When looking at the entry list for the French Open, there are three players that have accepted an entry into the main draw via a protected ranking. The ATP allows players who have missed a significant amount of time over the previous year due to injury (at least six months) to keep an imaginary ranking number to be used to gain entries into tournaments once they return from injury. The number is around what the player was at before the injury and is only used to enter a tournament, not for seeding purposes. A player returning from injury may only enter nine tournaments with his protected ranking.
The first player with a protected ranking (#20) is Tommy Haas. Haas was at one point as high as World #2 (in 2002) but has been hampered by injuries his entire career. He has not played since having surgery on his right hip in February 2011. He made his official comeback in Munich this past week where he played doubles and looked relatively comfortable physically. He has also used his protected ranking to get into Madrid and Rome in the next two weeks. He looks like he will challenge himself immediately in his comeback attempt and go up against the top players in the world to prepare for Roland Garros. Even at the age of 33 Haas still has plenty of talent, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon (lost to Federer) and taking Federer to five sets at the French Open just two years ago.
Fernando Gonzalez is also using his protected ranking (#55) to get into the main draw at Roland Garros. Unlike Haas, however, he is taking a very different approach to his comeback. Gonzalez (Gonzo for short) accepted a wild card this past week and played in the 250 tournament in Belgrade, losing in the second round to Feliciano Lopez. These next two weeks, instead of playing in the Masters events in Madrid and Rome, he will be playing Challenger (the level below the main ATP Tour) tournaments in Prague and Bordeaux. It’s possible he is doing this because his protected ranking would only be high enough to make it into qualifying for the Masters tournaments, but it still shows that he is aiming to get more match play under his belt before Roland Garros and is not so interested in playing the best possible competition this early. Interestingly enough, he has also been out for the last six months with right hip surgery.
Gonzo is known, to quote a tweet by Andy Roddick, for having “the world’s biggest forehand”. Nevertheless, he has had success in his career on clay, which is not usually expected of someone who relies on hitting big shots to hit winners. He has reached the semifinals of the French Open in 2009 (lost to Soderling) and has reached the finals at both Madrid and Rome, losing to Federer and Nadal in those finals, respectively. Gonzo is getting older though, and the former World #5 has called this comeback “the beginning of the end of my career”.
The third player using his protected ranking (#45) to play at Roland Garros is Croat Ivo Karlovic. Karlovic, a 32-year-old with a massive serve, has played the entire 2011 season so far after missing the last six months of 2010 with an injury to his achilles tendon. He returned this year with a bang (literally) breaking Andy Roddick’s world record with a 156 mph (250 kph) serve. He has never been great on clay and has actually never even reached the third round at Roland Garros. He also has taken a very small risk to use his protected ranking at both Madrid and Rome as his ranking did not quite get him into the main draw. However, he is the second alternate in each and there have already been enough withdrawals to get him into Madrid this week. He still currently needs two more withdrawals to get into Rome for next week.
Former World #1 and French Open Champion (2003) Juan Carlos Ferrero won three tournaments in 2010 and spent most of the year in the top 20. However, after the US Open he needed surgery on his right wrist and left knee and did not play again until two weeks ago at Barcelona. He had a strong showing there, reaching the quarterfinals before losing to Nicolas Almagro in straight sets. He got a wild card to play Madrid this week and used his protected ranking (26) to play in Rome next week. He did not need to use his protected ranking to get into Roland Garros as he still is ranked #70 in the world. At the age of 31, he also would seem to be towards the end of his career, though he still is very competitive even against the top players.
The final player that we want to look at making a comeback is Juan Martin del Potro. Unlike the others on our list, Delpo still has the majority of his career to look forward to. Already a Grand Slam champion (2009 US Open), the 22-year-old looked as if he could become the best player on tour. However, a misdiagnosed right-wrist injury required surgery and he missed nine months after the 2010 Australian Open. This was very scary for del Potro fans as he relies on a massive forehand and uses an unconventional grip and swing which is very taxing on his wrist. Still, he has looked great in his comeback and has already risen back to #45 in the world. He also looked strong in his first clay tournament this past week, beating World #5 Robin Soderling in straight sets en route to tomorrow’s final against Fernando Verdasco in Estoril.
What to Watch this week: The Race for Seeds Heats Up
The rankings will look very strange on Monday. Because the schedule is a little different this year (as we looked at a few weeks ago), the points players earned in Rome last year will drop this week. Players will actually be able to count an extra 250 (but not 500) score for that week as there will have only been 7 mandatory Masters 1000 tournaments in the past 52 weeks. Next week players will get to add their scores from Madrid, so the extra 250 will be dropped. Since Madrid is a week earlier this year than last, the May 9th rankings will actually count both the Madrid tournaments from this year and last year. Once May 16th rolls around, the rankings will be back to only counting tournaments once.
Now, there is a very good reason to care about rankings at this time of year. The rankings are used to determine the seeding at every tournament (except Wimbledon, but there is also usually very little variation between the rankings and seeding there as well). Thus, players want to do as well as possible over the next two weeks to get the best seed they can at Roland Garros.
There are some important cutoffs in the seeding. Since the draw is determined by lottery, it is not a given that the highest-ranked player will face the lowest-ranked player in the first round. In fact, it is not even guaranteed that the #2 be scheduled to play the #3 in the semifinals (should both get that far, obviously). What is a given is that the #1 and #2 seeds cannot reach each other until the finals. It is also guaranteed that the #3 and #4 seeds get their own quarter (i.e. they cannot meet another one of the top 4 seeds until the semifinals at the earliest). No one in the top 8 can meet another top 8 seed until the quarterfinals, etc.
So, the main battles that we will be looking at and that the players will be very conscious of are who will be #2 and who will be #4. To a lesser extent players will also fight to be #8 instead of #9 and #16 instead of #17, but there are so many points to be gained at a Masters event that almost anyone in the top 15 can reach #8 with good runs in the next two weeks (and almost anyone in the top 60 could reach #16). We will only look at what the players within striking distance need to do to get to #2 and #4.
The race for World #2 is down to a two-man race between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Djokovic has a 1090-point lead and only has 180 points to defend these next two weeks. Federer, on the other hand, had 610 points to defend since he reached the final in Madrid last year. Federer needs to win both tournaments to even have a chance at being the #2 seed at Roland Garros. Djokovic only needs to reach one final in the next two weeks or two semifinals to lock up the #2 spot. It looks very much like there is a 50-50 chance at having Federer and Nadal being in the same half of the French Open draw this year.
Andy Murray has a 730-point lead on Robin Soderling for World #4. Murray has 270 points to defend at Madrid and Rome while Soderling only has 100. This battle will be one to keep an eye on as you can bet that neither one of these two wants a chance to play Nadal in the quarterfinals. It is also close enough that one good run by Soderling can make it very interesting. Soderling has struggled since March of this year and now would be a great time for him to start turning things around. Also, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych can both technically reach #4 before the French Open, but either one would need to win the titles in both Madrid and Rome to have a chance.
Also, keep an eye on Milos Raonic in the coming weeks. He has been playing a lot of tennis recently and retired in the Estoril semifinal with an apparent back injury. We hope that he is okay and will be very disappointed if he is not 100% for Wimbledon.