The start of spring means that we turn our eyes across the pond (or to your own backyards, for those European readers out there) to Europe where the top tennis players in the world will compete on the red clay for the next 2 months. There are 3 Masters events, 1 500-level tournament, and several smaller tournaments, all of which lead up to Roland Garros (the French Open) starting in the last week of May. We will preview here some of the players and storylines to watch on the red dirt over the next two months.
Federer’s Chase for #1:
Federer says that he wants to retake the World #1 ranking and there’s no reason not to believe him. Whether or not he is capable of it, however, is another matter entirely. It certainly looks like more of a possibility than it did a month ago. Still, he has a long way to go and will have to compete on his two main opponents’ best surface to do it.
Federer is currently 4000 points behind Novak Djokovic. Djokovic has over 2000 points to defend before the start of Roland Garros, but he is also currently playing Monte Carlo. Since he didn’t play Monte Carlo last year, he has an opportunity to add p to a free extra 1000 points to his ranking. Federer chose not to play Monte Carlo this year, which is a bit puzzling if he wants World #1. Federer probably wants to make sure he remains healthy in the grueling months from now until Wimbledon, but this will really hurt his chances of taking over the top spot.
Nadal has very little room to gain points now (he can gain a total of 800 if he doesn’t lose a single match from now until the end of Roland Garros), even though clay is his best surface. It is not unreasonable to think that Federer might actually pass him in the next few months and be the #2 seed at Roland Garros. In fact, in the unlikely event that Nadal loses before the Monte Carlo quarterfinals (Nadal has won the tournament 7 straight years though), Federer will take over the #2 spot in next week’s rankings.
Can Anyone Beat Nadal or Djokovic?:
Nadal and Djokovic combined for exactly one loss on clay last year not to each other. That was when Federer beat Djokovic in the French Open semifinals. Djokovic looks very strong again in 2012, but does not quite appear to be on the unbeatable level that he showed in 2011. Nadal is also far from his peak level of 2008, but still always finds ways to win matches and is very, very tough to beat, especially on clay.
Still, it looks like there is room this year for someone to step up and knock off one of these two at least once on clay. I wouldn’t bet against either of this pair, but I don’t think that they will both reach the finals of every clay tournament that they play in. Certainly a player like Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Juan Martin Del Potro, or even John Isner can beat one of these two if they can play their best tennis. And, of course, Federer showed us last year that he could take out Djokovic.
Players to Watch:
John Isner- Isner has shown himself to be very good on clay this year, taking out Roger Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gilles Simon in best-of-five set Davis Cup matches already this year. His serve really kicks up off the high-bouncing clay and is very tough to deal with. Also, the higher bounce means that the ball sits up in his hitting zone and he has really played some good attacking tennis on the clay. He also has very good touch and uses the court well. His baseline shots are still far from the level of other top 10 players, but he is improving and is a real threat to anyone on clay. He took Nadal to 5 sets at Roland Garros last year and, after his Davis Cup exploits this year, I don’t think that it would shock anyone if he could do better than that in 2012.
Nicolas Almagro- Almagro has very quietly improved his game on all surfaces, even breaking into the top 10 for a bit. But he remains a clay court specialist and this is by far his best surface. He doesn’t have the game to challenge the top players, but he is very consistent, rarely loses matches to worse players (especially on clay), and can take down just about anyone if they have a bit of an off day. He is not a threat to the top players normally, but is also not someone you want to overlook.
Juan Monaco- Monaco has also quietly snuck up the rankings. He is at a career-high #14 and has won 2 titles in 2012 already, the most recent when he beat Isner in the Houston finals on Sunday. He has a good overall game but is best on clay. He probably also does not have the weapons to take out the top players ion the world, but he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on.
Fabio Fognini- Okay, he’s been injured recently and is in quite an inconsistent slump right now. But we don’t love Fognini because of his tennis anyway. We love him because he provides endless entertainment, no matter how well or poorly he’s playing.
Seeding at the French Open:
We will discuss this in more detail in the coming weeks, but there is always some jockeying for position where players want to be seeded at the Slams. Remember, the top 2 cannot meet before the final, the top 4 before the semis, the top 8 before the quarters, etc. So players who are around the cut-off lines (2, 4, 8, 16, and 32) are going to want to get up that extra level to try and guarantee themselves an easier draw at Roland Garros. There are currently 4 players within 120 points of the #8 spot (Tipsarevic, Isner, Fish, and Del Potro) with several others who can join that fight with good runs at a Masters. That will probably be the seed battle to watch for the most.
Can Djokovic Complete his Grand Slam?:
I think that title speaks for itself. The pressure he has at Roland Garros will definitely be something to keep an eye on though.