Preparing for the French Open: From Low-Key Federer To Flat-Out Verdasco

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Preparing for the French Open: From Low-Key Federer To Flat-Out Verdasco

We watched the Madrid Masters avidly for the last clues to who will be hot in Paris.

We’ve pored over clay-court stats, Roland Garros records, and recent head-to-heads to make some sense of where the sensible money will be by the time the French Open kicks off tomorrow.

There have been injuries to check out, illnesses to monitor, last-minute headlines to absorb.

But if we thought there was no more ammunition in the Tour’s locker to influence those final predictions, we were wrong.

For during these final days, there have been exhibitions, tournaments, and Tweets from all and sundry. And these events reveal some final pointers not just to form but to mindset.

Who’s still going flat out to try and make a final impression, and who’s ploughing their own quiet furrow?

Who’s putting in hours of private practice, and who favors the intensity of competition?

Who is confident, and who is—well, who is not?

Start in Nice, for example, the only ATP event of the week, where the world No. 7 Robin Soderling and No. 9 Fernando Verdasco have been competing.

Soderling went out of Madrid in his first match and fell in Rome in his second. Is it therefore significant that he fell at the first hurdle, to Olivier Rochus, in Nice?

He is the first man on Philippe Chatrier as the French Open gets under way and will be relieved to be facing only the 179th ranked man. But he could quickly face Albert Montanes, then Ernests Gulbis. He’ll need to make a step-change in his game pretty quickly.

And Verdasco, who left Madrid with ankle problems, got all the way to the Nice finals, but it was a hard road. Sergiy Stakhovsky took him to three sets, Leonardo Mayer forced the score to 7-6, 7-5, and Verdasco eventually lost, on the day before Roland Garros gets under way, 3-6, 7-5, 6-7.

The Spaniard has the heart of a lion, and a physique to match, but he has carried some niggling injuries all season. He cannot afford to be less than 100 percent fit and 100 percent fresh for the toughest assignment of all.

An interesting aside from Nice, too, is that Richard Gasquet picked up his first trophy since 2007. He’s not had the best of seasons, but when he’s on form, he’s one of the most dangerous players around.

In front of the French crowd, playing his exciting style of tennis, and now brimming with confidence, he will give Andy Murray something to think about ahead of their first-round meeting.

From the ATP 250 event in Nice to an ATP event of an altogether different style in Dusseldorf. This time, it’s team tennis, with ranking points available but in the context of a mini Davis Cup-style atmosphere. This is the Arag ATP World Team Championship.

The team format means there is a little less at stake for the individual, a little more camaraderie from being part of a team, and a guaranteed number of matches for the legs: not too many, not too few.

This is where several of the United States men could be found. John Isner’s impact was rather less than he may have wished. He lost both his singles matches: in straight sets to Lleyton Hewitt and in three to Tomas Berdych.

Sam Querrey fared rather better with two wins in the round robin before falling to Juan Monaco in the final.

Robby Ginepri played two and lost two, but a loss in three sets to Nicolas Almagro, who’s riding a crest of form at the moment, is no disgrace.

The American team made the final against Argentina, where they lost both singles in three sets, but it was good preparation for the clay of Paris.

Who else has been getting some valuable practice in Dusseldorf? Philipp Kohlschreiber got two good straight sets wins against difficult clay-courters: Horacio Zeballos and Viktor Troicki.

Monaco produced some good performances, too, including a doubles win with Zeballos.

Almagro hammered Hewitt, 6-1, 6-3 but went down in a very tight encounter with Berdych. The Czech performed well throughout, winning three out of three. That’s good news for a man who had to withdraw from Madrid with hip problems. He remains a dangerous opponent in the Murray quarter of the French draw.

The most stylish place to hang out this week, however, has been just outside Paris itself.

The ambitiously-titled the Guinot Mary Cohr Masters is a small, interesting event that has attracted the lion’s share of the top men this week. It is based at the Paris Golf and Country Club: an intimate, quiet and classy venue. It also happens to have an identical playing surface, same type of balls, and similar environmental conditions to Roland Garros.

And that’s clearly what has attracted Roger Federer, Andy Murray, David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Andy Roddick. That, and the undemanding format, which pairs off the 12 men for one or two matches apiece, all played mid-afternoon across three days. They don’t even play a standard three-set format, but rather a Champion’s tiebreak for the third set.

So it provided just enough of a challenge to warm up the body and practice the shots.

It also confirmed that Fernando Gonzalez is back and playing: he beat Sebastien Grosjean in straight sets.

It gave Federer a good work-out against the journeyman Rainer Schuttler, and Murray the same against Mardy Fish: both won in third set tie-breakers.

It gave Tsonga a chance to check that his back was in good working order: He just about edged out Stanislas Wawrinka 11-9 in the final tie-break.

Last but not least, it gave Roddick some desperately needed court-time and his first match on clay since last year.

He lost to the lowly ranked Josselin Ouanna, 6-7, 6-7, but burst into life in his second match. Whether he will be pleased that he beat a quality man like Mikhail Youzhny easily, 6-3, 6-2, or will be sorry that he didn’t get a few more games under his belt, who knows? It seems unlikely that he’ll lose much sleep over it.

Beyond that, this little event can tell us little else, except that it was nice ticket to have for those tennis fans lucky enough to be in Paris.

Notable by his absence, however, was Rafael Nadal, who played the Guinot Mary Cohr exho last year, despite the intensity of his 2009 schedule. Then, he looked as though he’d rather not be there and, with hindsight, he shouldn’t have been. He needed rest.

This time around, he has continued to trim back his schedule ahead of Roland Garros. Since he arrived in Paris on Thursday, there’s been the odd fun event, such as a doubles game with Tsonga against some local youngsters. But essentially, it’s just been routine practice, routine interviews, routine Rafa.

Murray and Federer have also notched up plenty of practice sessions at Roland Garros, the latter exchanging with Ivan Ljubicic. That’s good news for followers of the popular Croatian who has been missing with injury since Rome.

The ultimate low profile, however, has been maintained by birthday boy, Novak Djokovic: 23 today.

No tournaments, no exhos, just practice at Roland Garros.

Perhaps he’s pondering where he might be in just over two weeks’ time. Because if he wins the French Open, and Federer loses before the quarterfinals, Djokovic will be on top of the world: ATP No. 1 for the first time.

That should certainly focus his mind.

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