If one had asked any tennis commentator or fan for the name of the Men’s French Open Champion at the start of last week—or indeed at any time in the past year—one would have been hard pushed to find any name but Rafael Nadal uttered in complete confidence.
Yet the 15th Masters Series win and 58th title overall for Roger Federer in last week’s Madrid final against Nadal—in straight sets and in little over an hour—has somewhat shaken the predictions for the imminent Grand Slam.
Next Sunday in Paris, the French Open begins. Federer’s victory in Madrid has given at the very least a little hope that Nadal’s fifth successive win on Phillipe Chatrier court is not done deal.
Moreover the latest triumph may have done wonders for Federer’s confidence; but on the other hand, as the tennis world heads for his majestic palace, has it really damaged Nadal’s? Only time will tell.
The draw is yet to be decided, but what about other hopes on the men’s side?
Juan Martin Del Potro is emerging to become a true threat to all players, including the Big Four, on all surfaces. His recent win against Andy Murray in Madrid and victory over Nadal in Miami demonstrates his ability to step up to the highest level. Can he produce similar results in a Slam?
Similarly there is Fernando Verdasco, a player who has finally been able to assimilate all his talent and mental clarity. The combination of his improved fitness regimen and new mental outlook will surely enable him to defeat many of his opponents in brutal best of five-set matches.
Nevertheless, his contest against Nadal in Rome was of epic proportions, with long, punishing rallies and powerful stokes; yet in a repeated matchup in Madrid, he failed to present the same sort of determination. Which Verdasco will appear in Paris?
Ernests Gulbis, a young star yet to make significant inroads into the highest echelons of the men’s tour, made an excellent run to the quarterfinals last year, only to fade into the background of the tennis scene in recent months. Perhaps this will be his time to shine again?
There are plenty of appealing French players to keep the home crowd excited. One wonders how far the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon and Paul-Henri Mathieu can go—clay is perhaps not the best surface to display these players’ skills. Gael Monfils is France’s best hope for a homegrown champion.
Other intriguing contests to look out for on the men’s side? There are plenty. With the deep talent in the men’s tour, long, hard-fought matches may materialise from the opening rounds involving players such as David Ferrer, Nikolay Davydenko and even Ivan Ljubicic.
Gaston Gaudio, the 2004 French Open winner, has been awarded a wild card. Can he cause any extreme upsets? Probably not, but it will certainly be interesting to see how he fares when he is pitched against players from effectively a different tennis generation.
Certainly the latter stages of the tournament will be prodigious. The draw could make all the difference for the winning chances of the top-ranked players.
Who may play each other in the semifinals? If there are no upsets along the way, will it be No.1 rank versus No.3—Nadal versus Novak Djokovic, certainly an anticipated tussle—or Nadal versus Murray, leaving the tightest duel on the other side of the draw for Federer and Djokovic?
The weakest link is possibly Murray, who has yet to prove true clay-court credentials and may not even reach the semifinals, adding yet another dimension to events.
Arguably the crucial distinction between semifinal lineups could make all the difference for the Championship result.
The women’s Championship is, seemingly as always, much harder to call. One cannot look past Venus and Serena WIlliams heading deep into the tournament, as they always do in slams—yet clay has notoriously been a weak spot in their impressive arsenal.
Dinara Safina, the current World No.1, is fresh from a win in Madrid last week—clearly she is in good form on clay. Equally, who can forget last year’s epic battles with Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinal and semifinal respectively, where she saved dozens of match points and turned the matches around?
Clearly the French Open means a lot to this young star and with the women’s field so open, she is a great contender for the title.
Caroline Wozniacki, now ranked No.9 in WTA rankings, is an impressive young player that has a great chance to make considerable impact. After her run to the Madrid final, she withdrew from this week’s Warsaw Open with a lower back injury, but one hopes that this is only a precautionary measure in preparation for Paris.
What about the likes of Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic? The latter pulled out of Madrid with an inflamed right knee, but she is certain that there is no danger to her French Open prospects and the defence of her title. Will the electric atmosphere and importance of a Slam change these ladies’ attitudes and results, helping them to escape their malaise?
Tennis fans should be excited. We have a great fortnight of tennis ahead.