French Open Tennis 2014: Predictions and Early Title Favorites

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 21, 2014

French Open Tennis 2014: Predictions and Early Title Favorites

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    The 2014 French Open men's draw will be out soon, but it's not too early to consider the contenders. The past two months have provided four important clay-court tournaments, which is enough of a sample to rate the players who have a chance to win the title or create significant upsets.

    We will also throw out our early predictions, but of course these will be big-picture projections until the draw finalizes the specific matchups. Then we will see who benefits and who may have to navigate a tougher road to French Open glory.

    The best part of the year is now in session. Dust off your collection of impressionist paintings. Make a batch of chocolate croissants. Put on your most triumphant Yannick Noah face. The biggest dance on red clay is about to happen.

Dangerous Players

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    There are 128 top players who will have a chance to win seven matches and capture Paris' ultimate tennis championship. Very few of these players are legitimate title threats, but there are several dangerous players who can wreak havoc in the first few rounds. One great day and they are capable of wrecking someone else's French Open dreams.

    These players will not win the French Open, but nobody wants to play them:

    No. 15 Fabio Fognini: The Italian clay-court specialist plays as often as possible on the red clay, and there are days that he is simply fabulous. He has won three mid-level clay-court tournaments. He was a Davis Cup hero in scorching Andy Murray in early April. He has risen steadily the past year and has the strength and potential to win big matches. However, his fiery nature can also be his undoing and he is just as capable of self-destruction. If he gets on a roll, watch out.

    No. 8 Andy Murray: He only arrives on this list because of his encouraging battle against Rafael Nadal in the Rome quarterfinals. Murray has never won a clay-court title, but he was a 2011 semifinalist at Roland Garros and he can beat all but the very top players on clay. Maybe he puts together a great run and knocks out a favorite. He is a champion with the experience to close out big matches.

    No. 9 Milos Raonic: His serve always gives him a puncher's chance, but his baseline game is good enough on the right days. Although his movement is not great, he does get time on clay to hit his shots. If he is not forced to run and play too much defense, he might take out a favorite.

    No. 28 Roberto Bautista Agut: Although not the most famous Spaniard, he has been a surprise at times this year, winning matches against the likes of Tommy Robredo, Tomas Berdych, Jerzy Janowicz, Fernando Verdasco and Juan Martin del Potro. He has had to fight through tough draws and just might be battle-hardened enough to pull off a big shocker.

    Other troublemakers could include Robredo, Ernests Gulbis, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Verdasco, Nicolas Almagro and John Isner.

    Prediction: One of these players will defeat a top contender.

Dark-Horse Threats

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    Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

    There have been more unpredictable results in 2014 and more aggressive mindsets from second-tier players. A few of them could make a deep run for the the French Open title, if not be a surprise finalist or winner.

    Here are the dark-horse contenders:

    No. 10 Kei Nishikori: The Japanese star has earned his ranking behind recent stellar performances on clay. He has added more power, hits on the rise and can create angles to widen the court. He's mentally tougher and has the defensive skills and tenacity to win several matches. The biggest question may be his durability. Can he be healthy and lethal for two weeks?

    No. 5 David Ferrer: Last year's surprise finalist at the French Open was blasted by Rafael Nadal. This year, he defeated his bigger countryman at Monte Carlo, so perhaps his confidence will be bolstered if there is a rematch. He could very well knock off anyone on the tour if he has his best day.

    No. 6 Tomas Berdych: First, Berdych needs to avoid Nadal as if he were the Black Death. Berdych is a fine ball-striker and moves well for his size, but cannot match up well technically or mentally against the Spanish warrior. He needs the right kind of draw and the best tennis of his life, but he could go deep.

    No. 12 Grigor Dimitrov: He had a solid run to the Rome semifinals, but rolled over against Nadal. Usually, he has proven to be a much better competitor, so expect this to improve. He will need to take care of business the first week, but has the kind of moxie and talent to beat the best. Coach Roger Rasheed will be in his ear, so expect there to be no letdown in effort. Could he get to the final?

    Prediction: Depending on the draw, one of these four will be a semifinalist. Nishikori has the most dangerous game, but Dimitrov is very capable of beating anybody if he gets to the quarterfinals.

No. 4 Top Contender: Roger Federer

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    The 32-year-old Swiss maestro is still one of the top players on clay. He pulled off a moderate surprise in landing in the final of Monte Carlo, but had his momentum interrupted with the more important births of his twin sons.

    There is a slim chance that Federer wins the French Open. This is no longer 2009, but he is one of the few players who can attack with variety on clay. He will have a blueprint for each opponent, and it will be chiefly designed around his own attacking abilities. Even on clay, Federer must dictate.

    He must first survive upset attempts from younger opponents, but Federer has been very good in matches he is supposed to win. His 28-6 record in 2014 has losses to Lleyton Hewitt, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, Stanislas Wawrinka and Jeremy Chardy. These are all talented or top-level players.

    Federer will have a day off between each match, and it will be important for him to have short matches and recover quickly. He will need energy if he is to run through a second weekend at Paris.

    Federer's most important wish will be to avoid Nadal in the semifinals. He would then have to knock off Djokovic and hope that compatriot Wawrinka defeats Nadal, if someone else does not perform the miracle.

    Prediction: Regardless of the draw, Federer will have a tough time landing in the semifinals. One off day against a talented opponent could spell trouble. Odds of a French Open title will be about 25-1. It's possible, but a slim chance at best.

No. 3 Top Contender: Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    Stanislas Wawrinka has shown a hot-and-cold pattern in 2014. He was hot in January, bagging the Australian Open title. He was cold at Indian Wells and Miami. He was hot at Monte Carlo. He was cold at Madrid and Rome.

    Could he be ready to heat up for the final and most important red-clay title?

    Wawrinka likes slow clay because he has more time to set his feet and uncork his powerful, flat strokes. Over the course of an important long match, Wawrinka might be able to wear down his best competitors. He and coach Magnus Norman will prepare for grinding out wins. And they will leave it all on the table with Wawrinka's determination to strike hard and work tirelessly.

    It's this tough mentality that can serve him well when the inevitable adversity sets in. He has more belief in winning big titles and has already defeated Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the way to his big championships. He knows he can win the French Open.

    On the other hand, Wawrinka isn't going to sneak up on anyone this time around. There are still questions about how well he can deal with the pressure of being a favorite. He has had matches with far too many unforced errors. It will not be easy at times, but the longer he goes in the tournament, the more locked-in he could be. None of the other top contenders want to face him in the final weekend. 

    Prediction: There's a better chance of Wawrinka getting eliminated before Roger Federer, but also a better chance that he wins the French Open. If he faces Nadal in the semifinals, we will take the King of Clay to win and reclaim a measure of revenge for Melbourne. If Nadal is eliminated before then, Wawrinka has a great chance at the title, but we would still choose Djokovic.

No. 2 Top Contender: Novak Djokovic

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    Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

    Since his loss to Rafael Nadal in the 2013 U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic has been the best player in tennis. He has piled up six of the nine most important titles and dominated Nadal for four big wins in a row.

    He is on a mission to win the French Open like never before after more than his share of French Open heartache through the years. He also just overcame a wrist injury. Best of all, he is showing his 2011 resolve to win matches, especially the close ones.

    Djokovic is also playing better on clay than he has in the past because of his improved offense. Though a great defender, he has now become an even greater matchup problem for Nadal by looking to end points quickly and powerfully. When he hits with pace, Nadal cannot match him. Djokovic is a better ball-striker and more consistent with his depth and angles.

    Furthermore, Djokovic's forehand is better than ever, and he has multiple ways to make the Spaniard pay. He has all the time he needs to line up shots when Nadal stands five meters behind the baseline. He can force Nadal to hit defensively and looks to put away anything short.

    A lot of the talk about Nadal is the Herculean task of defeating him three sets of five. But now the question can be reversed: How will Nadal defeat Djokovic three sets of five? Nadal did not play poorly against Djokovic in the Rome final, but the last two sets felt very one-sided.

    Yes, Djokovic must still get to the final, but he will not let this opportunity slip away sometime in the first week or before the quarterfinals. This is his best chance to win the French Open, regain his No. 1 ranking and clinch a pantheon place among the Open era legends.

    Prediction: Right now, Djokovic is playing at a higher level than Nadal. He is a match-up nightmare for his rival and if they meet in the finals, Djokovic will win. Repeat: Djokovic will hold up the 2014 Musketeers' Cup.

No. 1 Top Contender: Rafael Nadal

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    We can talk about Rafael Nadal's unparalleled dominance on clay, and this matters to an extent. He will die fighting for a ninth French Open trophy. But this is 2014, and though he has been a good clay-court player by anyone else's standards, he is not playing like the Nadal we have seen from 2005-13.

    This is the first time in a decade that he has won only one clay-court title in Europe preceding Roland Garros.

    He is merely finding ways to win against good players such as Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny, Kei Nishikori and Nicolas Almagro, all players that he used to crush like sparring partners on his inevitable march to the title.

    Make no mistake about it, Nadal still has a very good chance of winning the French Open, but probably less than 50 percent. Djokovic has his number and is playing better. The ATP field is growing more aggressive, something that has made it more difficult for Nadal. Unless he gets help, specifically a draw without big hitters and having to face Djokovic, he will have a tough time winning a fifth straight French Open title.

    In a couple of days, we will break down Nadal's more difficult path to a possible French Open title. He still has the tools and movement to win it all, but if you must bet Nadal or the ATP field, this is the first time that you bet on the field.

    Prediction: Nadal will win the title if Djokovic is not in the final. However, Djokovic will not only be there in the final, but Nadal's inconsistent play in recent weeks could see him ousted before the final. Bet on the runner-up trophy for Nadal this time around, but don't be surprised with a better or worse result.