We should be thankful to, among others, Ion Tiriac and Rafael Nadal for making sure that cutting our teeth into French Open talk doesn’t feel like coming out of tennis hibernation despite the 4-month gap between Roland Garros and the Australian Open. Tiriac kept tennis in the limelight through his evil ways, which manifested themselves rather jarringly in the form of all the controversies and complaints during the Madrid Open. Nadal, on the other hand, was much more noble in his efforts: all he did was reverse his losing trend in his rivalry with Novak Djokovic, and re-establish his claycourt superiority over the rest of the field. All of which means, of course, that the timing of the French Open could not have been better. We’re as ready as we could possibly be for the second Grand Slam of 2012. Let’s take a quick look, then, at all the vulgar combinations and possibilities that might arise from the men’s draw at this year’s event.
First Quarter: The story
A theory has been doing the rounds of tennis circles that the reason Novak Djokovic has been losing so often lately is because the Serb has his eyes set on just one prize. Victory at the French Open will make Djokovic only the 8th player in history to complete the Career Slam. More importantly, however, victory at the French Open will give Djokovic a slice of tennis immortality that neither Federer nor Nadal can boast of: the Nole Slam, i.e., holding all the 4 Slams at the same time, a feat that was last accomplished more than 40 years ago, back in 1969 (by the incomparable Rod Laver). So is there any credence to the theory? Has Djokovic really been biding his time, saving his energy for the Big One? He did look distinctly out of it in at least two out of his 3 claycourt losses – for understandable reasons in Monte Carlo, and not so understandable ones in Madrid (has anyone else figured out yet why the blue courts gave the best mover in the world more problems than any other player?). In any case, Djokovic arrives in Paris with possibly higher reserves of energy than he did last year.
The big question is: will higher energy reserves be enough to fill the cracks that have started appearing in his dominance over Nadal?
The players who will try to prevent us from getting an answer to that question, by knocking Djokovic out before his date with Nadal, include Jurgen Melzer (who beat Djokovic in the 2010 French Open) and Fernando Verdasco (who beat Nadal in Madrid). A little away from Djokovic’s section are Stanislas Wawrinka and Gilles Simon, who will likely lock horns in the 3rd round to decide who gets to face Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the next match. Tsonga, the man who thinks it is impossible for him or any of his countrymen to win the French Open - that’s got to be a mouth-watering opponent for every player in the draw, right?
Prediction: Djokovic def. Wawrinka
Dark horse: Brian Baker
Second Quarter: Big Boys vs Old Boys
All the wily veterans that you can possibly think of are bundled together in one tiny corner of this section – for once, Roger Federer doesn’t look like a stubborn oldie trying to keep pace with his younger rivals. There’s David Nalbandian (Federer’s likely 2nd round foe), Nicolas Mahut, Andy Roddick (Federer’s potential 3rd round opponent), Radek Stepanek, Arnaud Clement, and just to keep things diverse, the stylish ladykiller Feliciano Lopez. On the other side of the quarter are the tall power hitters – Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, Kevin Anderson. Among the Big Boys, Berdych and Del Potro recently faced off in the Madrid Open semifinals, with Berdych coming out on top after two tiebreakers. But Del Potro has been due for a strong Slam performance since a while now, and there’s no better place for him to do that than at the site of his first Slam semifinal (back in 2009).
From a broader perspective though, there’s one major question here: can Federer & Co keep the flag flying for foxy court smarts, and hold off the power of the Big Boys for a little while longer? Judging from Federer’s own showing over the last 8 months or so, this one seems like a no-brainer. ‘Old’ has never been as fashionable as it has in the past few months, with Federer turning the clock back and regaining his silken touch.
Prediction: Federer def. Del Potro
Dark horse: Juan Carlos Ferrero
Third Quarter: Fear of the unknown
Since this is Andy Murray‘s quarter, it’s only natural that we should expect a surprise semifinalist to emerge from here. Several players from this quarter can legitimately stake a claim to be first-time Slam semifinalists, ranging from the man with one huge weapon and nothing much else, John Isner, to the player with too many weapons to choose from, Alexandr Dolgopolov. Isner has had a disappointing claycourt campaign so far, but it wouldn’t be amiss to question why we expected big things from him on clay in the first place. Sure, he did defeat Federer on clay in Davis Cup play earlier this year, and he did take Nadal to five sets in the opening round here last year, but he has repeatedly come up short in the rank-and-file clay tournaments, and this year has been no exception. On the other hand, Alexandr Dolgopolov has been appropriately streaky this claycourt season, giving Djokovic a tough challenge in Monte Carlo and then disappearing in a swirl of erratic performances and early exits in his next few tournaments. Also lurking in this section are big-time future prospects Bernard Tomic and Grigor Dimitrov, and although neither player has exhibited any pronounced affinity to clay so far, their draws don’t look particularly terrifying. Yes, there are several potential first-time Slam semifinalists here, and considering who their likely semifinal opponent is going to be (hint: read ‘Fourth Quarter’ below), who knows how bad they will be made to look if they do get there? I, for one, am a little scared.
Despite the presence of all these young upstarts, however, this quarter might still ultimately come down to a fight between the highest seeds – Murray against claycourt expert David Ferrer. The Spaniard has been impressively consistent this year, having won 3 titles on dirt already, and Murray has looked his usual mopey self. Murray suffered an ugly loss to Richard Gasquet (who, incidentally, might face him in the 4th round here too) two weeks ago in Rome, where Gasquet’s exaggerated topspin kept giving fits to the anguished Scot. So I can’t say I’m particularly looking forward to a Murray-Ferrer match, which will likely be a prolonged, exhausting, torturous affair.
Prediction: Ferrer def. Murray
Dark horse: Bernard Tomic
Fourth Quarter: The ‘other’ story
When the draw was announced, the usual allegations of certain players getting unfair advantage through cupcake draws were heard loud and clear, but one player’s name was mentioned alongside the word ‘cupcake’ a little more than the others: Rafael Nadal. Yes, there are barely any threatening names around the Spaniard in his quarter: Nadal’s likely quarterfinal opponent will be the winner of the match between Janko Tipsarevic, the weakest player in the top 8, and Nicolas Almagro, who is something of a punching bag for Nadal. Milos Raonic potentially looms in the 3rd round, but one look at his backhand and you know he’s not going to give Nadal much trouble, at least not on clay, where the Spaniard’s lefty topspin bites and claws worse than a wounded tiger.
Let’s be honest here though: on clay, at the French Open, will any draw ever be considered anything other than a cupcake draw for Nadal? The man’s ownership of this tournament is fast approaching legendary proportions: if he wins this year, he will surpass Bjorn Borg’s tally of 6 French Open crowns. The man has lost just one match, ever, at the French Open. That sounds ridiculous every time I hear it.
Prediction: Nadal def. Almagro
Dark horse: Philipp Kohlschreiber
Semifinals: Djokovic def. Federer, Nadal def. Ferrer
Final: Djokovic def. Nadal