French Open 2013: Predictions and Tournament Preview

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistMay 22, 2013

French Open 2013: Predictions and Tournament Preview

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    The outlook for the French Open, which starts Sunday, is a bit unusual: A man who'll be seeded third and a 31-year-old woman who has not advanced past the French Open quarterfinals in 10 years are the overwhelming favorites, according to a CNN report.

    Whether Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams can live up to their favorite status in the world's preeminent clay-court tournament remains to be seen.

    We'll preview the second Grand Slam event of the year based on five topics in both the men's and women's singles tournaments:

    1. What's happened in the men's and women's games in 2013.

    2. The key storylines at Roland Garros.

    3. Underrated players to watch.

    4. Top contenders.

    5. Predictions.

What's Happened in Men's Game in 2013

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    The first major: Novak Djokovic beat Andy Murray in five sets to win his third straight Australian Open title in January. It was the 12th straight Grand Slam event won by one of the Big Four (Djokovic, Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal). It was the 10th straight finals in which both participants were members of the Big Four.

    No. 1: Djokovic regained the No. 1 ranking last November and has held it ever since. No one is close in the ATP rankings at the moment. An ankle injury suffered during Davis Cup action in April slowed Djokovic, and he seemed to re-injure it in Madrid earlier this month,.He said his ankle was not the reason he blew a big lead in a loss to Tomas Berdych in the Italian Open. "I'm fine. I just lost my rhythm," he said, according to the BBC.

    Nadal's return: Nadal returned in February following a seven-month layoff to recover from a knee injury. He has won six of the eight tournaments he's entered in 2013.

    The key ranking: Nadal's recent victory in the Italian Open elevated him to the No. 4 ATP ranking. That means he will be seeded fourth instead of fifth in the French Open. A No. 5 seeding could have meant a quarterfinal pairing with Djokovic, which would have been a travesty. As it turns out, Murray's withdrawal from the French Open would have avoided such a situation anyway.

    Federer's rest: Because of his age (31) and years on the tour, Federer is eligible to compete in as few tournaments as he wants. He has played in only six events in 2013, hoping to save himself for the majors. However, he has failed to win any of those tournaments, and reached the finals of only one. Federer has beaten no top-five players this year, and his only win over a top-10 player came against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open in January. Ranked No. 1 last October, Federer is currently ranked No. 3.

    Murray's pain: Murray, the world's No. 2-ranked player, had to retire from his second-round match in the Italian Open because of lower back pain. He has decided to withdraw from the French Open as result, according to Associated Press. The rest will help him be healthy for Wimbledon, an event he is more likely to win than the French Open.

    Berdych, Ferrer factors: David Ferrer held the No. 4 ranking for most of 2013 and has played a heavy schedule of 11 tournaments in 2013. He has not won one since February, however, and has not beaten a top-10 player this year. Berdych currently is ranked No. 6 and has wins this year over Federer, Murray and Djokovic, the latter two on clay.

Men's Key Storylines at Roland Garros

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    The record: Rafael Nadal is seeking his eighth French Open title, which would be the most by a player in any Grand Slam event. He is currently tied in the Open Era with Roger Federer and Pete Sampras, both of whom have seven Wimbledon titles. Bill Tilden, William Larned and Richard Sears all won seven U.S. Championships well before the Open Era.

    Federer's chase: Federer's 17 Grand Slam singles titles are the most in history, but, at age 31, there is debate about whether he'll ever win another. He won the French Open once, in 2009. Time is running out.

    The dominance: The last 12 Grand Slam singles titles have been won by one of the so-called Big Four (Nadal, Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray). No one outside the Big Four has even reached the finals of any of the past 10 majors. Can anyone break their stranglehold?

    Murray's absence: With Andy Murray out of the French Open with a back injury, David Ferrer will be the No. 4 seed, creating intrigue when the draw is made on Friday. If top-seeded Djokovic and No. 3 seed Nadal are in the same half of the draw, it would enhance Federer's chances of reaching the finals.

    The slam: Not since Rod Laver won all four majors in 1969 has a player completed a tennis Grand Slam. Djokovic is the only player in contention to do it this year. He's ranked No. 1, and he has a shot at it. He won three of the four majors in 2011 but has never won the French Open.

    French Connection: A French man has not won the French Open since Yannick Noah did it in 1983. He's the only Frenchman to win it since 1946. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon are France's best hopes, but none of them have done anything on clay recently to suggest they're a contender.

Underrated Men's Players to Watch

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    Stanislas Wawrinka: Wawrinka has wins over Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych in his four clay-court tournaments since mid-April. He got to the round of 16 in his past two French Opens.

    Ernests Gulbis: He took a set from Rafael Nadal while getting to the round of 16 last week in Rome. Ranked 39th, Gulbis has no bad losses on clay this year. He got to the French Open quarterfinals in 2008, but has not done much in Paris since.

    Jerzy Janowicz: Just 22 years old, Janowicz is hot at the moment, beating No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 9 Richard Gasquet to reach the quarterfinals of the Italian Open.

    Grigor Dimitrov: The rising, 22-year-old Bulgarian beat Novak Djokovic in Italy and took a set from Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo.

Top Men's Contenders

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    Rafael Nadal: He has won seven of the last eight French Opens and six of the eight tournaments he's played this year, including the last two on clay.

    Novak Djokovic: The world's No. 1 player beat Nadal in the finals on the clay in Monte Carlo last month. However, he lost early-round matches the past two clay tournaments. He has been inconsistent since twisting his ankle in early April.

    Roger Federer: Federer was a finalist for the first time this year last week in Rome. But he beat no one ranked in the top 15 to get there and was was crushed by Nadal in the finals. He should be well-rested having played just two tournament since mid-March, 

    David Ferrer: Ferrer got to the French Open semifinals last year. He's played well in his three clay-court tournaments since the inexplicable loss to Dmitry Tursunov in Barcelona last month.

    Tomas Berdych: Berdych beat the world's Nos. 1 and 2 players, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, on clay in his past two tournaments this month.

    "He has been for quite a few years just behind the top four," Djokovic said of Berdych last week, according to USA Today. "He's able to play big matches. He has proven that. So (he) is definitely a very dangerous player on any surface with a serve like that."

Men's Predictions

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    The also-rans: Juan Martin del Potro has not done anything on clay recently to suggest he might win the French Open. David Ferrer might get to the late rounds on sheer doggedness.

    The pivotal player: Roger Federer could become a factor if Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic wind up in the same half of the draw.  A French Open title does not seem possible for Federer, but a berth in the finals would be within his grasp if Ferrer is his semifinal opponent. Having the play Djokovic or Nadal in the semifinals would ruin his chances.

    The long shot: Stanislas Wawrinka is solid and experienced. He's the pick to pull an upset and get to the semifinals.

    The dark horse: Tomas Berdych has beaten Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer this year. He goes for broke on nearly every shot, but when he's on, few can beat him. He's playing with confidence at the moment and could get to the semifinals in Paris. However, an inability to maintain that level will prevent him from winning the tournament.

    The top challenger: Novak Djokovic beat Nadal in the finals at Monte Carlo, and he's probably the only player capable of beating Nadal in Paris. Losses to Tomas Berdych and Grigor Dimitrov in his past two tournaments suggest he's vulnerable though. If anyone other than Djokovic or Nadal wins the French Open it will be a major surprise.

    The winner: Rafael Nadal, at age 27, is not quite as dominant on clay as he once was, but he is still the best in the world on that surface. Winning the past two clay-court tournaments and crushing Roger Federer in the finals of the Italian Open make him the clear favorite.

What's Happened in Women's Game in 2013

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    The first major: Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open, beating Li Na in the finals. However, Azarenka has been battling injuries to her right ankle and left foot since then. She played only two tournaments between the Australian Open and the Madrid Open in May.

    No. 1: Serena Williams regained the No. 1 ranking in mid-February and has held it ever since. She is riding a 24-match winning streak heading into the French Open, having won four straight tournaments.

    Nemesis: Maria Sharapova has lost to only one player, Serena Williams, since the Australian Open. But she has lost to her three times in 2013.

    Aging process: There is not a single teenager ranked among the top 30 women's players, and 19-year-old Laura Robson is the only teen in the top 50. None of the top 15 players is younger than 23, and four of them are 30 or older.

    Influential presence: Li Na of China was listed among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world for 2013. She was one of four athletes and the only tennis player on the list, which was published in April. Li, 31, was on one of the seven covers produced for that edition of the magazine.

    No. 2 American: Sloane Stephens beat Serena Williams to reach the Australian Open semifinals, becoming the next big American hope. But the 20-year-old Stephens has not beaten another top-50 player since then.  Ranked No. 17, she is still the youngest player in the top 30.

    The Venus factor: It's been a difficult 2013 for Venus Williams, 32. An ongoing struggle with Sjogren's Syndrome as well as a back injury that forced her to withdraw from the Key Biscayne, Fla., tournament in March have caused her ranking to drop to No. 30.

Women's Key Storylines at Roland Garros

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    The age record: If favored Serena Williams wins the French Open, she would be the oldest woman ever to do so in the Open Era (since 1968). She will be 31 years, 9 months on the day of the French Open finals. Chris Evert, who was 31 years, 5 months when she won in 1986, is currently the oldest Open Era winner of the French Open. Zsuzsa Kormoczy was 33 when she won the French Open in 1958.  Martina Navratilova holds the record for the oldest winner of a Grand Slam singles title, winning Wimbledon in 1990 at age 33.

    The slam: Victoria Azarenka is the only woman eligible to complete a Grand Slam this year. The last female to win all four majors in the same year was Steffi Graf in 1988. No woman has won more than two majors in a year since 2002. Azarenka has never won the French Open.

    Repeat performance: Maria Sharapova won her first French Open title last year, but she did not have to beat any top-five players to do it. That includes Serena Williams, who is 12-0 against Sharapova since 2004. Can Sharapova end the Williams' dominance and repeat?

    Last chance?: Li Na won the French Open in 2011, but, at age 31, this may be one of her last chances to win a major.

    Young upstart: Sloane Stephens was 19 when she reached the Australian Open semifinals in January. Is there another teenager ready to emerge at the French Open? Perhaps 19-year-old Laura Robson.

    French hopes: A French woman has not won the French Open since Mary Pierce did it in 2000, and Pierce was born in Canada and raised in the United States. Before that, the last French woman to win the event was Francoise Durr in 1967. Marion Bartoli has the best chance this year. She was a French Open semifinalist in 2011, but she has not beaten a top-30 player this year.

Underrated Women's Players to Watch

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    Laura Robson: The 19-year-old from Great Britain has raised some eyebrows with wins over Venus Williams and Agnieszka Radwanska on clay in Rome and Madrid in her past two tournaments. Ranked 35th, Robson' may be ready to emerge after beating Petra Kvitova to reach the third round of the Australian Open.

    Simona Halep: The 21-year-old Romanian wasn't on anyone's radar until she beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Roberta Vinci and Jelena Jankovic in succession to reach the Italian Open semifinals a week ago. Was it a fluke or a breakout?

    Sloane Stephens: Stephens has struggled since getting to the Australian semifinals, losing in the first round of four of seven tournaments since then. Less is expected of her now. She showed some promise by getting to the round of 16 at the Italian Open, and she got to the round of 16 of last year's French Open.

    Ana Ivanovic: A first-round loss in the Italian Open has hurt her status for the French Open. However, she got to the semifinals in Madrid and the quarterfinals at Stuttgart, both on clay, in the two tournaments before that. She is streaky, but the 2008 French Open champ knows how to win in Paris.

    Carla Suarez Navarro: In the past four weeks, she has won three matches on clay against players currently ranked among the top 11, Samantha Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki, and Nadia Petrova.

Top Women's Contenders

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    Serena Williams: The No. 1-ranked Williams has won 24 straight matches and won all three of her clay-court tournaments leading up to the French Open. However, she has not won the French Open since 2002, has not reached the semifinals in 10 years, and lost in the first round last year to a player ranked 111th (Virginia Razzano).

    Maria Sharapova: The defending French Open champ had reached the finals of four straight tournaments before withdrawing because of illness in the quarterfinals of the Italian Open last week. She has been unable to beat Williams, though.

    Li Na: Li won the French Open in 2011 and got to the Australian Open finals in January. She has not played well recently, losing in the first round in Madrid and the second round in Rome. However, her experience should serve her well in Paris.

    Victoria Azarenka: Azarenka got to the finals of the Italian Open, but that was just her third tournament since beating Serena Williams in February. Foot and leg injuries have limited her schedule since then. She has never gone past the quarterfinals of the French Open, and her limited preparation won't help this year.

Women's Predictions

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    The also-rans: Victoria Azarenka has not had enough preparation this year and has never fared well at the French Open. No. 4-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska won just one match in Rome and Madrid combined, and has never gone past the round of 16 at the French Open. Neither is likely to make it past the quarterfinals.

    The long shot: Jelena Jankovic beat Li Na in Rome last week and took a set from Serena Williams in the Charleston final in April. Both events were on clay. Currently ranked 18th, she may not be seeded at the French Open, but she knows her way around Roland Garros. She has reached the French Open semifinals three times. 

    The dark horse: Li Na won the French Open in 2011, and, despite some shaky results lately, she may be the only player capable of beating Serena Williams.  Although Li is just 1-7 lifetime against Williams, every match has been close. Two of those losses were in three sets, and four others featured at least one tie-breaker. They have never met on clay, which may be Li's best surface.

    The top challenger: Maria Sharapova should get to the finals, having dominated everyone on the tour this year except for Serena Williams. She'll have to hope someone else takes out Williams, though, because she hasn't beaten Williams since 2004 and is 0-3 lifetime against Williams on clay.

    The winner: Serena Williams is playing as well as ever. Her dominance in Rome, where she never lost more than four games in a match, and her lopsided victory over Sharapova in the Madrid finals stamp her as the clear favorite. Her first-round loss in the French Open last year will provide additional motivation.