The clay-court season has offered few surprises so far for the men on tour.
Rafael Nadal has re-established his iron foothold on the red clay, offering his opponents a healthy dose of lethal backspin and Majorcan aggression. There is something about breathing red dust that instills Nadal with an air of invincibility few can overcome.
For the ladies, Queen Victoria Azarenka has bowed to few, trying to cement her grasp on the No. 1 ranking.
Losing only to Marion Bartoli at Indian Wells, Azarenka demonstrated no nervous tics or signs of relenting her perch at the top of the women’s game. That is, until she was buried under a siege of Russian ground strokes thrown at her by world No. 2 Maria Sharapova at Stuttgart.
Sharapova pulled the proverbial rug out from under Azarenka in Germany during the finals on Sunday, winning 6-1, 6-4.
The women’s top four players—Azarenka, Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska appear to have established some sort of stability for the ladies, although certainly not on a par with the men’s top four—Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
In a few weeks, both the men and the women will roll into Roland Garros for the second Grand Slam of the season.
Those at the top will continue to be favored to win, but there may be some surprises on the terre battue in Paris.
It is time for someone other than Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer to win the French Open title.
Nadal will be seeking a record seventh title at Stade Roland Garros. The only interruption in his French Open title sweep came in 2009, when Federer won this elusive title, defeating Robin Soderling in the final.
Soderling had previously taken Nadal out in the fourth round of the 2009 French Open. It remains perhaps one of the greatest upsets of the previous decade.
That means it is time for Novak Djokovic to regain his momentum and lift the French Open trophy.
The impetus for Djokovic to win is enormous. With the French Open title in hand, Djokovic would join the scant handful of men who have captured a career Grand Slam. The French Open remains the only slam title Djokovic has not won.
It also gives Djokovic the opportunity to stay in the hunt for a calendar-year slam—something no male has managed since Rod Laver did it in 1969, over 40 years ago.
Nature abhors a vacuum, but it is time for a disturbance in the force that is Rafael Nadal in Paris. Clay footing aside, someone else will rule at Stade Roland Garros in 2012.
After being smacked down by a confident Maria Sharapova in Stuttgart, Victoria Azarenka discovered that her recent dominance over the world No. 2 has waned significantly.
Now sitting just a little over 700 points ahead of the Russian, Azarenka must improve her clay-court game in order to secure that second Grand Slam title at Stade Roland Garros in Paris at the end of this month—holding on to her No. 1 ranking in the process.
Up next for the lady from Belarus are premiere-level tournaments in Madrid and Rome. Last year, Azarenka lost to Petra Kvitova in the finals at Madrid and to Sharapova in the quarterfinals at Rome.
Granted, Azarenka suffered from injury prior to Roland Garros in 2011 which caused her to retire in Rome during her match with Sharapova. This year, however, the world No. 1 is healthy, ready to do battle on the red clay in May.
Azarenka will take the lesson learned at Stuttgart to bolster her game, especially her second serve. With new determination, she will find a way to win in Paris.
John Isner is U.S. tennis with his big, booming serve, rocket-powered forehand and his slightly suspect footwork.
When his serve is on, the man is a rock—almost impossible to break.
Although his general movement has improved substantially during the past few months, Isner will never be able to supplant the likes of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.
Like Andy Roddick before him, Isner will hover in or near the top 10. His tennis is exciting now, but in time, the tour will adjust to his serve.
While his movement is better than that of giant Croat Ivo Karlovic, the game’s previous big server, Isner’s game remains almost one-dimensional when compared to the men's top three.
Still, at the moment, Isner is America’s lone hope for capturing a slam title or even an Olympic medal, beyond the Bryan brothers in doubles.
Besides Karlovic, no player wants to see Isner standing across the net—not even on clay, where the American proved he cannot be taken lightly.
His victory over Federer in Switzerland on the red dirt during a Davis Cup tie has given Isner supreme confidence in his ability on any surface.
Isner backed up the victory over Federer by defeating Djokovic at Indian Wells earlier this spring. He has managed to defeat No. 1 and No. 3 so far this season.
Even though Isner will not win the title on the grounds of Stade Roland Garros, he will be instrumental in determining who survives to play on the final Sunday in Paris.
It is impossible to count the number of times inhabitants of the tennis world have speculated about the impediment presented by Rafael Nadal’s weakening knees.
Incredible stress brought on by heredity and Nadal’s pounding, aggressive style of play wreak havoc on the Majorcan’s knees, especially on artificial surfaces.
The problem became so bad that Nadal recently had to withdraw from his semifinal match against Andy Murray in Miami. That led to a long layoff prior to the tournament in Monte Carlo, which marked the beginning of the clay-court season for the renowned clay master.
This has happened to the world No. 2 numerous times throughout his career—nursing his knees back to health, wondering if they would survive another season.
Until Monte Carlo, Nadal had not won a tournament for 10 months—a very long time for the former world No. 1 to remain out of the limelight. But winning in Monte Carlo and defeating Novak Djokovic in the final brought back renewed confidence in his game and his ability to win on this surface.
Nadal will continue to be a force to be reckoned with on clay. But the continuing problems with his knees will soon eat into his schedule, curtailing participation in tournaments held on hard courts for almost 10 of the 12 months during the long tennis season.
Ironically, what Nadal fought so hard to establish—his ability to be a world-class tennis player on all surfaces—will be his undoing.
The dominance of hard-court events on the calendar has forever weakened Nadal’s knees and will ultimately shorten his professional career.
Nadal will not win in Paris this spring, even though he won tournaments in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. but he will enjoy another spectacular clay-court season.
Regardless of the Ivan Lendl influence, Andy Murray will not climb any higher on the ranking ladder—forever stuck at No. 4.
That is, unless one of the top three retires.
Currently 24 years of age, soon to be 25, Murray has been standing on the precipice of Grand Slam-hood for several years. Every new season brings inquiries—"Will this be the year that Andy Murray finally breaks through and wins that first major?"
Since 2008, the chances have come and gone, always with the same result. At the big moments, Murray sinks back behind the baseline and waits for the game to come to him instead of marching forward and seizing it.
When you play not to lose, then meeting those players in finals who stretch to win matches, Murray comes in second.
Ivan Lendl has stood in Murray’s shoes. He realizes from experience that it only takes that first slam title to open the floodgates, but there is not much Lendl can do—just as there was not much Mark Petche, Brad Gilbert or Miles Maclagan could do to boost Murray over that last hurdle.
The talent is there.
But Murray is primarily a defensive player, and when threatened, relies on counter-punching and defensive scrambling—all the while knowing his tennis life depends on offensive aggression.
Murray will be the Miloslav Mecir of this current crop of tennis greats, and like Mecir, Murray will go through his career slamless.
In case you have not noticed, Roger Federer has not competed on a clay court yet this ATP season.
The world No. 3 will not do so until the tournament in Madrid gets underway.
In eight tries, Federer has won the tournament in Madrid twice—in 2006, defeating Fernando Gonzalez and in 2009, defeating Rafael Nadal. Last year, the Swiss lost to Nadal in the semifinals.
As for Rome, in 11 tries, Federer has failed to capture a title at the Italian Open.
He did make two finals in Rome, losing an epic five-setter to Nadal in 2006, plus a straight-set loss to Felix Mantilla in 2003.
Certainly, Federer would like to win this title at least once in his career.
But winning on clay in 2012 will not be Federer’s priority, because this year's abbreviated schedule makes room for the 2012 Summer Olympics being played at Wimbledon.
Federer will be anxious to put away his clay-court shoes and bring out the dancing-on-grass footwear.
Do not be surprised if Federer exits early this year at Stade Roland Garros, even though winning a major is always a priority for the Swiss.
This year, however, the grass is even greener and more meaningful with the Summer Olympics being played in London.
Clay will be a pesky interruption for Federer, whose dreams of winning Wimbledon again plus an Olympic gold medal take priority.
You certainly have to give Maria Sharapova credit for clawing her way back to the top of the women’s game. Shoulder surgery in 2008 seemed to forecast that the Russian would never dominate on the major courts of women’s tennis again.
Last year, however, Sharapova advanced to one slam final at Wimbledon, but failed to win there even after being favored.
The title went to Petra Kvitova, who seemed to come from nowhere to seize the 2011 Wimbledon crown.
This past week, by winning in Stuttgart, defeating both world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka and world No. 3 Petra Kvitova, Sharapova has made it all the way back.
It is time for Kvitova to re-establish her clay-court game and begin playing aggressive tennis on the red dirt.
Last year, the Czech claimed the title in Madrid, defeating Azarenka in the final.
Kvitova proved she has the game to win on clay even though she lost to Li Na of China in the fourth round at Stade Roland Garros. Li Na, of course, would go on to win the 2011 French Open title.
Kvitova, as it turned out, played a better match against Sharapova in the semifinals of Stuttgart than Azarenka did in the finals. This will give the Czech confidence to move her aggression meter up a notch.
Kvitova will find herself in rarefied company in Paris, vying for the 2012 French Open championship.
One can only assume that both Venus and Serena Williams will be on hand when play begins at the 2012 French Open later this month.
Clay has not been a kind surface for the multi-talented sisters.
Serena won the French Open title once in 2002. Venus, however, has never managed a singles title at Stade Roland Garros—although the sisters teamed together for a win in doubles in 2010.
The sisters rarely play on tour these days. They do, however, return to court for the Grand Slams.
Additionally this year, they will be vying to play tennis for the United States during the 2012 Summer Olympics.
The question remains—can they win with such long layoffs between matches? The conventional wisdom is that they cannot win.
Neither Venus nor Serena has won a slam title since Serena prevailed during the 2010 Wimbledon championship match at the All-England Club.
Serena did march to the final of the 2011 US Open, but she lost the final match to Samantha Stosur.
On the other hand, Venus has not played in a Grand Slam final since winning the Wimbledon title in 2008.
With Venus turning 32 this year and Serena nearing 31, the sisters may be saving the best for last.
One of them will make an impact on the outcome of the 2012 French Open. It will, no doubt, be Serena who finds a way to make this particular French Open one for the ages in American tennis.
After winning his two rubbers in singles for Argentina as part of the Davis Cup tie with Croatia, Juan Martin del Potro decided to take some time off.
He wanted to forestall some nagging injuries and allow his body time to rest before the clay-court season began for him this week in Estoril.
He returns as the defending champion, having won the title a year ago by defeating Fernando Verdasco in the 2011 Estoril final.
We have been waiting for well over a year for del Potro to find the form he possessed when he won the 2009 US Open championship by defeating Roger Federer in the final.
So far, we have not seen it.
The US Open title represents the Argentine’s only Grand Slam final. In 2009, however, del Potro did make it to the semifinals of the French Open where he lost to Roger Federer in five sets.
The 2012 French Open must be the tournament where del Potro brings it all together. He has plenty of practice this week as well as in upcoming tournaments in Madrid and Rome.
Del Potro is the true dark horse of the men’s tour at the 2012 French Open.
Winning on clay takes patience and intelligence, two attributes Agnieszka Radwanksa possesses in abundance.
Although she has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam tournament, Radwanksa’s rise in the rankings this year demonstrates that her game is coming together now.
The world No. 4 is ready to take the next step.
After winning tournaments in Dubai and Miami, Radwanska has announced her arrival to the world at large. She exudes confidence on the court and is careful not to play outside her capabilities.
Because she cannot generally overpower her opponents, Radwanska tempts them into going for too much by sending the ball back and extending the rally for one more stroke.
Radwanska gets very little attention from the big media, but that may be changing.
She may have another surprise win up her sleeve in Paris.
The player from Poland remains the dark horse favorite at the 2012 French Open.