From Novak Djokovic to Stan Wawrinka: The cohort that can conquer
In 2009, Roger Federer silenced his critics by winning the French Open for the first time in his career. Six years hence, Novak Djokovic sets forth in an endeavour to emulate the Swiss master.
In two weeks’ time, the Roland Garros trophy might for the first time in six years be in the possession of someone other than Rafael Nadal. Yes, as the year has progressed, it has become more and more evident that Nadal is now unable to work his magic on the tennis courts consistently enough, even on his preferred clay courts.
With a Grand Slam around the corner, talks are now centering around the top eight rather than the top four, as has been the trend for some time. But the emergence of stiff challenge from the next generation players is not as important a reason for this widened field as the fluctuations in rankings of some of the original quartet.
Last year saw the emergence of two Grand slam Champions from outside this elite group.
Nadal and Murray have moved in and out of the top 4 this year due to injuries and decline in form. That said, Murray has now cemented himself in the top 4 with impressive results in recent tournaments. On the other hand, Nadal has been diminished to less than his normal self with 5 losses already on clay in the year, his highest since 2003.
Two of the top eight are entering the fray with unbeaten records on clay – Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. With two titles each (two Masters for Djokovic and a Masters and a 250 title for Murray), both have beaten Nadal this year, but haven’t played against each other on clay. Djokovic’s year has been even more fantastic – comparable to his 2011 run so far.
The Serb has established himself as the biggest threat to Nadal in recent years. This has been reinforced in 2015 with the two going in opposite extremes in terms of results. Djokovic’s biggest hurdle lies in outmaneuvering three likely tricky opponents from the quarterfinal onwards, each of whom could make the match an equivalent of a final. That said, it is an undeniable fact that Djokovic is the favourite to win this French Open and finally complete that elusive Career Slam.
Murray, on the other hand, has been a surprise package this season. After making a comeback to the top 4, he has stunned tennis pundits with his results on clay so far. Having won his first ever title on the surface at Munich, he routed Nadal to win the Madrid Masters despite a strong field. But playing for two weeks took a toll on his body, as he decided to withdraw from the Rome Masters after winning his first match against Jeremy Chardy, thus denying us a chance to enjoy a match-up between the two stars of the season.
The fact that Djokovic and Murray have not played one another on clay this season weighs down as one of the biggest unknown factors this time around. Going by their head-to-head record though, Djokovic has the clear advantage with 2 wins in as many meetings on clay.
Roger Federer won that elusive title in 2009, as a father of two, after Robin Soderling cleared his way by defeating Nadal. Now, he enters the tournament as the father of four at 33, and as one of the contenders to win the title. In a situation where Nadal does not seem that invincible, the others will surely try to position themselves as contenders to the crown.
Federer has won all the Grand Slams at least twice in his career, with the exception of Roland Garros. And the maestro is still capable of producing some of his best tennis; he has demonstrated that quite often in the last two years.
The Swiss has not been able to fully capitalise on his good play though, mainly because of his inconsistency. If he manages to be consistent throughout the two weeks, he will have a shot at reaching the finals once again. His path to the finals is easier than that of some of his most formidable rivals; the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Tomas Berdych and Kei Nishikori feature in the bottom half along with Federer.
The top half, though strong, shows a picture of uncertainty with the strongest of contenders populating it. In such a situation, Federer could likely be the better rested of the two finalists, if he manages another fine run. Though expecting him to win the title is not realistic, it is a possibility that cannot be completely ruled out. He could, after all, benefit from the chaos in the top half of the draw.
Staring at the prospect of sliding out of the top 10 in the world rankings, Nadal will look to prevent his second ever loss at Roland Garros when he begins his campaign this week. The Spaniard’s performance this season has grabbed headlines for they have been most un-Nadal like. With five losses this season on clay out of six tournaments, to the likes of Fabio Fognini, Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka, his reputation of being the impregnable King of Clay seems to be a thing of the past.
Adding to Nadal’s woes will be the draw, which has placed him as the sixth seed and arranged for a French rendezvous with Djokovic at the quarterfinal stage itself.
Despite the setbacks and his disastrous clay court campaign though, the magic of Rafa on the courts of Roland Garros cannot be discounted as a thing of the past. With renewed vigour and memories of the past, pushing all through the draw and laying claim to his 10th crown at Roland Garros will not be an absolute surprise.
The other player to have won a title of significance this clay season is Kei Nishikori. The Japanese World No. 5 is playing some of his best tennis right now. Boosted by a runner-up finish at the US Open last year, Nishikori rose to World No. 4 earlier this season. With his defence of the Barcelona title along with the semifinal and quarterfinal finishes at the Madrid and Rome Masters, he has joined the cohort that comprises of potential champions.
Though he did not win a title during the regular clay season, David Ferrer also has an ATP 500 title to his credit from his exploits on South American clay. The Spaniard has for long been one of the most consistent performers on tour. He is a former finalist at Roland Garros, and he also enjoys a better record (than on hard courts) against the likes of Nadal and Murray on clay.
Ferrer will surely be a tough opponent for anyone and will be far from a pushover. Still, his chances of winning this Slam are not very great, as he is always susceptible to be overpowered by a big hitter. He is in the same half as Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, which further worsens his prospects of going deep into the draw.
As one of the few to cling on to a top 10 ranking for a while, Tomas Berdych enters the fray as the fourth seed. The much-coveted spot, that prevents him from meeting some of the best in the sport until the very final stages, has made the Czech the leader of an entire quarter where Nishikori is the closest rival. Berdych too has been playing second fiddle to the top 4 for quite a long time. Wins over them haven't been rare, but he has not been able to break through their solid dominance on a regular basis.
If Berdych gets past Nishikori in the quarters, he is likely to face Federer in a last four clash. But the Czech winning the title seems to be an uphill task, with none of the others showing any signs of relenting.
Milos Raonic was probably the least favoured among the top 8 to clinch the French Open title, but he has anyway withdrawn from the competition with an injury. The player filling in his absence in the top 8 will be Stan Wawrinka.
The Swiss No. 2 has not been is very good form in recent months. After his Chennai Open defence, his performances have not been up to the mark, to say the least. One of his best results was the win against Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Rome Masters, but his frequent losses to lower ranked players have failed to inspire confidence.
With each of the players having more than substantial justification to win the title, a worthy contender is difficult to choose. If recent results were the only yardstick, the most dominant player would continue to dominate. If fans were the only force behind the making of a successful champion, the most popular would win.
Alas, winning a Grand Slam is brought about by a melange of factors that could play with each other in varying proportions, and result in the most unexpected of outcomes. As fans, let us root for our heroes to hoist the silverware in a fortnight’s time, and may the best man win!