French Open '09: Nadal Drives for Five, Others Look to Survive

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French Open '09:  Nadal Drives for Five, Others Look to Survive
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

The King of Clay Rafael Nadal will begin his quest for a 5thConsecutive French Open title as the 128 player field is set to begin doing battle on the fabled tennis grounds of Roland Garros Sunday.

If Nadal can accomplish the feat he will become the first ever to do it (leaving legendary Bjorn Borg behind), and he will also become the first player since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the first two Grand-Slams of the calendar year.

While the indomitable Nadal, undefeated in 28 previous matches on the Roland Garros clay, is the heavy favorite coming in, his loss to Roger Federer last weekend in Madrid has given the No. 2 ranked player (and a few other gunners in the top 10) a glimmer of hope.

Though it may be a small glimmer, maybe more like a ridiculously small sliver, it does exist, and it has the tennis world abuzz as the day of reckoning draws nearer.

But when the rubber soles hit the clay, that glimmer will more than likely be obscured.

In Nadal we are talking about a true phenom—he's lost one set in two years on the Paris clay—and his hiccup in Madrid may very well cause him to come out of the gates stronger this year, in spite of the glimmer of hope that his beleaguered adversaries have gleaned from the affair.

Truth be told, this should be another cakewalk for Rafa, barring injury—beating the King of Clay in a three set match in a lesser event is one thing, but taking him out in a five set match at Roland Garros is entirely and unequivocally another.

The Spaniard is just too strong, too determined, and his voracious desire to win leaves him head and shoulders above even his staunchest competition.

That being said, don't make the mistake of thinking this years French Open is not must-see T.V. The longer Nadal'sgrip on Roland Garros lasts, the more compelling it is to watch. His superhuman endurance, agility, and focus are the stuff of legend; rare, remarkable, and nearly unfathomable.

And if the unthinkable happens—if Rafa loses a set, maybe two, at any point during the fortnight, you don't want to be the person who forgot to set your alarm clock.

Either way, tennis fans can't lose this year: either we get the first player ever to win five consecutive French Open titles, or we get the biggest upset of the year, perhaps the decade, perhaps ever.

While it seems unlikely, if Federer finds a way to turn his glimmer of hope into his first French Open title, and his 14th Grand-Slam, well then folks, we might just have another candidate for the greatest match of all time.


A look at the Draws:


Nadal's Quarter: Lot's of strong players are scattered all around Rafa's part of the draw, but as good as some of them are (Davydenko, Verdasco, Ferrer, Wawrinka, Almagro), it is highly unlikely that any of them will be good enough to puncture Rafa's armour.

A possible round-of-16 match up with fellow Spaniard David Ferrerwill undoubtedly make for entertaining tennis, and a possible quarterfinal match with Verdasco will be hyped as an Australian Open rematch, but the two Spaniards combined are 0 for their last 10 against Rafa on clay.

Murray's Quarter: He may be the highest seeded player in his quarter, but the 22-year-old Scot appears to be on relatively thin ice heading in.

Expectations were high for Murray as the clay swing began, and he started nicely, reaching the semis of Monte Carlo (a straight set loss to Nadal with a second set tiebreak). But a second round loss to Juan Monaco in Rome, followed by a QF loss to Juan Martin Del Potro in Madrid proves that Murray's clay court game still has a ways to go.

Fortunately for Murray, this quarter of the draw is not loaded. If Murray can manage to avoid the mine fields known as Radek Stepanek, Marin Cilic, and Albert Montanes, a daunting QF clash with Fernando Gonzalez could prove to be a difficult task.

If Murray does get through to the semis, it'll be on guts and guile - as much as he's tried to improve on the dirt, clay is still his nemesis at this point of his career.

Djokovic's Quarter: Novak'sgame has undergone a revival in the past three months, and he appears to be, along with Federer, one of the two players most likely to give Nadal a run for his money.

He came so close to his first career victory against Rafa in Madrid, finally losing in a surreal third set tiebreaker, and he seems to have his core of belief in place when it comes to dealing with the challenge of playing Nadal.

Rafa has knocked Novak out of Paris the last two years, but if he is to do it again he will have to wait until the finals (they are in opposite halves of the the draw).

The way that Djokovic has improved week after week, he seems poised to advance beyond the QF's for the second consecutive year. A possible fourth round match with clay court expert Tommy Robredo could prove to be a challenge, as could a QF match with Juan Martin Del Potro, but make no mistake about it, this is Djokovic's quarter for the taking.

Things will be more difficult for the 5th seed, Juan Martin Del Potro. He'll face Michael Llodra, a round-of-16 contestant last year, in the first round. After that he'll likely face a red-hot qualifier from Poland by the name of Lukasz Kubot, then possibly Igor Andreev, ever dangerous on clay, in the third round.

One enticing match up in this quarter is a battle of Frenchmen, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Julian Bennetau, in the first round. Bennetauwill be the underdog, but he was good enough to make the round-of-16 last year at Roland Garros. Meanwhile, the powerful Tsonga has yet to win a match at the French Open.

Federers Quarter: Probably the only thing I am not excited about when it comes to the 2009 French Open is another possible QF match between Federer and Andy Roddick. But don't worry folks, it is highly unlikely that it will happen, as Roddickhas never made it past the third round at Roland Garros.

Andy hasn't won a match since '05 at the French, and his best performance was in '01. That said, Roddick is on a tear this year, and he's playing with confidence and a new and improved fitness level as well.

Meanwhile, Federer should move easily through the draw, and reach the semis to face Djokovic in what will be a highly anticipated match to earn the right to be thrown to the wolves in the finals against the King of Clay.

Summary: Let's face it—anything other than seven customary Nadal blood lettings is a severe long shot. As much as we want to speculate on who might be able to dethrone Rafa, it just doesn't seem plausible.

If anybody has a shot, it appears that Djokovic would be the guy. Federer looked good in Madrid, but the memory of last years slaughter in the final might make it tough for him to truly believe that he can beat Rafa in a five set final in Roland Garros.

But it ain't over until Rafa bites down on the Coupe Des Mousquetaires. That is why they play the matches out there on the crushed red brick, and that is why we'll all be watching

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