By Soladoye Samuel
All roads lead to Paris on Sunday, the 25th day of May, 2014 as 128 male singles’ tennis players enter the first round of the Roland Garros. It is the second grand slam of the year and it promises to be fireworks at the Stade Roland Garros until the 8th day of June, 2014 where only one man will stand alone in the arena, not of sand and blood in the old Roman gladiatorium, but of red dust; the Philippe Chatrier court.
This piece previews the action by taking a look at the chances of the top guns during the tourney as well the possibility of an outsider carting away with the crown on the 8th day of June. That will be attempted presently but a brief consideration of the peculiarity of the tournament itself is necessary.
The French Open is the only clay-court grand slam of the year and the slow nature of the surface bears significations. It is the most physically demanding of all tournaments on tour as a match is potentially a five-setter with the fifth incapable of being decided by a tie-breaker.
. The slow nature of the surface and high bounce give little room for short points and as a result, clay court matches are characterised by long rallies and this is a phenomenon that cannot be ruled out at the Roland Garros. It is also noteworthy to point out that the slow nature of the surface necessitates that a player hunting for the crown at Roland Garros must be astute defensively and this fact explains the advantage the surface grinds out to baseliners.
The foregoing fact is responsible for the usual inability of the guys with the big serve or the serve-and -volleyers to impose their games on the clay court against the very best on it. It explains the inability of the likes of Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick, Boris Becker as well as Stefan Edberg to win a title at the Stade Roland Garros. In fact, Pete’s best result in Paris came in form of a semi-final showing in 1996. It is therefore not surprising that only Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer have won both the French Open and Wimbledon in the Open era.
The nature of the surface also has ensured that the weakness of Rafael Nadal serve, particularly his second serve, over the years has had no grave consequence for the greatest on clay. The defending champion is Rafael Nadal and maybe it is needless to tell you that; but I just did.
THE MAJOR CONTENDERS:
- RAFAEL NADAL.
The world no. 1 and defending champion enters the draw in Paris in the hunt for his 5th straight Roland Garros title which would take his overall French open titles to 9.
There is definitely a love-affair between the duo of Nadal and the La Coupes des Mousquetaries and the affair seem unbreakable. The Spaniard has only lost once in Paris where he has made his home over the last decade; his safest refuge. He has won 8 out of 9 possible titles since making his debut at Roland Garros in 2004 at the age of 18. The only loss in Paris came against a certain Robin Soderling who was runner-up to eventual winner, Roger Federer.
That bite on the trophy is what we have got used to and we lie in wait to see whether or not there is a Robin-esque feat in the offing; Robin is simply the name but, unfortunately, it is not in the realm of English folklore. In Paris, Rafael Nadal has compiled an incredibly dominant 59-1 record; Unbeatable?
There are however concerns, not as to his credentials on red clay, but as to the aura of invincibility that has characterised his game over the past decade as to whether or not it has been lost as this clay-court season for Rafael Nadal has been a catastrophe.
Don’t be carried away by that. By anybody’s standard, a clay court title in Madrid and a match record of 11-3 on the red dust is a perfect way to enter into the draw at the Roland Garros but there is only one Rafael Nadal. On the red clay, he is the greatest the sport has ever seen. This season marks the first time in the past decade that Rafael Nadal has lost more than two matches on clay in the same year.
His loss to Novak Djokovic in the finals of the Rome Masters means that out of his four usual clay court tourneys: Monte Carlo, Barcelona Open, Madrid Masters and the Rome Masters, he only managed to win one; Madrid Masters. In Madrid, there was no Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer withdrew due to the birth of Lenny and Leo. The major cause for concern will however be the fact that he has struggled against players he hitherto dominated not only on clay but on other surfaces as well. He lost to Nicolas Almagro in the quarters at Barcelona failing to find his rhythm against his countryman after an impressive first set. Prior to that loss, Nadal held a 10-0 ATP head-to-head record over Almagro. In the Principalities, he lost to David Ferrer in the quarters and that marked his first loss on clay since 2004 against the same man he easily dispatched in straight sets in the final to capture his most recent French Open title. In Rome, he also struggled in wins over Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny and Andy Murray. But these haven’t changed the fact that Rafael Nadal remains the favourite in Paris. He has posted a 34-6 match record this season with three tour-level titles.
He is in the top half of the draw with the likes of Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov, David Ferrer as well as Stanislas Wawrinka. A lot is at stake for the man who has just acquired Madrid citizenship. The 28-year old is in the hunt for his 14th Grand Slam title which would take him closer to Roger Federer’s haul of 17 major titles.
He also faces the battle to retain his position at the top of the ATP rankings with Novak Djokovic on his heels. Anything short of a semi-final appearance for the Spaniard would see Novak Djokovic reclaim the World no. 1 spot regardless of the Serbian’s performance. If Nadal were to lose in the final to another opponent, he would need to hope that the Nole loses at or before the quarterfinal stage. A final between the two will however mean that the winner of the tie takes “ALL”. But Rafa has shown over the years that, if fully fit, he has the shoulders to lighten the burden of expectations. Rafa has 8 titles in Paris and he has won it for the past four years but his last attempt to make it five consecutive titles ended early in 2009. The possibility of a fifth straight title has appeared again and the tennis world is waiting!!!
- NOVAK DJOKOVIC
The world No. 2 would fancy the chance of clinching the elusive French Open title to complete his set of slams having won all other grand slam titles. He looks to become the eighth man in tennis history to win the four grand slams. The Serbian returned to action at the Rome Masters last week having withdrawn from partaking at the Madrid Masters due to a wrist injury that hampered his tournament in Monaco.
The win against Rafael Nadal at the Rome Masters signals his recovery from the niggling injury as well as serving as a statement of intent. The Serbian’s best result at the French Open came in 2012 where he lost 4-6, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 to Rafael Nadal in the final. In the past three years, he has made it to at least the semis losing his 43 matches winning streak in his productive 2011 to Roger Federer in the semis and losing narrowly last year in five sets to the eventual champion in the semis in what was tagged by many as the “final before final”.
He would look to attempt to put an end to Rafael Nadal’s dominance in Paris. The Nole, more than any other man, knows that with a little inconsistency that has crept into Nadal’s play on clay this season, this is perhaps his biggest opportunity to land the French Open title and he has made no secret of the desire to do just that. Four wins in the last four matches against Rafael Nadal will give the man from from Belgrade the much needed confidence if the title comes down to a battle between the top two players in the world and as pointed out earlier, Djokovic could overtake Rafa as the world No.1 male singles tennis player. He enters the tournament having won three Masters’ titles this year at Indian Wells, Miami and recently in Rome at the expense of the king of clay
He boasts of a 24-3 match record so far this season. As expected, the world No. 2 is in the bottom half of the draw. He challenges Joao Sousa in the first round. He could meet Marin Cilic in the third round and Milos Raonic in the quarters. A potential semi final berth against Roger Federer is a mouth watering prospect. Other big names in the bottom half of the draw include Kei Nishikori, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga.
From a tactical viewpoint, the fact that Novak Djokovic who arguably possesses the best returning prowess on tour which is key to the success he has enjoyed over Rafael Nadal recently and he would have to come to courts with the goods if he is to end Nadal’s reign in Paris.
Whether or not Djokovic is ready to stage and capable of successfully leading a revolution in Paris is one other issue that will be on the mind of teeming tennis fans over the next two weeks.
- STANISLAS WAWRINKA
The Swiss No. 1 is one of the possible contenders for the French Open title this year. Last year, he lost 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 to Rafael Nadal in the quarters but it is a different Stan this year.
He is the only man on tour who can boast of having won a Grand Slam title 2014 having won his first grand slam title in January after staging a surprising victory over Novak Djokovic in the quarters before besting Rafael Nadal (in the final) 6-3,6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to win the Australian Open.
The French Open is played on what he considers his best playing surface; red clay. With his win at the Melbourne Park, Stan will agree with the writer that a major is won after seven matches and these seven matches are all not going to be against seven of the top ten players; the group of players he hasn’t lost to this year.
In 2014, the Swiss is 6-0 against players ranked in the top ten. He has beaten Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer already this year. The writer believes the record is very much down to the fact that Stan has got his tactics absolutely spot on against the top guns.
He would however have to tackle his record this year against players ranked outside the top ten. He fell to 20-year-old Austrian, Dominic Thiem in the second round at the Madrid Masters. He failed to make the quarters in Rome this year falling to Tommy Haas in three sets. He had exits just before the quarters at the Indian Wells (lost to Kevin Anderson) and Miami (lost to Alexandr Dolgopolov). A positive for the Stan is that he has a Masters’ clay court title this year already after seeing off countryman and friend, Roger Federer in three sets in the final at Monte Carlo.
He is also the only man to have beaten Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the same Grand Slam. He goes to Paris with a 21-5 match record this season with three tour titles. He has been drawn in the top half of the draw alongside the likes of Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and David Ferrer as well as Grigor Dimitrov among others. He opens his title bid against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the first round. He might meet Fabio Fognini in the fourth round with a quarter final clash with Andy Murray a possibility. Should the Swiss make it to the semi final, there could be a rematch of the 2014 of the Australian Open. Stan is the player who serves us with the wow just as much as the woe. What he would treat us to at the French Open remains unknown. If the 29-year-old harbours any hope of winning the title in Paris, he must rediscover the secret of going past players ranked outside the top ten without losing the magic that gets him past the top guns. He has broken the Grand slam bubble. Can he add another?
- ROGER FEDERER
There is a man with 4 kids on tour and not only is he ranked No. 4, he is the fourth seed in Paris. He has also been a runner up at the Stade Roland Garros to the King of clay on four occasions (2006-08, 2011); some coincidence?
He is however not in the running for anything close to four titles at the Stade Roland Garros. He is the only other active winner of the French Open from Rafael Nadal having won the crown in 2009; A poor clay-court player? Absolutely no! Roger Federer crashed out in Paris last year after a dismal performance against Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the quarters.
His year was pretty much messed up in 2013. It is however a different sight of the 17-time grand slam winner in 2014. The back injury that restricted his play last year seems non-existent and the larger frame of his racquet has proved to be an efficient addition to his arsenal. The extent to which the Swiss maestro will cope with high backhands with his one-handed backhand will go a long way into determining the success he achieves in Paris. It is very much unlikely that Federer will venture to the net frequently as he did on the hard-courts to great effect. In my opinion, Stefan Edberg, who could not lay hands on the crown in Paris during his career, is unlikely to be of great help to Federer’s quest for his second French Open title.
It has however not been the most ideal preparation for the 32-year-old who had to pull out of the Madrid Masters due to the birth of his second set of twins. He made an early exit at the Rome masters crashing out to Jeremy Chardy.
A positive is his appearance in the final of the Monte Carlo losing to his Swiss friend, Stanislas Wawrinka in three sets. The slow playing surface and the physically demanding terre batue mean that the chance of Federer adding to his haul of 17 slams is slimmer in Paris than at any other major. Federer who is ranked No. 4 will not meet Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic until the semis and would therefore fancy the opportunity of going past other players.
A potential semi final berth against Novak Djokovic in the semis will be fancied by the Swiss as opposed to a clash with his nemesis, Nadal, who he has only beaten just twice on clay in 15 meetings. On clay against Novak, Federer is tied 3-3 with Roger Federer winning their 2011 semi final clash at Roland Garros. He enters the draw with a 28-6 match record this season. He has a 58-14 match record at Roland Garros. Federer has been drawn in the bottom half of the tourney and thus; a potential semi final berth against Novak Djokovic in the semis. He plays Lukas Lacko in the first round and could meet Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round with a quarter-final clash against Tomas Berdych a possibility. One thing is certain, Fed isn’t the mug in the dirt and you would rule out the maestro at your own peril.
He has taught us that over and over again with his resurgence this season. The writer expects a decent outing for the Swiss though but does not see him lifting the trophy on the 8th of June. I wish Roger would prove me wrong though.
- DAVID FERRER
The Spaniard was the finalist last year losing in straight sets to countryman, Rafael Nadal after seeing off Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in the quarters. His inclusion in the list of players who could well pose a challenge to Nadal’s regime at Roland Garros is based on the suitability of his game to clay. The writer however believes that the 5th seed has been very much inconsistent since his final appearance in Paris last year and the draw has failed to be kind to him. He has fallen into the same half with Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and the bright Dimitrov.
He fell at the 4th round of the Aussie Open losing to Berdych in four sets. The 32-year-old has a match record of 27-10 this season with a title in Buenos Aires. He will however be boosted by semi final showings at Monte Carlo (after beating Nadal in the quarters) losing to the eventual winner, Stan Wawrinka and Madrid where he lost to Nishikori in three sets. Snapping a clay-court 17-match losing streak against Nadal at Monaco is a very well a morale booster for the world No. 5. Just like Stan has broken the bubble earlier this year, who says Ferrer is out of it. Me? It’s up to David!!!!!!
- ANDY MURRAY
Andy Murray might feel a little fortunate to have found himself on this list but for now, this is where the 27-year-old belongs. He is however unlikely to cart away with the title.
He is in the top half of the draw and has shown little promise having made a slow recovery from the back surgery he had last year. He enters the draw with a 21-9 match record this year and still in search of his first silverware this year. He starts off against Andrey Golubev as he hopes to improve on his best result in Paris being his semi-final appearance in 2011 where he fell to Rafael Nadal.
The possibility of the first silverware coming at a major on a surface where he has never won against a top eight player is almost improbable. The chances of the 6th seed couldn’t be any slimmer this year.
With due respect to the likes of Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Fabio Fognini as well as Alexandr Dolgopolov, the writer believes that, despite the surge in their level of play and much improved level of consistency against the top guns, Roland Garros has come a little too early for them to win their first major.
I however believe that the stage is set for them to make an impact on the big stage.
In conclusion, Stade Roland Garros remains Rafael Nadal’s home; his safest refuge. For me, he is still very much the safest bet. He has however been, by his standard, vulnerable this year on clay and Novak Djokovic poses the biggest threat to the dominance of the ‘’King’’ in Paris.
For the first time in years, the possibility of power changing hands in Paris looks more likely than ever. We wait to see if the “treasonable plot” to overthrow the “King” is successfully executed and whether or not the King is vulnerable enough for his defences to be breached.
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