The 2011 French Open is just one short week away and we are going to gear up by looking at the players who think will go far and those who are expected to go far but won’t. Rafael Nadal has won five of the last six French Opens, with Roger Federer taking the championship in 2009 after Nadal was held back by tendinitis. No one other than Federer, Nadal, and current World #5 Robin Soderling has made the final since 2006.
1. Novak Djokovic: We’re going to start off this list with a small shocker. I don’t think that at the moment we can call Rafa the favorite at the French Open anymore. True, Novak has yet to even reach a French Open final. But we just saw Djokovic beat Nadal in four straight Masters 1000 finals, two of them on clay. And, with Djokovic having to beat 3 of the other top 4 players in the world on consecutive days just to win Rome, I think we can say he’s ready to finally be the favorite at a Slam. And the most impressive thing is that he came back after the grueling match with Murray and outplayed Rafa the very next day. That bodes very well for the transition to five-setters.
2. Rafael Nadal: No matter how good Djokovic looks right now, we can’t put Rafa far behind. Nadal has dominated the clay surface for too long for us to expect him not to win. Djokovic looks much better at the moment, but when push comes to shove we all know how close it will be if the two of them meet in the final. Recent play makes us call Djokovic the very slight favorite, but history tells it that it can only be by a tiny bit over Rafa.
3. Roger Federer: It doesn’t matter that he looks like he has slowed down a little. It doesn’t matter that he lost to Richard Gasquet in Rome in a match he should have won. You can never count Roger Federer out. He is the King of the Slams for a reason. And even though he has had a lot of trouble beating Rafa and Djokovic recently we all know that after those two we have to think of Roger as the next favorite.
For our dark horses, we will look at a few guys who we don’t expect to win. But we do expect them to go far and that they could possibly pull off something incredible with a bit of luck. We discussed David Ferrer as a dark horse last week, so we will leave him off of this week’s list. He did pull out of Rome with the flu this past week, so we hope he is well for Roland Garros and that he gets enough practice in beforehand to be able to compete at 100%.
1. Richard Gasquet: We all knew what potential Gasquet had ever since he beat Roger Federer the first time they faced each other, 6 years ago in Monte Carlo. Gasquet has the purest and best one-handed backhand in the game today and can take over rallies with a punishing shot up the line. He is full of talent and it has always been a disappointment watching him because mental issues always seemed to take away from his game. Hopefully what we saw in Rome this week shows that he is past that. He came back from a set down to beat two top 10 plays (Federer and Berdych) before respectfully losing to Nadal. If he can keep it all together for two weeks at Roland Garros then we may finally see Gasquet’s emergence into a great player.
2. Stanislas Wawrinka: Wawrinka basically plays the same type of game as Soderling does. He hits the ball hard and through the court and just hits winners. Like Gasquet, he also possesses a great one-handed backhand. And like Gasquet, he seems to have a lot of mental issues on the court. Wawrinka doesn’t get distracted or go away from the game, but when he thinks he is outmatched he just sort of gives up. Look at this year’s Australian Open. He slaughtered Andy Roddick in the fourth round, hitting almost 70 winners and committing under 20 unforced errors, if my memory serves me correctly. That type of display could have been enough to beat Federer in the next round as well. But his match versus Federer turned into little more than a glorified practice session as Wawrinka had given up from the outset and did not play like it was a serious match. I would not expect Wawrinka to lose to a lesser player at Roland Garros. If he can keep his head in the game against the top ones he may be able to go even farther.
Players to Keep an Eye on:
We won’t go into such detail here, but these are the players that we don’t think will do much better than expected but definitely have the potential to. Andy Murray has always been solid on clay and looks to be turning his season around after an abysmal post-Australian Open hard court stretch. Depending on the draw, nothing less that trip to the quarterfinals should be expected of him. And with the way he played against Djokovic in that epic match on Saturday, winning it all would not even shock us. Still, Murray has never reached the finals of a clay court event in his career. We can’t put him on the favorites list for the biggest one of them all if he can’t win a smaller one, can we?
Jurgen Melzer and Nicolas Almagro each look in their standard clay forms. Both should beat any lesser player but both do have the potential to bow out early. And keep an eye on Feliciano Lopez. He is not known for his clay court expertise but looks to be playing well and has had a great clay court season so far. It shouldn’t shock anyone if he makes a run at Roland Garros. Andrey Golubev, Denis Istomin, and Potito Starace are three final players to watch out for. Golubev and Istomin have not been great this year but have talent and the ability to do some damage on clay. Starace is a little injured right now but at times this year as looked very good on clay.
Here are the players who we should expect to do well. But, for whatever reason, this year we think they will not pan out.
1. Robin Soderling: Yes, he has made the final two years in a row. He beat Nadal in the fourth round in 2009 and Federer in the quarterfinals last year. Still, he has had a very lackluster 2011 since winning three tournaments in the first two months (Brisbane, Rotterdam, and Marseille), all on hard courts. He has been bothered by small nagging injuries these past few weeks. His movement isn’t as good as usual and it looks like he has lost a little power. Also, it was just announced that he will pull out of Dusseldorf this week with a strained groin. Even if he plays in Roland Garros (which we should be clearer on in this coming week) I would not expect him to go far at all.
2. American men: Need I say more? They are never very good on clay but this year has been abysmal. Roddick is playing in Nice this week and Fish, Isner, and Querrey are all playing in Dusseldorf. Every single one of them needs the experience and the match play. Ryan Sweeting, who a month ago looked like the best American on clay, just lost a qualifying match in Nice to someone ranked #568 in the world (Benjamin Balleret). It was a shock when no American made the quarterfinals at the Australian Open this past year. Right now I would be shocked if any American made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros (depending on the draw obviously).
3. Alexandr Dolgopolov: “The Dog”, as he is referred to by his fans, flew up in the rankings at the end of last year and the beginning of this season. He had a very strong hard court season and a good South American clay swing. Still, he has looked off form as of late and didn’t win a clay match in Europe until Nice earlier today. It shouldn’t shock us if he does well as he is incredibly talented but I’m picking an early exit for Dolgopolov.
What to Watch this week:
There is some good tennis being played in Nice and Dusseldorf this week. Check out the Americans and see if they look like any of them can win a match on clay this year and watch David Ferrer in Nice to see if he looks healthy after a bout with the flu.
Also, Novak Djokovic has clinched a spot in the World Tour Finals. I don’t think anyone has kept track, but by what I could find this is the earliest someone has ever qualified. He still cannot catch Nadal for World #1 until the French Open, which he would do if he reaches the final even if Nadal wins. He can also become #1 if Nadal does not win. Then Djokovic will be the new World #1 at the end of the tournament no matter what else happens.
Check back on Friday or Saturday for my analysis of the draw once it comes out.