Incredibly, the 2011 French Open is finally about to begin. In fact, it already has (in the qualifying). Nearly a year has elapsed since Nadal won his fifth title, and nearly two (!) since Roger Federer completed a historic Career Grand Slam.
For the players to get to history, however, they need to get to the final—and no one does that without winning six matches. The first, however, will always prove the most difficult and dangerous.
Even for players of the calibre of a Federer, Nadal, or Williams, the first round will always be a nervy moment. Its that awkward transition from peaceful training mode to full-on war mode, and often against someone they are expected almost certainly to trounce.
The round pf 128, however, offers the most matches, and surely in there are a few highlight, marquee matchups. These are ten of the best to look out for in the men's and women's draws.
We start with the men, and the biggest men at that. Juan Martin Del Potro and Ivo Karlovic are certainly not just up there, but there, with the tallest guys on tour. Karlovic is the taller, but Del Potro certainly doesn't lag behind by much.
All of which makes for an intriguing spectacle on the slow clay of Roland Garros. Big serves haven't traditionally succeeded here, but a big serve is effective anyday. How Delpo deals with the skyscraper heights of Karlovic's serve will be interesting. Will the Croat's big serve volley game pull him through in a miracle upset?
Its always likely, barring a poor day from Del Potro. But the Argentine is no Christopher Rochus—something suggests hes gonna eat up Karlovic's serve just enough to frustrate him. But a battle of giants is always engrossing.
Its not often that Roger Federer gets mentioned in a catalogue of first-round match-up highlights, but here he is.
For good reason though (its not as if we are anticipating a shock five setter against Alejandro Falla), as he faces Feliciano Lopez, a big serving Spaniard who nearly shocked the world by scoring his first win against Federer in Madrid a fortnight ago.
That was Madrid, with faster serves and faster everything; but don't rule out the Spaniard's chances against Federer. Besides, he is a lefty, and we all know how much Federer might hate those guys, especially on clay. With the master slightly less the player he used to be some persistent serve volley might yet yield the right results.
But somehow one feels this is a great chance for Federer to play a statement match, and its nothing like getting a good firing up in the first round to get the blood flowing.
With Roger already among the first-round highlights, does Rafa's presence spell the decline of Fedal?
Not likely. This one is merely a fascinating encounter, on many levels. Nadal has just loss twice as many matches in about a tenth of the time he took to lose one in his prime. Which means, he comes into Roland Garros a loser (at Rome).
Hes been here before, in 2007 and 2009, but managed to turn the tables in the former, but failed in the latter. His opponent in the first round, John Isner, is no pushover indeed, and is possibly just that breed of big server and scary tennis player Nadal would just like to avoid at this moment. It was supposed to be a breezy 1,1,1, against Potito Starace right?
It isn't as if a 1,1,1 is out of Nadal's reach against Isner (especially if the American serves poorly), only that he would much more appreciate longer rallies to get his legs moving early. The American will provide plenty of cannonfire, for sure, but is hardly the roadrunner he needs to be against Nadal.
Another loss for American tennis at the Paris beckons, but, should it live up to its billing, should not be without much fireworks.
We will have intriguing matchups, and psychological tests for the legends Fedal; but it's always best to get the only clay grand slam off with some real claycourt slogging.
Juan Monaco and Fernando Verdasco seem to proffer just that, with one, an Argentine, being about as feisty as one might get (a mini David Ferrer), against a hard hitting, ambitious lefty (a mini Rafael Nadal).
Forgetting the names for a moment, this match seems to offer exactly the sort of matchup David Ferrer and Rafael Nadal have offered earlier this clay season. It will be the classic battle of the grunts, with big hitting topspun forehands exploiting weaker backhands—but generally, a probing match.
Verdasco probably has the edge in firepower, but Monaco isn't just a sitting duck. He is a veritable roadblock, and it would take some fight to get past him.
Lastly, a good old battle of some tennis artists.
Had Roger Federer never existed, or won as much as he has, Richard Gasquet and Radek Stepanke would have probably gotten the acclaim as artistic players they indeed deserve. Gasquet sizes up a gorgeous backhand, with a general all-rounded game, while Stepanek is the wily, old-school net rusher, with not incompetent, albeit outdated, groundstrokes.
Gasquet goes into this match the favourite, especially on clay, and with some fantastic recent results. But Stepanek gives his all (including some primaeval worm-roll of a celebratory rite), and will devise means of pestering Gasquet at points in the match. Is Gasquet really up to getting up in the game, finally? He would have to find some domineering form against Stepanek.
Stepanek is the older, and won't be the same player who once beat Roger Federer (three years ago). But just look out for this one, for a pleasant display of tennis art and craft.
The first thing one looks out for in a potential great is the ability to defend a grand slam title.
That will be the sort of pressure on the shoulders of Francesca Schiavone, who attempts to join that club of players who can legitimately claim that defending, not winning, a slam is the harder feat.
Last year he provided some feisty and courageous hitting to win the title, but he faces that problem exactly in what may prove a trying first round encounter against Melanie Oudin. Remember the American girl? She reached the quarterfinals of the US Open a couple of years back, playing with some great variety.
She certainly isn't a proven force on clay, as Schiavone is, but may provide tantalising rallies, and with support enough, and nerves enough, snatch a long-shot first round upset. Schiavone would like to find some confidence here though, and one would think she will.
In Pironkova and Dellaqua we have a snapshot of the women's game, and in the first round, no better of equitable exemplar of it than their match-up.
Pironkova, one might remember, stunned the world in defeating Venus Williams at Wimbledon last year, while Casey Dellaqua staged a remarkable run at her nation's grand slam down under in 2009.
Both play a similar style of big hitting tennis, but neither is truly remarkable or outstanding. Dellaqua might provide some interesting variety as a left hander, although the match is likely to be ground out from the baseline.
They are big hitters, but so is almost everyone else on the WTA; this would merely be an ideal first round showcasing of that.
Wozniacki's appearance at this grand slam is without doubt probably the most anticipated.
Seeking her first major title, she finds herself playing what is, on paper, a blow-out match, against someone nearly twice her age, the 41-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm (she herself is 21 this year). We are all supposed to get out of this one with a bitter sense of Wozniacki's lack of respect for seniority.
Kimiko, however, happens to treasure the French Open, as she did last year the unthinkable, in bounding out then grand slam chaser Dinara Safina in three sets. Admittedly, the Russian played terribly, but the trend is there for the Japanese veteran as the first round major champion-wannabe party spoiler.
Nerves will play a big role in this—should Wozniacki feel the pressure of expectation. But this match is likely to be interesting in a trivial sense too, as simply the contest of generations—between one who has been playing since Graf and Seles, to our much different, and matured generation of Wozniacki and Williams.
Might three generations count as a century in human lifespan terms? Well, Kimiko is a centenarian in tennis terms.
One just has, like in Gasquet's match, to add in some local flavour here.
Alize Cornet is the most notable French woman, but Johannson has the more interesting proposition. She is probably not quite as able (with a slightly awkward service motion, and middling groundstrokes), but certainly as the heart, and knows the meaning of winning. She lost a heartbreaker in the first round a couple of years ago to Vitalia Diatchenko, 10-8 in the third.
Her opponent is the startling Julia Goerges, who stunned the world with some local home favour-currying of her own in Stuttgart a few weeks back, when she beat Stosur, and then Wozniacki in back to back matches. She is a tall girl, with big groundstrokes, and that typical Germanic sense of self-confidence.
Call this an artful contest on a smaller scale, between the French (or at least nominally French, Johansson is Swedish-born), laissez-faire mentality, and the strictness of German self-expectation. Will this be a contest of compulsive self-imploders? It would be interesting to find out.
While Wozniacki's match against Date-Krumm promises to be classic case of shifting generations, this one between Party Schnyder and Sorana Cirstea would emulate the paradigm, albeit to a slightly less extreme degree.
The Swiss Schnyder is a true veteran of the tour, being near the average lifespan of a tennis career at age 33, while Cirstea is a prospective, talented hopeful on the women's tour. Neither have ever made giant strides in the game, but would vary in their styles sufficiently to provide some nice visual stimulation.
Schnyder plays with a slightly classic, lightweight left-handed baseline game, perhaps in the line of Martina Hinggis for tennis guile, while Cirstea is probably more in the fashion of Peer or Azarenka for being the compulsive, pressing, ambitious modern player.
A generational gap will exist in this match, and is likely, again, to end in the demise of the elder. 2011 promises to be a year of much change, not only at this lower level, but at the very highest levels. But here between Schnyder and Cirstea one might yet catch a glimpse, microcosmically, of the shifting tide.