Rafael Nadal: A little more than a month ago, the Majorcan Mauler hadn’t won a title in nearly a year. Questions about his level of play were common, but three-set losses to Ivan Ljubicic and Andy Roddick had also left questions about his ability to play clutch tennis.
Since then, Nadal has gone 15-0 on clay, lost only two sets, and won all three Masters Series titles on the surface in a single year—a first for anyone. He has now won 18 Masters Series shields, breaking Andre Agassi’s record of 17, and avenged his defeat last year against Roger Federer in the Madrid finals.
I believe we have our Roland Garros favorite. As the Spaniard’s confidence soars, Federer had better be ready to fight for that Wimbledon title and No. 1 ranking.
Roger Federer: The Great Swiss did not overcome his greatest rival on Sunday, but appears much closer to the level he’d like to be at for his Roland Garros title defense. Prior to his Madrid performance, early losses in Rome and Estoril actually put his run of 25-straight Slam semis in jeopardy.
As has been customary for him, though, he has used the last Masters of the clay court season to set up a run to the last weekend. Unlike in 2006 or 2007, when he reached the RG final with relative ease, three-set matches with Ernests Gulbis and David Ferrer indicate that may struggle to get there, much as has the last two years.
That’s not to say he won’t overcome those struggles and reach the final. Derailing Nadal—who has just gotten his No. 2 ranking back, ensuring they’ll be on opposite sides of the draw—won’t be easy, but this sets him up for continued excellence later in the year. We won’t have to wait another year for a Federer-Nadal rematch.
Nicolas Almagro: The hardest-hitting Spaniard on tour is not named Rafa.
In the first set of their Madrid semi, Almagro demonstrated perhaps the heaviest forehand-backhand combination in tennis (and a pretty big serve) racing out to a two-break advantage before holding on to win 6-4.
That’s where his advantages over Nadal end, though. The more famous Spaniard’s well-known intensity and consistency eventually overwhelmed Almagro, who by the third set was throwing his hands up in the air after each miss.
Still, with his semifinal result, Almagro moves up to No. 22 in the rankings, enough to earn a seeding in Paris. He probably lacks the focus or the fitness to exceed his best-ever result at the RG (the 2008 quarters), which is a shame, because he certainly has the game.
David Ferrer: If only the 5’9 Ferrer, whose tenacity and defense were enough to take a set from Federer in the semis, had Almagro’s backhand.
As is, though, the shortest of the top Spaniards has put up some fine results since April began, but it would take a lot of work for him to reach the second week at Roland Garros.
Depending on his draw, the current No. 11 may reach the quarters for the third time, but isn’t likely to go further.
Fernando Verdasco: After a very positive clay court season in which he won one title and reached the finals of Monte Carlo, Verdasco suffered an ankle injury in the last event before the RG.
The good news for him is that Fernando Gonzalez had a similar experience last year and still reached the semis. Rest up, big guy.
Andy Murray: Progress continues, as the somber Scotsman narrowed the score between himself and Ferrer in Madrid, falling to the Spaniard for the second straight event.
He’ll never be as comfortable as a player like Ferrer on the dirt, but still managed to reach the quarters in Paris last year.
The difference is the serve: He has what Ferrer doesn’t, and that may be the difference in a best-of-five format, regardless of surface speed.
Andy Roddick: For the second straight year, the top-ranked American put up a solid spring, then declined to play all clay court events prior to Madrid.
Only this time, due to illness he was unable to go to Spain, either, and thus enters the RG with no clay court matches played.
I’m thinking last year’s fourth-round appearance won’t be repeated.