Here are Steve Tignor's picks:
Another year, another hotly debated, highly anticipated French Open men’s tournament. And in the end, another foregone conclusion, right? It’s remarkable how much anticipation remains for these two weeks despite the fact that since 2005 they've been controlled, more tightly each year, by one player. Did we look forward this way to Wimbledon during the often-stultifying reign of Pete Sampras? Yeah, I guess we did. The remote but dumbfounding possibility of seeing the king deposed, like the possibility of buying a winning lottery ticket, keeps us coming back for more against our better judgment.
This year, the possibility that Rafael Nadal will not win the French Open feels just about as remote as it has the last few springs, which is to say, distant. But it feels a little more plausible than it did a week ago, before Roger Federer proved that the Spaniard can be beaten on clay. Granted, it took a four-hour match the day before and an altitude he didn’t like, but the point is, it happened. There are 127 players lined up below Nadal on the French Open drawsheet who will try to make it happen again. Who has a chance?First Quarter
In his presser today, Nadal sounded happy to get back down closer to sea level, where, according to him, the ball doesn’t fly off the strings so haphazardly. Separating Paris and Madrid so distinctly in his mind is probably a good strategy; it will allow him to think of his loss on Sunday as an aberration rather than a harbinger. And instead of rattling him, I think it will make him come out with a fighter’s, rather than a defender’s, mindset. He has a little bit to prove again, which isn’t a bad thing.
Who or what stands out in Nadal’s section of the draw? Actually, kind of a lot, now that I look at it. There’s a Hewitt-Karlovic opener that could provide him with his third-round opponent—neither is a gimme, though neither is as dangerous as he used to be. After that, there’s fellow clay dog Ferrer, who pushed him hard for a set in Barcelona; Davydenko, another dirtballer who has troubled Nadal on the surface and has reached the French semis; Wawrinka, a solid Top 20 kind of guy; Almagro, a flashy but perpetually disillusioning fellow Spaniard who was drubbed here by Nadal in 2008; and Verdasco, a, um, flashy but perpetually disillusioning Spaniard who was drubbed here by Nadal in 2008.
This could be a slog for Rafa, but would he want it any other way?
First-round match to watch: Gulbis vs. QuerreySemifinalist: NadalSecond Quarter
With that many strong players migrating to the top of the draw, Andy Murray has been left with, on paper at least, fairly easy pickings. Lopez, Stepanek, Cilic, Gonzalez, Safin, Hanescu (?), and Simon are the other seeds here. Of those, Gonzo is most likely to succeed. This is a positive for Murray, who has shown his lack of total acclimation to clay since Monte Carlo, at which point I thought he might be the biggest threat to Nadal in Paris. Now, just a couple weeks later, his passive game seems to leave him vulnerable to heavy hitters, like Monaco and del Potro, his recent conquerors, who can hit through the court more easily than he can. Murray will face one of those guys, sorta, in the first round when he plays Juan Ignacio Chela.
Wildcard to watch while you can: The last pre-Nadal French champ, Gaston GaudioSemifinalist: GonzalezThird Quarter
It seems like old times, doesn’t it, wondering which side of the draw Novak Djokovic will fall on? It makes a certain cosmic sense that he and Federer get each other—Djoko and Nadal must be sick of each other’s faces at the moment. The Serb is in high form again and would make a fine sleeper pick to win it all. He believes in his fitness, he’s found that precious and precarious balance of control and aggression, and he realizes that he’s a cut above the pack, a fact that seemed to escape him for a few months there.
Which members of that pack will be chasing him? First there’s del Potro, who I would consider a threat except that he’s never taken a set from Djokovic, or even reached a tiebreaker—the Serb seems to relish facing him. Other than that, we’ve got Tsonga, a home fave who has never won a match at Roland Garros; ex-champ J.C. Ferrero; the savage forehand of Igor Andreev, and, buried far from Djokovic, Monaco, who opens against Marcos Baghdatis.
Player to watch for the last time in Paris: Fabrice Santoro, who opens with C. Rochus
Player to watch for the first time in Paris: Bernard Tomic, who opens with KohlschreiberSemifinalist: DjokovicFourth Quarter
There are some names to consider in Roger Federer’s quarter—Berdych, Blake, Monfils, Roddick—but are there any threats to the three-time finalist? The only one who sticks out as of now is Berdych, who was up two sets to love against Fed in Australia. So he is a possibility, but they wouldn’t play each other until the fourth round, plenty of time for Federer to find his footing on Chatrier, a court he has had to learn to tolerate over the years.
Federer seems more relaxed in Madrid than he has all year. The racquet-bashing was out of his system for the moment, and I think he feels like he has a shot at the whole thing after not just beating Nadal on clay, but doing it on his terms, and doing it without playing his absolute best. The bottom line? Federer doesn’t lose before the semis, of any Slam.Semifinalist: FedererSemifinals: Nadal d. Gonzalez; Djokovic d. Federer
If Federer and Djokovic face each other, it will be a battle of two players who come in with a lot of confidence, and a lot of confidence that they can beat the other guy. Djokovic must feel like he’s figured out a rope-a-dope method of coaxing Fed to self-destruct, while Federer must feel like he’s in good enough form to put their last two matches behind him and exact revenge on a cocky whippersnapper who has always bugged him. But I think the stronger self-belief, as well as the more natural clay-court game, belongs to the Serb. Final: Nadal d. Djokovic in straightshttp://tennisworld.typepad.com/thewrap/2009/05/the-paris-parse.html