaires is one featuring only two horses I think that is a very simplistic assumption. Yes, there’s no doubt about it, Djokovic and Nadal are the men to beat but to claim they’re the only two in with a shot overlooks far too many great players.
I really don’t know if I need to state the case for Nadal being a contender as the numbers speak for themselves. With a .924 index rating on a clay and a 38-1 winning record at the French Open it is easy to see why people consider him the King of Clay and Roland Garros the capital of his kingdom, but for the first time we’re entering the tournament with people seriously questioning his chances of retaining the title. With back-to-back clay court defeats to Djokovic there have been doubts cast over the Spanish Master’s supremacy and even he has called Djokovic the favourite for the French. There’s no question about it, he looked seriously frustrated during the Rome final and seemed at a loss as to how to beat the Serb – the normally unshakeable fighter was riled. Despite this I strongly believe that this time in a fortnight I will be watching Nadal raise his most familiar of trophies for the sixth time and there’s two main reasons for this. 1.) He’s had a week off – yes, I know, so has Djokovic but I believe Nadal needed the last seven days far more than he did. Even though the World Number 2 was physically drained from his constant winning streak he was mentally on a high, in an extremely good frame of mind and had gained some landslide-like momentum. Nadal on the other hand looked emotionally exhausted, was struck down with a virus in Rome and generally seemed to need some time to rethink his strategy. He’s now had a week to compose himself, talk tactics with his camp and work on any slight flaws in his game – he’s apparently spent whole practice sessions just playing cross-court forehands. 2.) The tournament will win it for him. This probably seems an odd thing to say but I believe that because the matches are five sets, the French crowd adore him and RG has almost become his own private training ground that, in the very rare moments that he is weak, the tournament will pull him through. It’s no secret that Nadal is one of the most determined sportsmen around and he will cling onto his title with every tooth, nail and fibre in his body and when you’re facing him in that frame of mind, on a scorching Sunday afternoon, with everyone around you chanting his name you stand very little chance, even if you’re 45 matches unbeaten.
Obviously Djokovic is on an extraordinary run – you don’t reach 39 matches unbeaten, collect a Davis Cup, Australian Open victory and four Masters titles without playing sublime tennis; the question is how much longer it can continue. With Djokovic you get the feeling that a lot of the fuel behind his success is confidence and therefore with each win he takes another step further in front of the field. By the same measure though, a serious challenge to his run could really knock him for six and I think this challenge is lying in wait in round three in the shape of a 6ft 6′ Argentine. One of the most eagerly anticipated parts of Friday’s tournament draw was the moment that Juan Martin Del Potro’s name was picked out because, whilst he is only seeded 25 as a result of his long-term absence from the tour through injury, he is considered to be one of the biggest threats to both Nadal and Djokovic. JMDP, the 2009 US Open Champion, has extremely big ground strokes, a large wingspan and a clay court title under his belt already this season so he is not the sort of player you want to meet early on. Unfortunately for the Serb, Del Potro popped up as a potential third round opposition for him which means that Djokovic will face a man of top 10 calibre within the first week. If the match up does occur it will be a tantalising one that will offer firm evidence of whether the World Number Two is up to the job of dethroning Nadal. Aside from JMDP, Djokovic does still have a fairly tricky draw starting with talented youngster De Bakker, he also has home favourites Tsonga, Monfils and Gasquet, dangerous clay court specialists Almagro and Ferrer (to name just two of several) and Federer in his half. My head says Djokovic will be in the final, my heart says it will be an all Spanish affair with Ferrer causing an upset in the semis.
So I’ve kind of already given away my prediction for Daveeeeed (or David as he’s more commonly known) by saying he could well defeat Djokovic but let me explain why. Outside of the tennis world he is a relative unknown but he is someone who warrants a great deal of respect. In most eras he would probably be held up as one of the best clay court players around but in the reign of his compatriot Nadal he has largely slipped under the radar despite having reached a career high of Number 4 in the World, won two titles this year and been runner up twice in 2011 (l. to Nadal both times). The diminutive World Number 7 (he is only 5’9) has the ability to really get under an opposition’s skin and grind them down and I think he will do this against Djokovic. The best he has achieved at Roland Garros in the past is quarter-finals but I have a real gut feeling that this could be his year. I can’t see him defeating Nadal but anything less than semis will be a surprise in my eyes.
Twice French Open finalist, the only person to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros and an unbeaten week at the World Team Championship make the Swede a significant contender. Whilst my backing of Ferrer may surprise some people I think few people would argue that Soderling poses a real threat to Nadal in their quarter of the draw. I find the World Number 5 to be one of the most difficult players to read on the ATP Tour and therefore his matches are tough to predict but he has time and again shown that he has a clay court game to match the best of them. Nadal beat him in last year’s final, knocked him out in the first round in 2006 and I think it is likely that Soderling will once again fall at the hands of the Spaniard but I think this year he will put up a far greater fight.
Murray is comparable to Sharapova in the fact that a fortnight ago I would have written him off but his performance in Rome has forced me to rethink matters. During his semi-final last week Murray showed that Djokovic was fallible and looked closer to beating him than anyone else has all year, and perhaps more importantly than that he showed that he has regained his hunger and belief. There are few more awkward sights in tennis than seeing a player implode on court and after the Australian Open it felt like we were subjected to that several times with Murray but it seems the corner has been turned. People often forget that the Scot spent a sizeable part of his tennis upbringing in Spain and therefore has a solid clay court game, and, whilst he is still better on hard, he can make life very difficult for his opponents on the red stuff. On the face of it Murray’s draw may seem fairly easy to people and whilst he has probably the easiest draw of all the top 10 players (his first two matches are against qualifiers) he will still have to overcome some very tricky players to make the semis including Almagro, Raonic and Dolgopolov. I think Almagro in the quarters is the only one who will pose a serious challenge to him but then there’s good ol’ Rafa in the semis and Murray will have to play as he did in the last two sets against Djokovic if he wants to stand a chance of reaching his fourth Grand Slam final. I can’t see Murray winning this but I will put on record now that I have complete belief that he will win a Grand Slam title (possibly several) but I think the first is likely to come on hard court.
As with Ferrer, I’ve already kind of covered JMDP but I’ll elaborate on a few points. The Argentine’s success is very dependent on his fitness as this is his first tournament back after having withdrawn from his Madrid match against Nadal with a muscle tear. It is hard to know whether he is healthy enough to play but my inclination is that he is, when you’ve previously had a year out through injury you don’t take risks when it comes to your body. His match fitness is another matter though as he hasn’t played a five set match since the 2010 Australian Open and he won’t be able to ease himself in gently as he is facing big serving Ivo Karlovic in the first match (a draw that I imagine neither of them wanted). In his last appearance at Roland Garros in 2009 he made the semi-finals where he lost to eventual champion Roger Federer so he can play on clay. As I said I really think he could push Djokovic, especially as it is fairly early on in the tournament and he will still be relatively fresh but if he does win it will be a hard fought victory and I doubt he’ll be able to muster the strength to defeat his likely next opponent, Madrid semi-finalist Bellucci.
If there’s any man who comes near to Djokovic for success rates this year it is Almagro who has already notched up three titles , been runner up once and semi-finalist twice this year. He is fresh off the back of his success in Nice and has a fairly easy start to the tournament playing a qualifier so momentum should be in his favour. He is a very talented clay court player who reached the quarter-finals at last year’s French Open (l. Nadal). Whilst he has the form I do question his ability to win the big matches and I think if Murray’s playing well a quarter-final victory against him may be a step to far. Whatever happens he is certainly a very dangerous outsider.
The only significant player that I haven’t mentioned is Federer and that’s because aside from taking a set off Nadal in Madrid he has shown very little to convince me that he’s a serious contender. I have said before that I am very firmly in the ‘never write Fed off’ camp because he is such a sublime player that he has the ability to pull almost anything out of the bag but I believe that on the clay courts of Roland Garros is the last place he will do this. Federer is at his most uncomfortable on clay and unfortunately for him there are great players out there who relish the opportunity to get coated on the dirt. For Federer to win another French Open title I think he needs to rely on others playing badly and with so many good players in the mix that is not going to happen. Gasquet and Monfils are probably the only other two worth a nod but whilst they both have the game to win their home slam I cannot see either of them doing it. They are both a little too unpredictable (Monfils especially) and for either of them to string together seven victories against a strong field is a major ask, especially as they will probably both face extremely tough fourth round matches with Gasquet possibly playing either Djokovic or JMDP and Monfils most likely confronted with Ferrer.
Bits and bobs
- Spare a thought for John Isner. Less than a month ago the American skyscraper of a man would have been seeded for French Open but after first and second round exits in Madrid and Rome he dropped to 39 in the rankings meaning he went in the main draw without any protection, and now he has to face Nadal in the first round. If you’re in Paris on Tuesday and hear a large crash it’ll be the big man being felled.
- One issue that I haven’t addressed is the change in balls at the French Open; in the past they’ve used the heavier, slower Dunlop balls whereas this year they have switched to Babolat which are reportedly a lot quicker. Whilst the players have had the opportunity to practice with the new balls they could still play a deciding role in close matches, especially those where a change of balls comes at a crucial moment.
- If you want to read anyone else’s opinions on the runners and riders for the French Open I suggest you look at these articles by Matt Cronin of @tennisreporters. Women’s and Men’s.
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