The French Open looms on the horizon. The classic red dirt and spring air of the Parisian Grand Slam Tournament at Roland Garros are just hours away, with match play set to begin on Sunday.
Seeing Rafael Nadal tear through the clay-court season and make the game's elite players look average at best on his most dominant surface has led many to believe that the outcome of this year's French Open is already in the books. Playing out the tournament is but a mere formality.
The draws for the 2010 edition of the French Open were released Friday. Here are my predictions.
Roger Federer's Quarter
At a glance it appears that the world No. 1 has more than his fair share of work cut out for him. Fifth-ranked Robin Soderling—last year's "Giant Killer"—looms at the bottom half of the bracket, leaving Federer with much to think about should he advance that far.
Two Spaniards, both very adept on the clay, also landed in Federer's quarter: Feliciano Lopez and Albert Montanes. Of course, Montanes took down Federer in straight sets in his disappointing loss in the semifinals at Estoril—perhaps a mental roadblock for Federer.
Gael Monfils always seems to save some of his charisma for Paris, where he reached the quarterfinals just a year ago. An in-form Monfils is certainly able to extend a match vs. Federer longer than three sets should the two meet. The home crowd also makes things all the more interesting.
Let's not forget about Marin Cilic and Ernests Gulbis. These two young guns have been lauded as the next generation of tennis by many, and with good reason.
Cilic exploded onto the scene this year with a big quarterfinal upset of Andy Roddick down under. It remains to be seen if he can translate his heavy-hitting game to the clay courts.
On the other hand, the Latvian Gulbis has had no trouble on the dirt. He, along with Montanes, has also netted a victory against Federer on the European clay-court swing of the tour. That makes for another possible mental roadblock for Federer should he not pick up his form during those critical pressure points, where he usually excels so much.
The list of obstacles is definitely far and wide in Federer's quarter of the draw, especially if you include floaters like Janko Tipsarevic, Olivier Rochus, and Nicolas Massu.
Roger Federer showed true grit last week in Madrid, battling his out-of-form self all the way into the finals and finally returning to his spot as the No. 2 player in the world on anything and everything clay.
Federer has traditionally owned Soderling—just look at last year's drubbing in the finals—and I see no real threat there. However, I see Gulbis having a big French Open and really thrusting himself onto center stage in Paris.
If Federer can avoid the young gun, I think he will be through fine and maintain his consecutive record of 23 semifinals reached in Grand Slam tournaments. The Swiss survives, at least this far.
Winner: Roger Federer
Andy Murray's Quarter
My, how a year changes things. At this time last year Murray was considered one of the favorites to win the French Open, and even more so after he came out so strong in his opening week leading up to the eventual early exit of reigning King Rafa.
Needless to say, the clay has not treated Andy Murray with the same kindness as a year ago.
As always, when the top-ranked player in a quarter is struggling as immensely as England's hopeful is right now, it makes for an interesting storyline, not to mention difficult predictions.
Right out of the gate Murray will be put to the test with Frenchman Richard Gasquet, playing in front of the home crowd. If Murray comes out slow, he could be in for an embarrassingly early exit.
The other top ranked player in this side of the draw is the ball-mashing, hometown favorite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Since reaching the 2008 final at the Australian Open, Tsonga has failed to harness the game that got him there. After retiring at Madrid, I don't see Tsonga posing a serious threat.
Marcos Baghdatis is always a threat, however. If he catches fire, there is no telling how far he can bust up the bracket. It will be interesting to see how well the Cypriot comes out firing from the gate.
I'm going to go out on a large limb here and say that power-serving American John Isner plays off his recent clay-court success—including an all-American final in Belgrade—making a splash into the third or fourth round in Paris. After that, I think a true clay-courter takes him out.
Two notable Spaniards, Garcia Guillermo-Lopez and Tommy Robredo, also pose threats to Murray reaching a semifinal, not to mention Tomas Berdych.
I'm going with my gut on this one, which says that Murray is not getting out of this half of the draw alive. With Murray out, I think Tsonga has a much clearer path out of the draw.
Winner: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Novak Djokovic's Quarter
In my opinion, Djokovic has drawn the weakest quarter in the tournament. His highest ranked competition, Andy Roddick, hasn't played a clay-court match yet this season and has been out of competitive action for a few months now. That being said, he did achieve his longest stay in Paris last year, losing to Monfils in the fourth round.
Roddick's path does not look too daunting, however, and I would not be surprised if we see the American back in the second week again in 2010.
Djokovic will also have to deal with Spaniards David Ferrer and Juan Carlos Ferrero, who have both had exceptional years on the clay.
Other than that, I don't see much standing in Novak's way. The problem is that much like Murray (or even more so), Djokovic has been struggling to win matches against even those opponents who he is "supposed" to dispatch of without too much of a problem.
He recently fired his coach, Todd Martin, in hopes of turning things around. Unfortunately, he suffered allergy problems and was having trouble breathing in his hometown tournament in Serbia. He won only one match before being forced to retire.
If I were a betting man, the odds do not play in Djokovic's favor for a complete turnaround and successful French Open.
Winner: David Ferrer
Rafael Nadal's Quarter
Like the defending champion, Rafa has drawn a similarly difficult draw with the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Fernando Gonzalez, Nicolas Almagro, and the tricky Ivan Ljubicic all standing in his way.
Rafa fans are probably not the least bit worried, nor should they be with the way their warrior has battled, crushed, and destroyed the competition on the clay this season. It seems no one has stood much of a chance against Nadal this year, and why would I think differently now?
It may seem obvious where my prediction is leaning here, but I'll mention a few interesting matches that could be troublesome for the Spaniard.
Lleyton Hewitt has been known to have some lengthy matches against Rafa in past Grand Slams, and this year may bode similarly if Hewitt brings his A-game to Paris—something Nadal (and more importantly his knees) will want to avoid.
Fernando Gonzalez made the semifinals here last year, though that could be due in large part to the fact that Nadal was nowhere to be seen at that point in the tournament. If Gonzalez catches fire on the forehand wing, there isn't much anyone can do, including Nadal. However, I don't see Nadal letting the Chilean do what Soderling did to him just a year ago.
The real challenge for Nadal will be his fellow countryman, Verdasco, who other than Nadal has had the most success on the dirt this year. It could be a tough match, but Nadal has shown in the past that he is capable of coming up with the goods at the most crucial times against Verdasco. It's hard to see an upset.
Winner: Rafael Nadal
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. Roger Federer
Put a guy like Ferrer, Verdasco, or Gonzalez on Federer's half, and I think things could go a lot differently. Even though it may not be Tsonga, I think if Federer's streak of semifinals ends anywhere, it ends on his weakest surface.
Winner: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
David Ferrer vs. Rafael Nadal
Bottom line: Rafael Nadal is going to reach the finals. He is just too good on clay and another level above any player on tour when healthy.
Winner: Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
CHAMPION: Rafael Nadal
No one will beat Rafael Nadal on clay this year. It just simply isn't going to happen barring some sort of injury.