Here's your guide to this year's French Open tennis tournament:
1) The Favorite
The big question coming into the French Open this year, like most other years, is can anyone beat Nadal? I don't believe so. Rafa has played in the tournament eight times and lost just once, in 2009 to Robin Soderling in one of the most shocking upsets in French Open history. With a record seven French Open titles under his belt at just 26, the King of Clay comes into Paris having won his last three tournaments in Barcelona, Madrid, and Rome.
Despite being the overwhelming favorite, the defending champion, and most likely the greatest clay courter the world has ever seen, Nadal comes in as the 3-seed due to an injury (tendinitis) that caused him to miss over six months, including last year’s Summer Olympics and U.S. Open. He was also forced to withdraw from this year’s Australian Open due to a stomach virus. His win in Rome allowed him to jump past his countryman and close friend David Ferrer in the rankings from 5 to 4 and the withdrawal of Andy Murray allowed him to take Murray’s place as the 3 seed. The seeding is a storyline in Paris this year because it puts Nadal and Djokovic in the same half of the draw, setting up a potential semifinal matchup between the King of Clay and the current world number one.
Nadal comes into Roland Garros on fire, having won his last three tournaments and having reached the final in his last eight tournaments. Since returning from his injury in February, Nadal has won six of eight tournaments and has now won his last 16 matches on clay. All of this combines to make him the overwhelming favorite at this year’s French Open. I see no reason that Nadal will not secure his eighth title at Roland Garros this year.
2) The Contenders
The current world number one and holder of the top seed in Paris comes into the French Open in a bit of a funk. After starting the season off with a 22-match win streak which included an Australian Open title, Djokovic has struggled through the clay court season with back to back early exits in Madrid and Rome. He has been held back by a lingering ankle injury which, though Djokovic denies it, may factor into his chances in Paris. Still, he is perhaps the only player in the men’s draw with the athleticism and the game to challenge Nadal.
In last year’s final, Djokovic managed to push Nadal to four sets in a match wrought with rain and delays. After falling down two sets to love, the rain began to fall, slowing the ball down on the red clay and allowing Djokovic to dictate the pace of play. No longer being pushed around by the normally heavy bounce of Nadal’s dominant forehand, Djokovic won the third set and got ahead in the fourth. At this point, the rain became too heavy and the match was postponed. When play resumed, the next day, conditions returned to normal and Nadal easily disposed of Djokovic and came away with his record setting seventh title at Rolland Garros. Perhaps it would take similar wet and heavy conditions for Djokovic to challenge Nadal, should the two meet in the semifinals.
I debated leaving Federer out of this category, the reason being that he has no chance at beating Nadal, should the two meet in the final. Federer has not beaten Nadal in a major since the 2007 Wimbledon final and the mismatch on clay has been painfully obvious to Federer and his supporters for years. Last week’s Rome final was but one more example. Nadal’s heavy forehand and his physical play, time and again break down the Federer backhand and leave Roger searching for answers. Luckily for Federer, the tennis gods blessed him (and why shouldn’t they?) by putting him on the bottom half of the draw where he would not have to face Nadal or Djokovic until the final.
Federer has won the French Open once, back in 2009, the year Nadal was upset by Robin Soderling. Federer defeated Soderling in the final, securing him the one major title that had eluded him previously because of Nadal’s dominance. If Federer is to win a second title in Paris, he needs to hope for similar circumstances and Nadal is upset by Djokovic or someone else, otherwise he will be in for another beat down at the hands of Rafa Nadal, should he make it through to the final.
3) The Best of the Rest
The ATP tour is so top-heavy that, aside from the top three seeds, there is no one in the men’s draw with a major title to their name. Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer hold a total of 34 major titles between the three of them. To be fair, both Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro have won the U.S. Open but both were forced to withdraw earlier this week due to injuries.
Look for the number 4 seed to make his way into the quarters as he often does and quite possibly the semis where he would likely face Federer. He is one of the hardest working and most likable players on the tour but due to his stature and his style, he simply does not have the firepower to break through against the world’s top players. However, his draw is favorable and clay is his strongest surface so this may be as good a chance as he will get to break into his first major final.
One of the most exciting and charismatic players on the tour, Tsonga will have the crowd behind him as he tries to become the first Frenchman to win at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah did it back in 1983. Tsonga burst onto the scene in the 2008 Australian Open, reaching the final as an unseeded underdog. Since then, he has cemented himself as a top ten player but he has yet to reach a major final since.
Tsonga is the only player on the tour to have defeated each of the Big Four (Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray) in a major. He has proven that he has the game to contend with the big guns but he has not yet shown that he can play with the consistency to break through in any of the four Majors. In last year’s French Open, he had four match points in his quarterfinal match against Djokovic but ended up falling to the world number 1 in five sets. His draw is favorable and if all goes as expected, he will likely face Federer in the quarterfinals, a match that is certainly winnable against the aging Federer. If I had to pick a player outside the top 3 to come away with this tournament it would have to be Tsonga.
Coming off a strong performance in Rome in which he upset Novak Djokovic but fell to the eventual champion Nadal in the semifinals, Berdych has his work cut out for him in Paris. He opens against the inconsistent but always exciting Frenchman Gael Monfils. From there, his draw sets him up to likely play a trio of Spanish clay court specialists in Tommy Robredo, Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer. If he can make it through those matches to the semis, he will most likely face Federer or Tsonga. It is a tough draw, all for the right to play Nadal or Djokovic in the final. Clay is not Berdych’s best surface so there is little reason to expect that he might pull off the improbable and come away with a French Open title.