By Christopher Phillips
[Ed note: Chris Phillips, part of TSF West, files his thoughts on who’s hot, who’s not and who might just make a run at this year’s Roland Garros. -NEM]
With the men’s and women’s most significant clay court tournaments just completed and a handful of players getting their last bit of match time in this week, let’s take a look at some of the contenders for the 2011 French Open. I’ve listed my top 10 favorites below in my own rank order as well as some other players to watch who’ve had notable achievements this year or in the past.
Rafael Nadal | While the tennis talk of the town has definitely been focused on Djokovic the past five months, I still believe this title is Nadal’s to lose. Djokovic has beaten Nadal four times this year with his last two on clay, but beating Rafa three out of five sets is much tougher of a challenge than beating him two out of three. If anyone can do it though, Nole’s your man. Result: Champ (d. Djokovic in five-set final)
Novak Djokovic | I think at some point “streak pressure” has got to get to him. Once people start asking how long can you keep it going is usually about when it stops, especially when it becomes the only question (in 20 different forms) in the media room. I detected a bit of panic on his face when he was two points away from losing to Andy Murray in the Rome SFs. If you’re looking for more reasons he won’t beat Rafa, Nole lost to Jurgen Melzer last year in the QFs after holding a two-set lead. Additionally — and one of the reasons why I think Murray was as successful against Novak as he was in Rome — is that nobody on the tour expects to beat this guy right now, giving them an increased ability to feel like they can swing away at their shots. That being said, anything less than a trip to the final for Djoko would have to qualify as the biggest upset (for whoever snacks on him) of the year so far. Result: Runner-up
Roger Federer | As the oldest of the top three, the great one is past his prime … but this doesn’t mean another major (or two or three) are beyond him. But I just don’t see it happening here, nor do I see him as the victim of an upset. He’s played eight tournaments this year winning one (Doha) and losing five to either Nadal or Djokovic. What should be most troubling for Roger however is his straight-set loss to Melzer in the Monte Carlo QFs and losing two tiebreaks to Richard “Baby Federer” Gasquet in the third round at Rome. Result: Quarterfinals
Andy Murray | Murray’s year has been up and down, but the most encouraging thing for him going into the next two weeks should be the fact — not that he’s 13-7 on the year — but that he’s 7-3 on clay with two of those three-set losses to Nadal and Djokovic, respectively. Hopefully these semifinal runs in Monte Carlo and Rome will give him the encouragement he needs to turn his game around for the year. More: Will Andy be OK despite his ‘injury?’ Result: Semifinals
David Ferrer | Ferrer is 15-3 (Update: DF upset by Alexandr Dolgopolov in Nice) on clay this year with his losses coming solely to … Nadal and Djokovic. He’s had wins on the dirt over Melzer (twice), Nicolas Almagro (twice), Serb Victor Troicki, Jaun Monaco and Feliciano Lopez. It’s going to take one of the big four to take him down. Result: Semifinals
Robin Soderling | Soderling’s made the past two finals at Roland Garros, but given his play this year, it’s difficult to see him going for a three-peat. He’s won three hard court titles (Brisbane, Rotterdam and Marseille) but has gone 5-4 on clay with his deepest run to quarterfinals in Rome, Madrid and Estoril. Three of those losses were to Djokovic (losing most recently 3 & 0), Federer and Del Potro … but the other was to Ivan Dodig. He also struggled against Almagro, Fernando Verdasco and Jeremy Chardy. If any of the top eight are ripe for an early upset, it’s the Swede. Result: Quarterfinals
Scalp man: Soderling has had big wins the last two years. Don’t expect him to make it three in a row.
Tomas Berdych | Berdych made it to the SFs here last year, but hasn’t won a title in over two years. His record on the dirt this year is 5-3 with his most significant wins over Monaco (twice), falling at or before the QFs in all three events. His record going into Roland Garros last year wasn’t entirely dissimilar, but it’s hard to see him reaching the SFs again. Result: Quarterfinals
Nicolas Almagro | Many have considered Almagro to be the Spanish clay court successor to Nadal, but he’s yet to live up to any of that hype. He’s 20-4 on clay this year with two South American titles (Buenos Aires and Costa Do Sauipe) with wins over Sam Querrey, Juan-Ignacio Chela (twice), Tommy Robredo, Nikolay Davydenko, Ferrero and Jose Acasuso. His clay success has helped him crack the top ten for the first time in his career. In seven trips to Paris, he’s lost to top 10 players on five of those occasions and twice been a quarterfinalist. The real question seems to be: Can Almagro finally break through to his predicted potential? Result: Quarterfinals
Richard Gasquet | While he’s 4-7 lifetime at Roland Garros (yep! You read that right.), four of those losses have been to top ten players (Murray last year after leading two-sets-to-none, Nadal and David Nalbandian (twice) and a fifth to eventual champ Albert Costa in 2002 (Right, we forgot about Albie, too). So far this year on the dirt, Richard is 8-4 with three losses to top 10 players (Nadal twice and countryman Gael Monfils). His play in Rome (with victories over Federer and Berdych) was inspiring and should serve him well in Paris. But will the home crowd be too much once again? Result: Third round
Stanislas Wawrinka | He’s 10-6 at Roland Garros, but — similar to Gasquet — three of those losses were to top ten players (Federer, Ivan Ljubicic and Nalbandian) and the other three losses were to future top ten players (Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez) and eventual 2002 finalist (the now-forgotten Mariano Puerta). Even though his 7-5 clay court record this year leaves plenty to be desired, needless to say it takes a considerable player to take out the second-highest Swiss player in Paris. Result: Third round
For a list of other players to watch, click to keep reading.
Can Gael conjure up some magic in Paris again this year? We sure hope so.
Other Notable Players to Watch:
Jurgen Melzer | Last year’s semifinalist has disappointed this year on clay, but he did take out Federer and Almagro in Monte Carlo. Result: Fourth round
Fernando Verdasco | The former top ten-er knows how to play on clay and has reached the round of 16 in Paris the past four years. His Estoril final earlier this year shows that he may make it five in a row. Any further? We kinda doubt it. Result: Fourth round
Mardy Fish | At a career high in the rankings and the American no. 1, Fish made the round of 16 in Rome. Result: Third round
Gael Monfils | He’s only played five tournaments all year (4-3 on clay), but the 2008 semifinalist and 2009 quarterfinalist loves an audience and who better than his home crowd? Result: Fourth round
Juan Martin del Potro | While the possibility lingers that JMdP might be out due to injury, the ’09 USO champ can’t be counted out with his title in Estoril with wins over Soderling and Verdasco and victories over Mikhail Youzhny and Marin Cilic in Madrid. Result: Third round
Milos Raonic | Never count out a player on a hot streak with nothing to lose! Result: Third round
Tommy Robredo | This year’s Santiago champion may be in the twilight of his career but he’s notched dirt victories this year over Verdasco and Nalbandian. Throughout his ten-year history in Paris, other than a first round loss last year to Troicki, he’s reached the third round or better every year and was beaten by a top-12 player on eight of those occasions.
Nikolay Davydenko | The Munich champion had poor showings in Rome and Madrid but he’s made it to the semis twice before in Paris (2005 and 2007). Result: Third round
Pablo Andujar | The top 50 Spaniard won his first career title in Morocco and will be playing his 11th clay court tournament of the year in Paris. Result: First round
Ryan Sweeting | The American will want to prove his first career title on the clay in Houston is the start of many more to come. Result: Second round
(Artsy RG shot by Passion Leica; Sod-Federer image by euronews; and Monfils image by Andrea Nay — all via Flickr)