The Biggest Obstacle for All the Top Seeds at French Open 2014

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistMay 31, 2014

The Biggest Obstacle for All the Top Seeds at French Open 2014

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    Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

    The obstacles for the favorites have not changed much for the men midway through the French Open. However, the elimination of the top three seeds has created a wide-open event on the women's side.

    While Serena Williams was the major obstacle for everyone in the women's event a week ago, the primary challenge has been altered for many of the remaining top seeds.

    Among the men, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic roll along, providing a triumvirate of obstacles for each other and the rest of the seeds.

    Seven of the top eight men's seeds are still in contention, while only seven of the top 15 seeds remain on the women's side. We will evaluate those 14 players and analyze which potential opponent provides the biggest obstacle in their quest for a French Open title.

    The list is presented in inverse order of their ability to win the tournament, with the predicted winners listed last.

Angelique Kerber

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    Michel Spingler/Associated Press

    Angelique Kerber, the No. 8 seed, has done well to get this far because she has not performed well during the clay-court season. She won only two matches in four clay-court tournaments this year, including three losses to players ranked outside the Top 50.

    In many ways, her biggest obstacle is her own recent play.

    She will have her hands full with fourth-round opponent Eugenie Bouchard, a rising 20-year-old Canadian who gained attention by reaching the semifinals at this year's Australian Open.

    If she gets by Bouchard, Kerber would face more significant challenges in the subsequent rounds and probably would be an underdog in all of them. Maria Sharapova would pose a major roadblock in a possible semifinal match, because Sharapova has won her past three matches against Kerber, including two on clay.

    Biggest obstacle: Maria Sharapova

Milos Raonic

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    Michel Spingler/Associated Press

    No. 8 seed Milos Raonic might win a Grand Slam event some day, but the 23-year-old, who was born in Montenegro, lives in Monaco and calls himself a Canadian, is unlikely to do it at the French Open this year.

    He is 0-11 against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, and that tells the story of the challenge he faces.

    If Raonic beats Marcel Granollers in his fourth-round match, he probably would face Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Djokovic is 2-0 against Raonic, and both matches were on clay.

    Raonic's close 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 loss to Djokovic in Rome two weeks ago may give him enough confidence to stay in the match against Djokovic at Roland Garros. An upset of Djokovic could propel Raonic further, much like Stan Wawrinka's quarterfinal victory over Djokovic did at the Australian Open.

    Roanic's big serve can pose a problem for any opponent, even on clay, but getting past any of the three remaining favorites is his biggest obstacle. It just happens to be Djokovic in the French Open.

    Biggest obstacle: Novak Djokovic

Tomas Berdych

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    The draw did Tomas Berdych no favors. The No. 6 seed would have to beat hard-serving No. 10 seed John Isner to reach the quarterfinals. Then he might have to beat No. 4 Roger Federer and No. 2 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the title match. 

    And he still would not have faced his stiffest challenge.

    Berdych has had limited success aginst Federer and Djokovic. He has beaten Federer in two of their last three encounters, but is 0-3 against Federer on clay. Berdych beat Djokovic in their most recent match on clay, at the 2013 Italian Open, but Berdych is just 2-15 against Djokovic overall.

    In the unlikely event that Berdych would get past Isner, Federer and Djokovic to reach the final, he might face Nadal. Not only has Nadal beaten Berdych 17 times in a row (not including one walkover), but Nadal is also 6-0 against Berdych on clay. Quite simply, Nadal has owned Berdych, whose go-for-broke style cannot stand up to Nadal's consistency and endurance.

    Biggest obstacle: Rafael Nadal

Jelena Jankovic

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    No. 6 seed Jelena Jankovic, a three-time French Open semifinalist and former No. 1 player, has the experience and guile to beat any of the remaining players. But at age 29, she is not quite the consistent threat she was in 2008, when she finished the year as the world's top-ranked player.

    Her fourth-round match against the No. 10 seed, Sara Errani, who beat Jankovic two weeks ago in Rome, is a tossup, and if she wins that one, Jankovic would play an unseeded player in the quarterfinals.

    However, her semifinal opponent could be 22-year-old Simona Halep, the No. 4 seed. Halep has won the past three matches against Jankovic, including two on clay. Although all three matches went three sets, Halep is getting better, while Jankovic's career has plateaued after a resurgence last year.

    Jankovic would also be an underdog if she played Sharapova in the final, but getting past Halep would be her biggest challenge.

    Biggest obstacle: Simona Halep

Carla Suarez Navarro

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    Carla Suarez Navarro, the No. 14 seed, is benefiting from a favorable draw at the French Open, and she has a chance to reach the semifinals as a result.

    She should beat unseeded Ajla Tomljanovic in the fourth round and could get past either Kerber or Bouchard in the quarterfinals to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam event for the first time in her career.

    That is where her biggest challenge awaits.

    Sharapova, Suarez Navarro's semifinal foe if both advance, won the only previous encounter between the two. More significant, however, is the fact that Sharapova is playing well at the moment and has reached the final of the past two French Opens, winning the event in 2012.

    Nothing Suarez Navarro has done this year suggests she can beat Sharapova at Roland Garros.

    Biggest obstacle: Maria Sharapova

David Ferrer

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    Michel Spingler/Associated Press

    David Ferrer, the No. 5 seed, has a habit of living up to his seed, but he is seldom able to beat a higher seed.

    He would be an underdog against any of the remaining players seeded higher than him at the French Open: Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. Ferrer, at age 32, has done nothing recently to suggest he can break through against any of them.

    Ferrer is 0-14 against Federer, including four matches on clay, so Federer might present the biggest challenge for Ferrer if they were to meet. But they could only face each other in the final, so that matchup seems unlikely.

    Ferrer has not had much more success against Djokovic, who has beaten Ferrer in their last six meetings, including two on clay. But, again, Ferrer could only face Djokovic in the final.

    The biggest obstacle for Ferrer remains Nadal, who presumably would be Ferrer's quarterfinal opponent if Ferrer wins his next match against hard-serving Kevin Anderson.

    Ferrer finally beat Nadal on clay in Monte Carlo in April, which gives him a glimmer of hope against Nadal. However, before that match in Monaco, Nadal had won the previous 17 clay-court matches against his Spanish countryman.

    Despite Ferrer's breakthrough against Nadal at Monte Carlo, it's impossible to ignore that preceding nine-year run of clay-court dominance by Nadal, which includes Ferrer's one-sided, 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 loss to Nadal in last year's French Open final.

    In a best-of-five Grand Slam match on clay, Nadal is Ferrer's biggest obstacle.

    Biggest obstacle: Rafael Nadal

Sloane Stephens

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    No. 15 seed Sloane Stephens continues to be perplexing. Her current No. 19 ranking is eight slots lower than her career high achieved last October, and she has done nothing since the Australian Open to suggest she would be a factor at Roland Garros.

    Stephens failed to get past the round of 16 in any of her five clay-court tournaments this year and lost in the first round of three of them.

    However, she has a habit of playing her best tennis at Grand Slam tournaments. She has reached the round of 16 at the French Open for the third straight year and has now advanced to at least the fourth round in six consecutive Grand Slam events.

    A year ago at this time, Stephens, 21, was viewed as one of the future stars of women's tennis, but she has since been passed by 22-year-old Simona Halep, who is Stephens' fourth-round opponent and probably her biggest challenge of the tournament.

    Stephens has beaten Halep in their last two meetings, including a 6-1, 6-1 victory in the first round of the 2013 Australian Open in their most recent encounter. However, Halep won their only meeting on clay, back in 2012, and her improvement since their last meeting has far surpassed Stephens' progress since then.

    Stephens would be an underdog in a potential final-round match against Sharapova as well. However, the contest against the No. 4-seeded Halep would tell us more about Stephens and her ability to raise her game against quality opponents in big matches.

    Biggest obstacle: Simona Halep

Sara Errani

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    Sara Errani has slipped to No. 11 in the rankings after being No. 5 a year ago, but she loves playing at Roland Garros. She got to the semifinals at the French Open last year and the final two years ago, losing to the eventual champion both times.

    Errani has performed well in recent clay-court events and has looked sharp at this French Open as the No. 10 seed.

    Her fourth-round match against Jankovic is a virtual tossup, and she would play an unseeded player in the quarterfinals. However, her semifinal opponent could be improving-22-year-old Simona Halep, who beat Errani 6-2, 6-0 in their only 2014 meeting. That match was on hard courts, and Errani is much better on clay, but Halep would be a major obstacle on clay as well.

    If Errani could somehow work her way to the final, her opponent could be Sharapova, who poses an even bigger challenge than Halep. Errani has never taken a set from Sharapova in their five completed career matches, and that includes Sharapova's 6-1, 6-2 victory over Errani on clay in Stuttgart in April.

    Biggest obstacle: Maria Sharapova

Andy Murray

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    Michel Spingler/Associated Press

    Andy Murray still has work to do to reach the fourth round, because his third-round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber was interrupted by darkness at 7-7 in the fifth set on Saturday.

    Even if if he gets past Kohlschreiber, the No. 7-seeded Murray will face bigger challenges ahead. 

    Clay is Murray's worst surface, and he has never gone past the semifinals of the French Open. Murray did little in the preceding clay-court events this year to suggest that will change in 2014.

    One major problem for Murray is that Nadal is on his side of the draw. First, Murray might have to get past Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals, and Monfils is a handful when he plays before the encouraging French crowd.

    If Murray survives his quarterfinal match, he presumably would meet Nadal, and it is hard to imagine Murray beating Nadal in a best-of-five contest on the clay of Roland Garros, even when Nadal is not at his best. Nadal is 5-0 against Murray on clay, and although Murray took a set from Nadal at the Italian Open two weeks ago, Murray will struggle to stay close in a longer match.

    Biggest obstacle: Rafael Nadal

Roger Federer

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    No. 4 seed Roger Federer has played better this year than he did last year, partly because he is healthy and partly because he seems more confident since switching to a racket with a bigger head.  

    Federer got to the final of the clay-court event in Monte Carlo in April and has made himself a factor in the Grand Slam events again, even on clay, his worst surface.

    He would probably face No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic in the semifinals if both get that far, and although Federer would be the clear underdog in that matchup, he beat Djokovic on clay in their most recent meeting, in Monte Carlo. Federer would seem to have an outside chance of getting past Djokovic.

    Beating Nadal in a possible final-round matchup is another issue, though.

    Although Nadal appears vulnerable, it is hard to imagine the 32-year-old Federer winning a best-of-five match against the indefatigable Nadal on a slow surface. Nadal has won his last five matches against Federer and is 13-2 against Federer on clay, including 5-0 at the French Open. 

    Federer might be satisfied just to get to the final.

    Biggest obstacle: Rafael Nadal

Simona Halep

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    Simona Halep may be the most intriguing player on the women's tour at the moment. Ranked No. 54 in the world at this time a year ago, the 22-year-old Halep is up to No. 4 and seems destined to win a Grand Slam event in the near future.

    She is the highest-seeded women's player remaining in the French Open, but she has never won a major event and is new to this kind of expectation.

    Halep has a tough remaining road to a title at Roland Garros. She will be tested in her next two matches against Sloane Stephens in the fourth round and possibly against 2009 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals. If she gets past them, she is likely to face Errani or Jankovic in the semifinals.

    Even if Halep navigates through that difficult series of matches, her biggest obstacle would await in the final in a potential matchup against Sharapova.

    The 27-year-old Sharapova is more experienced in these types of pressure matches, having reached the French Open final the past two years. More significantly, Sharapova is 3-0 against Halep, including a three-set victory over Halep on clay in Madrid in May.

    Biggest obstacle: Maria Sharapova

Rafael Nadal

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    Michel Spingler/Associated Press

    This one is simple. Djokovic is clearly Nadal's biggest obstacle in his quest for a record ninth French Open title.

    Getting the chance to play Djokovic may not be as simple. A possible semifinal match against the mercurial Gael Monfils, who tends to play inspired tennis in front of his French countrymen, could pose a problem for Nadal.

    Nadal is not playing as well as he did a year ago, winning just one of this year's four clay-court tournaments and beating no one ranked in the top five in the process.

    He has played well in this French Open so far, though, and there is a reason he has an amazing 61-1 record at Roland Garros. Beating Nadal in a best-of-five Grand Slam event on clay is a major challenge for anyone, even when Nadal is not at his best.

    Djokovic has shown he can do it, however. Djokovic has beaten Nadal the last four times they have played since Nadal's victory in the 2013 U.S. Open. More significantly, Djokovic's last victory over Nadal came on clay, in the Italian Open final two weeks ago. 

    Nadal dominated Djokovic on clay early in their careers, but Djokovic is 4-4 against Nadal on that slow surface since 2010.

    Nadal is particularly tough to beat in best-of-five matches on clay, as he demonstrated in his 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7(3), 9-7 victory over Djokovic in last year's French Open semifinals. But Djokovic is playing better now than he was then, and Nadal is not quite at the level he was last year.

    Biggest obstacle: Novak Djokovic

Maria Sharapova

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    The first week of the French Open worked out perfectly for Sharapova, the No. 7 seed.

    Not only did she continue her strong recent play by blowing past Paula Ormaechea 6-0, 6-0 in her third-round match, but she also received favors from Garbine Muguruza and Samantha Stosur.

    Muguruza took out No. 1 Serena Williams, who was Sharapova's potential quarterfinal opponent and has beaten Sharapova 14 times in a row. Stosur beat No. 9 seed Dominika Cibulkova, who would have been Sharapova's fourth-round foe and has beaten Sharapova in three of their last four meetings, including their last two encounters on clay.

    The elimination of No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 11 seed Ana Ivanovic erased two more possible obstacles for Sharapova.

    Sharapova has a favorable record against all the remaining favorites and is in good position to win the tournament after reaching the final last year and winning the event in 2012.

    So who poses the biggest threat to Sharpapova?

    Ivanovic, who beat Sharapova two weeks ago in Rome, appeared to be her biggest challenge, until Ivanovic was beaten on Saturday,

    Stosur, Sharapova's fourth-round foe, is seeded No. 19 and typically plays well in Grand Slam events. But Sharapova has won the last three meetings against Stosur and is unbeaten against Stosur on clay.

    The biggest threat for Sharapova may not come until the final and a possible matchup against No. 4 seed Simona Halep. Although Sharapova is 3-0 against Halep, they played a three-set match in the final in Madrid on clay in May, and Halep is an emerging star who seems destined to win a major title in the near future.

    Biggest obstacle: Simona Halep

Novak Djokovic

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    Michel Euler/Associated Press

    No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic cruised into the fourth round, losing just one set in his first three matches while playing some of the best tennis of his career.

    Djokovic could have his hands full against fourth-round opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a Frenchman who seems to play his best in front of the French fans. But Djokovic has dominated his head-to-head matchups against Tsonga, whose recent results do not suggest an upset is imminent.

    Logic says Djokovic's biggest challenge would come in the final, when Djokovic could face eight-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal. But a closer look suggests a semifinal matchup with Federer might be as big an obstacle for Djokovic.

    Federer has made a resurgence this year and has played well recently, including his three victories in this year's French Open. Clay is Federer's worst surface, but he has performed pretty well on the slow stuff this spring.

    Federer reached the final at Monte Carlo in April, and more significantly, he beat Djokovic in that event. Federer has a 4-3 career record against Djokovic on clay, and Federer seems capable of doing it again at Roland Garros.

    Meanwhile, Djokovic has beaten Nadal all four times they have met since last year's U.S. Open. Djokovic's most recent win over Nadal came on clay two weeks ago in the final in Rome. Plus, Nadal is not playing as well as he was last year.

    So the question remains: Is Federer or Nadal a bigger challenge for Djokovic?

    Ultimately Nadal is still Djokovic's biggest obstacle. Despite Djokovic's recent success against Nadal, the Spaniard is 5-0 against Djokovic in best-of-five matches on clay. Beating Nadal in a best-of-three match is one thing, but taking down the king of clay in a grueling match of wills in a Grand Slam clay-court event is something else. This is not to say Djokovic cannot do it; it's just to say it will be his stiffest challenge.

    Biggest obstacle: Rafael Nadal