Well, the end of the month of May means 2 weeks of watching the top men in the world battle out best-of-five set matches on the red clay in Paris. Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer in the final last year, matching Bjorn Borg’s record of six Roland Garros titles. This year he will go for the seventh. Of course, Federer and Novak Djokovic will be his main challenges, but there are several other challengers who may pose a threat as well.
The Rome final was postponed until at least Monday due to rain. Because the surface is very similar to Roland Garros (assuming it’s played on their normal court), the match between Nadal and Djokovic will give us a great insight into who looks the best right before Roland Garros. If Djokovic wins the final, Nadal will be the #3 seed at Roland Garros, meaning there would be a 50% chance that Djokovic and Nadal end up in the same half of the French Open draw.
1. Rafael Nadal- Last year we went out on a limb and called Djokovic the favorite by a slim margin. That was, of course, because he had just won almost 40 consecutive matches and had just absolutely dominated Nadal in consecutive finals. This year, Nadal shredded Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final. And even though both bowed out early in Madrid (and neither looked good doing it), but both played very well in Rome, which has a much more similar surface to the clay at Roland Garros than Madrid does anyway.
2. Novak Djokovic- Yes, I’m putting Djokovic in the #2 slot here. And no, it’s not because he would necessarily beat Federer if the two met head-to-head. Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal have this weird triangle-type set of matchups currently, where Nadal is the favorite against Federer, Federer is about even against Djokovic on clay, and Djokovic and Nadal are basically even (on clay; Djokovic is the clear favorite on hard courts). Yes, Djokovic beat Federer in Rome. But beating Federer in a Slam is a much tougher task than doing it at a Masters. Still, I think Djokovic has less of a chance of being upset by lower players than Federer has.
3. Roger Federer- Federer might be the third favorite here, but he has closed the gap on the other 2 a ton in the past few months. Of the top 3, Federer has looked the best since the Australian Open in January. He has been the most consistent and has just looked the best most of the time. Federer has said that he wants to get World #1 back, and even if he won’t get it he will come pretty close and has put himself in a great position for it.
Next In Line:
This is an area that I basically added only for Andy Murray a few Slams ago. It’s not fair to call him a dark horse, but he really isn’t a favorite either. At least, not even close to the extent of a favorite as the top 3. And for each Slam I found a few other players that would also be at the head of the pack if the top 3 slipped up. Well, this Slam no one is going in that category. The top 3 are so far above everyone else, and there is no real separation among the next group of players to call any of them better than the others. David Ferrer is the most consistent of the bunch, but he doesn’t have the over-the-top game necessary to win a Slam against other players at his level.
So why doesn’t even Andy Murray get in this slot? Murray did not play well at all in any of his lead-up tournaments to Roland Garros. He is slightly injured and just didn’t look good in any of his matches this clay season. Now, none of his losses were terrible and it would have been very hard for either Raonic, Gasquet, or Berdych to have beaten him in a best-of-five match. And yes, Murray has reached 5 consecutive Slam semifinals and always seems to play his best at the Slams. He won’t lose too early unless he’s actually hurt just because it’s so hard for any lower player to take 3 sets off of him. Even so, it’s hard to say that he is a level above players like Ferrer or Berdych at this point.
1. John Isner- He was the very popular dark horse pick a month ago. After all, he took Nadal to five sets here last year (something not even Federer managed to do), and had beaten Federer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gilles Simon in best-of-five Davis Cup matches. However, poor showings at both Madrid and Rome have to call his candidacy as a dark horse into question. He is not the most consistent of players, but his massive serve and good, attacking tennis on the clay will make him very tough to beat over the course of 5 sets.
2. Juan Monaco- Hear me out on this one. First of all, Monaco really doesn’t have it in him to win a Slam. He does, however, have one of the best clay court games on the tour. He has, while staying far under the radar, had a terrific run these past few months, even with a nasty ankle injury at Monte Carlo slowing him down. He came right back from that injury and almost beat Djokovic in Rome. He has the game on clay to beat just about anyone. What he hasn’t really shown is the mental fortitude to do it. Still, if the draw opens up or he just plays consistently well and can get to the second week, any top player who meets him will probably not be too happy about it.
3. Juan Martin Del Potro- He gets here by popular opinion, not mine. I’ll concede this. In 2009, his best year, Delpo could have beaten just about anyone on any surface (except maybe grass). If he finds that level again, he will be a force to be reckoned with. Until then, he is just a top 10 player who won’t lose most bad matches but probably won’t challenge any of the other top players either.
1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga- He actually looked decent in Rome, but he has looked pretty bad in general on clay for a while now. He just doesn’t move so well on this surface. He has never been past the fourth round here, and I wouldn’t be so confident about him getting farther this year. He might be the #5 seed, but he is clearly a lightweight among the top players on clay. He is definitely the player that all of the top 4 hope to get drawn into their quarters.
2. Mardy Fish- He might be the #11 seed here, but that doesn’t mean anything. If he even plays (he is still currently dealing with some sort of fatigue issue), he is never good on clay and will be very rusty. I’d be surprised if he makes it out of the first round, to be quite honest. He certainly won’t have a deep run.
As always, we have a list of “floating seeds”. This is my term for the unseeded, but dangerous, players in the draw. They are also usually players who would be seeded if not for an injury or a slump. In other words, top 32 players who aren’t in the top 32. And because they are unseeded, they can meet anyone in any round. Last year, we pegged John Isner as a floating seed. He, of course, drew Rafa in the first round and took him to 5 sets.
1. Jurgen Melzer- He may actually be seeded since he will be #33 when the rankings update this week. So if one top 32 player withdraws from the tournament, he will get the seed (Mardy Fish seems like a fairly likely candidate to not play). However, if all of the top 32 play then Melzer will be very dangerous for whoever draws him in the first round. He has not been on top form recently but reached the semifinals here in 2010. If he can reproduce that he can beat almost anyone on tour here.
2. Juan Carlos Ferrero- “The King” Juan Carlos is a Roland Garros champion and former World #1. He was in the top 20 as recently as two years ago, but injuries have kept him out. He still plays a very good clay court game and even took a set off of Federer at Rome this past week. He can play with anyone on clay and can really beat any top player if they are not on top of their game. He will be a very dangerous draw for someone.
3. Thomaz Bellucci- Bellucci is a bit of an enigma of a player. He has top 10 talent on clay, really, but just never play like it. There are times where we see inspired bursts from him, but most of the time it’s just mediocrity. However, when he is on top of his game he can beat anyone, especially on clay. Last year he routined Andy Murray in Madrid and took a set off of Djokovic, something no one else was capable of at the time. We haven’t seen such high-level play from him since, really, but if he draws a seed and brings his absolute best game, it can make for one exciting match.
I won’t put him on the list, but, as always, watch out for Lleyton Hewitt. He is not the best on clay but is a supreme fighter and will never be walked over in any match.
Others to Keep an Eye on:
Anyone else in the top 10 is always dangerous and should never be overlooked completely. Also, watch out for Gael Monfils. He is coming off an injury but has played some of his better tennis in the early rounds at Roland Garros in the past. He has a few deep runs here, but the Frenchman has never quite been able to handle the pressure of his home tournament. Milos Raonic also looks in dangerously good form, and his serve will keep him in just about any match. He can definitely pull off an upset if the cards line up right for him. And, as always, keep an eye on Fabio Fognini. The entertainment is just too much to pass up.
As we pointed out a few weeks ago, the rankings at the end of Roland Garros will be used to determine who gets into the Olympic games in a few months. The cut-off is the top 56, but players who did not play enough Davis Cup will not be allowed to compete. Also, only the top 4 from each country are allowed to compete in the Olympics. So if your player is around #65-70 in the rankings right now, you need to be rooting for them to win at least 2 matches at Roland Garros to be safe.
Now, there are 4 Challenger events during the second week of Roland Garros, including a 125-pointer in Prostejov. So many of these players on the cusp of making it into the Olympics will be competing in these events if they lose during the first week of Roland Garros. As the French Open progresses, we will also post periodic updates about who is in good position to qualify for the Olympics.
Lleyton Hewitt is still one of the top players in the world on grass when he is healthy. He can beat just about anyone on that surface. The Olympics will be perfect for him, as they are on grass and will give him a chance to represent his country-he never managed to win the Australian Open. Also, the best-of-three sets at the Olympics will help him preserve his body during the tournament. Unfortunately, he will need to reach the semifinals here to qualify. Hopefully the ITF will give him a Wild Card for the tournament, as it would be an absolute shame to see the Olympics at Wimbledon without him.
The qualifying draw comes out tomorrow and qualifying starts on Tuesday. Make sure to check back here Friday for our draw analysis after the main draw is released. And for up-to-the-second coverage on the entire tournament, as well as how the Olympics picture looks, follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/yesh222TSHQ.