–by Gabe Gonzalez
It’s the merry month of May, when tennis lovers rejoice in the start of the French Open, the second Grand Slam of the year. The demanding red clay of Roland Garros will be quickly followed by the immaculately-manicured lawns of Wimbledon and, shortly afterward, the American hard-court season that culminates in The Big Apple with the US Open. Between now and early September, the wins that matter most, the ones that history will remember, will take place.
So where are we now in the tennis world after the Australian Open ended four long months ago? If you just take a look at the supposed “Big Four,” a lot has happened. Rafael Nadal has exhibited signs of being human on clay; expectant father Novak Djokovic has dealt with a wrist injury; Andy Murray, continuing to rebuild after back surgery last September, was dealt a personal blow when Ivan Lendl abdicated the role as his coach in March; and Roger Federer, not quite ready to go into the tennis sunset quietly, has nonetheless put in a double order for diapers as his wife, Mirka, gave birth to their second set of twins earlier this month. Stan Wawrinka, the conquerer of the Australian Open, has had his ups and downs, but he just won his first Masters 1000 series in Monte Carlo and is currently undefeated against Top 10 players this year (6-0). As for the ladies, defending champion Serena Williams has had surprising losses, but she is still far and away the best player on her tour. Li Na, victorious in Melbourne, has solidified her hold on the No. 2 ranking, while Simona Halep, playing in qualifying rounds at this time last year, is now No. 4 in the world with a bullet. Aga Radwańska has continued her steady, second-level play, while former No. 1s Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Maria Sharapova have shown they have a lot of gas left in the tank.
Tennis may be one of the biggest sports for on-line betting, but betting on this year’s French Open is a fool’s game. We’re not talking Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon in the 1980s. Everyone is vulnerable, and that is good. As much as the great champions and their dominance can help continue to build rooting interests in the sport, it is the fresh faces and, conversely, the well-worn, taped-together-after-years-of-injuries veterans who can inspire us and give us hope about the possibilities of life. Think Boris Becker winning Wimbledon in 1985 as a wide-eyed 17-year-old or veteran grinder Francesca Schiavone surprising everyone and winning the French in 2010, just 18 days shy of her 30th birthday.
The “terre battue,” along with the always passionate (and almost always fickle) French fans, tend to bring out the best – and sometimes, the worst – out of the game’s greats, and the singles draws in 2014 should be no different. Here’s a more in-depth look at both the men’s and women’s fields.
“The King of Clay” no more? (Men’s Preview):
Nadal has been dominant at the French, with only one career loss and eight titles to his name. But, Nadal’s 2014 clay court season has been less than promising. Quarterfinal losses to David Ferrer in Monte Carlo and Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona arched the eyebrows. He did win in Madrid, but only after a red-hot Kei Nishikori retired in the final with a back injury, and after Nishikori was up a set and a break at 4-3 in the second. Still, Nadal showed his mettle in Rome, winning tough three-setters against Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny and Murray before losing in a very tight three-setter to Djokovic. Nadal’s serve was inconsistent, and his ground strokes were lacking depth, and, yet, he still almost won the tournament. Change the setting to Paris, where the matches are best-of-five, and Nadal may have just enough fight in him to win another title. But he will need a little help from the fates who determine the draw on Friday morning.
Djokovic would dearly love to complete his career Grand Slam with a victory at Roland Garros. He came very, very close to toppling Nadal in the semifinals last year before a shocking contact with the net while hitting an overhead smash winner at 4-3 (with a break) in the fifth sent him into a tailspin. Like Nadal, he was pushed to three sets in four of his five matches in Rome, but, these days, Djokovic never really seems in danger. For those who followed his early career, it seems unimaginable that he has become the most focused player on tour. Watch his eyes as he prepares to return an opponent’s serve: He opens them wide, as if waking up, and then he smiles slightly. Mentally, he is in a very good place. Physically, the wrist injury that contributed to his loss to Federer in Monte Carlo and his pulling out of Madrid does not seem to be a serious impediment. Djokovic knows it will take almost everything he has to give to win the French, but he is willing to give it, and, lucky for him, he has it to give.
It would be a surprise for anyone other than Nadal or Djokovic to win this two-week test of physical and mental endurance, but Wawrinka did capture the title in Monte Carlo (beating Federer in the final) and Murray looked very impressive in his loss to Nadal in Rome. Nishikori is a question mark after his injury retirement in Madrid, but, if he is healthy, he will make a deep run. Canadian Milos Raonic, with his Clark Kent hairstyle and Superman serve, nearly sent Djokovic to the cleaners in Rome, so he may do some real damage if the clay plays fast. It’s hard to see either David Ferrer or Tomas Berdych breaking out of their “nearly great” sphere, but Grigor Dimitrov will have his day soon. (Will it be this year?) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fabio Fognini, and Ernests Gulbis could be serious threats, if, as the song goes, they only had a brain. Lurking below the more familiar names, expect to see Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut and the young Austrian Dominic Thiem make trouble for higher-ranked players.
An American in Paris? (Women’s Preview):
While the men’s side should be a Nadal/Djokovic affair, the women’s side is, in one sense, a one-woman show and, in another sense, a wide open tournament. If Serena Williams is “on” for seven matches, she will win the title – no ifs, ands, or buts. But if she has a lapse, as she did in the Round of 16 match to Ivanovic in Melbourne or in very uncharacteristic losses to Alizé Cornet (Dubai) and Jana Cepelova (Charleston), or if the thigh injury that caused her exit from Madrid returns, then a great number of women will start to realistically think about tasting victory. Also remember that Serena suffered probably her most embarrassing loss of her career in Paris, losing to then-No. 111 Virginie Razzano in the first round of the French Open in 2012. Last year’s title was only Serena’s second French Open triumph (she’s won each of the other three majors five times), and it came eleven years after her first tournament win at Roland Garros.
Unfortunately, the tough and fearless Victoria Azarenka will not be in Paris, still out with a foot injury that has kept her sidelined for the past two months. Li Na took advantage of Williams’ loss in Melbourne to capture the Australian Open title, and, as a former French Open champion (2011), she has the talent to win again in Paris. Sharapova, the 2012 winner at Roland Garros, has had the most impressive clay court winning percentage the past few years (47-4 on clay since the start of 2012), and the only thing that has separated her from true greatness since 2012 is a 0-9 record against Williams. If Williams loses early, Sharapova, above all others, will have the mental strength to convert the opportunity to her advantage.
Halep, the Romanian who won six titles in 2013, has had a steady rise to the upper echelon of the game, but her best showing at a Grand Slam is the quarterfinals of this year’s Australian Open. She is a good bet to get as far as her No. 4 ranking implies, but whether she has progressed to the level of a Grand Slam champion yet will be answered on the red clay. Radwańska has had more than enough time to stake her claim. She had a golden opportunity at last year’s Wimbledon, losing to Sabine Lisicki 9-7 in the third set of their semifinal match after being up 3-0. She can retrieve any ball, but, ultimately, can an all-defense player win in today’s game? Ivanovic, the Serbian who won the 2008 French Open, seems to be peaking at the right moment. She has the game to win, and, mentally, she seems to be enjoying herself on the court again. With the right draw, she could hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Her countrywoman Jankovic, mercurial and talented, has improved on her consistency, but she does not have the focus to win seven matches.
Eleven years after turning pro, Spaniard Carla Suárez Navarro finally won her first WTA title last month in Portugal. Is it too big of an ask for her to go straight from that to a Grand Slam title? Sí. But no top player wants to play her in the fourth round. Like Ivanovic, Svetlana Kuznetsova is a past champion (2009) showing good form these days, but, like Jankovic, Kuznetsova’s focus wanders. She is likely to cause an upset or two, though. Another veteran, Flavia Pennetta of Italy, triumphed over a history of injuries to capture her biggest title (Indian Wells) this year, but she has had lackluster results on the clay. Fellow Italian Sara Errani gets lost in the discussion of the world’s best as she’s viewed a clay-court specialist, but with this being the French Open – as well as finishing runner-up to Sharapova in Paris in 2012 – she should not be overlooked. In the upstart category, pay attention to 17-year-old Belinda Bencic, the fast-rising Swiss occasionally coached by Martina Hingis’ mother. She is a star of the future.
Here’s a statistic that lends itself to proving how wide open this singles draw could be for the ladies: In the past seven years, there have been seven different champions at the French Open.
Whether it is a staggering ninth title for Nadal, a maiden title for Djokovic, an 18th Grand Slam singles title for Serena (which would tie her with Navratilova and Chris Evert), or the crowning day for a new tennis royal, this year’s French Open will keep tennis fans at the edge of our seats, as it always does. Oh, to be in Paris in the springtime.
[About the author: Gabe Gonzalez is a DC-area lawyer, whose love of tennis began as a teenager while growing up in Miami. He misses the ’80s because, not only was the music better, but he could play tennis after school every day. He considers Martina Navratilova the greatest tennis player of all time.]