There is nothing better than Paris during the end of May. The weather is finally warm, the famed outdoor cafe culture is back and, for the next two weeks, the world's greatest tennis players and best dirtballers compete for two weeks of thrilling clay-court action in tennis' toughest Grand Slam. The French Open is finally here.
As the first round approaches, numerous questions abound. Will Nadal capture his sixth trophy in the last seven tries? Can Novak Djokovic continue his perfect run and unseat Nadal for the third time in three matches on clay?
Before we start talking about the championship round however, there are a lot potential first-round upsets that loom large.
Could there be another shocking first-round upset such as when Luxembourg's Gilles Muller upset fourth-ranked Andy Roddick in the U.S. Open or when unranked American Vincent Spadea knocked off big-serving, 14th-ranked Brit Greg Rusedski at Wimbledon in 2000?
High seeds beware, here are 10 upset specials that may surprise a lot of people and wreck havoc on the draw.
Can John Isner really pull off the upset? Highly unlikely. Still he's not the first-round opponent that Nadal was hoping to see.
Isner's big-serving, big-forehand approach to the game is in stark contrast to Nadal's grind-it-out mentality. While the slow pace of the red clay will make it difficult for Isner's powerful groundstrokes and booming serve to carry the necessary pop to pull off a stunning surprise, his go-for-broke style and focus on short points could throw Nadal's rhythm.
In their only two meetings—including one on clay—Isner has pushed Nadal but failed to break through. Doing so in the first round of Roland Garros would surely rank as one of the top upsets in sports history. Unfortunately this is not 1980 and Isner isn't on skates.
Nadal leads the head-to-head series 2-0.
Nadal defeated Isner 7-5, 3-6, 6-3 in the round of 16 at 2010 Indian Wells (hard court).
Nadal defeated Isner 7-5, 6-4 in the third round of the 2010 Madrid Masters Series (clay court).
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 0.4
Nadal will once again roll into the second round, but not without dropping a set. Nadal in four.
The young Ukrainian Dolgopolov burst onto the scene with a breakthrough run to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open.
He followed his best Grand Slam showing with nice wins over Potito Starace, Ricardo Mello and Stanislas Wawrinka on clay in Buenos Aires and Acapulco.
However, the 22-year-old has been brought back to reality losing four straight opening-round matches in the run up to Roland Garros. If Dolgopolov wants to prove he's for real, he's going to have to learn consistency, a trait his opponent is all too familiar with.
Rainer Schuettler is one of the steadiest players on tour, although age has caught up with the 35-year-old German recently. Still, the wily veteran has a few tricks up his sleeve, and is rested and ready to make a graceful exit in what most likely will be his final outing at Roland Garros. A win over the ranked young gun will help Schuettler leave in style.
Dolgopolov leads the head-to-head series 1-0.
Dolgopolov defeated Schuettler 6-4, 6-2 in the round of 16 at 2010 St. Petersburg (hard court).
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 7.5
Dolgopolov will once again get bounced disappointingly early but not without putting up a fight. Schuettler enacts revenge from an earlier loss by surviving in five sets.
Philipp Kohlschreiber is a tough matchup for the 24th-seeded Querrey. Ranked 44th in the world, Kohlschreiber is one of the top non-ranked players in the draw and has the game to beat the world's top players. Dogged by inconsistency, the German flashed his potential by taking out the highly regarded Mikhail Youzhny at the Rome Masters Series just last week.
Meanwhile, Querrey is suffering through his own set of struggles. Having only reached one quarterfinal, Querrey is struggling to find his form and game that helped lead to a breakout year last season. Playing on his least favorite surface, which mitigates his power, Querrey is a prime target to be upset.
The series is tied 1-1.
Kohlschreiber defeated Querrey 7-6 (6), 6-3, 6-2 in the first round of 2009 Australian Open (hard court).
Querrey defeated Kohlschreiber 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the first round of 2006 U.S. Open (hard court).
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 7.7
No one challenges Querrey's work ethic, but big, hard-serving Americans don't do particularly well on clay. He'll make a good attempt but the crafty German will come out on top. Kohlschreiber advances after a tough four-setter.
The 25-year-old upstart South African has had a surprisingly strong early showing with wins over 42nd-ranked Nikolay Davydenko and 33rd-ranked John Isner. Anderson even won a tournament in his home country of South Africa. But this is the red clay of tennis, a totally different ballgame, and with the French crowds firmly behind their compatriot Mahut, Kevin Anderson doesn't stand a chance.
Mahut, whose claim to fame is being on the losing end of the longest match in history (11 hours and five minutes), is finally healthy and on home soil—both of which spell trouble for the 32nd-ranked Anderson, who is coming off an injury of his own last week in Rome.
The series is tied 0-0.
Mahut did defeat Anderson 6-4, 6-4 in a challenger tournament in France back in 2006 but because it wasn't recognized by the ATP it is not officially counted as a head-to-head matchup.
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 9.1
The partial French audience and Anderson's suspect health will propel Mahut to an easy straight-sets victory over the well-rounded South African.
The "Colossal Croat" is off to another strong start to the year. Entering the French Open as the 20th seed however, the 6'6" Cilic's stay at Roland Garros might actually be a short one. With a big serve and a deft touch at the net, Cilic's game is not particularly well-suited for clay.
To make matters worse, his opponent's game is.
Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo is the ultimate dirtballer. The guy lives on the stuff and knows how to pick apart the game of stronger opponents using different spins and paces to keep them uncomfortable and off balance. The 33-year-old journeyman has won eight titles (seven on clay) and may be winding down his career. A win over a ranked opponent would be a great last memory Paris.
The series is tied 0-0.
The two players have never faced each other before.
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 6.3
Cilic may have a bigger and more promising game, but Hidalgo knows all the tricks. Cilic has a way to go before being tough enough mentality and experienced to overcome what the Spaniard will throw at him. Hidalgo in four sets.
Both Hewitt and Montanes are experienced veterans who have been on tour now for the last decade and while Lleyton may have pocketed a few more titles and accolades, Albert is more feared on the red dust.
Like his countrymen Hidalgo and Nadal, Montanes is a clay-courter through and through. Known for his mental toughness (he is one of few players ever to save match points in two different matches and win them both), Montanes is happy to sit back and grind out long points all day long.
In the past, that'd have been fine with his Australian counterpart as well. This year however, Hewitt has played far fewer matches than previous seasons with a paltry record of 4-4 to show for his effort. Whether resting for the big tournaments or nursing injury, many question whether Hewitt will have the stamina to outlast a guy like Montanes let alone a deeper run.
Experience says go for Hewitt but recent play and comfort on clay says Montanes should be the choice. Montanes is the favorite but it's a toss-up.
Hewitt leads the head-to-head series 2-0.
Hewitt defeated Montanes 7-6(4), 6-2, 6-0 in the second round of 2008 Wimbledon (grass).
Hewitt defeated Montanes 7-5, 6-4, 6-3 in the first round of 2006 U.S. Open (hard court).
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 4.9
Expect this match to be a dog fight. Montanes will out-duel Hewitt in five tough sets in what could be one of the longest and most grueling battles of the first round.
Fernando Verdasco has worked hard this year, playing in a lot of matches and raising his level to compete with the game's elite. He was rewarded in Paris with the 16th seed and probably went to bed last night feeling pretty good. By late this afternoon? Not feeling as great.
Verdasco must have let out a huge groan when the draws were announced and he saw his name paired next to Juan Monaco. The Argentine is Verdasco's nemesis. They both thrive on clay, are roughly the same build and play the same style. Yet while Verdasco is considered the more polished of the two and has generally had more success on tour, when the two square off Monaco utterly dominates the Spaniard.
It doesn't make any sense. Nevertheless going back to 2004, Monaco is 6-2 against the higher-seeded (and regarded) Verdasco including a four-set triumph over the 20th seed at their only previous meeting at Roland Garros.
Before the tournament, given the right draw, many had Verdasco as a legit semifinalist. Now he'll be lucky and have to play sparkling tennis to get out of the first round.
Monaco leads the head-to-head series 6-2.
Monaco defeated Verdasco 7-5, 6-3 in the quarterfinals of 2010 Acapulco (clay).
Monaco defeated Verdasco 6-1, 3-1 ret. in the quarterfinals of 2010 Bastad (clay).
Verdasco defeated Monaco 7-5, 6-2 in the round of 16 of 2009 Masters Series Madrid (clay).
Monaco defeated Verdasco 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals of 2007 Kitzbuhel (clay).
Monaco defeated Verdasco 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 in the second round of 2006 French Open (clay).
Monaco defeated Verdasco 6-3, 6-2 in the second round of 2005 Sydney (clay).
Verdasco defeated Monaco 7-5, 6-3 in the third round of 2005 St. Petersburg (carpet).
Monaco defeated Verdasco 6-4, 5-7, 6-3 in the third round of 2004 Palermo (clay).
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 8.6
This could be the match of the first round as both guys love the dirt and don't mind staying on it for ages. Although Monaco has dominated the series so far, their matches are always highly competitive.
Richard Gasquet has an all-court game. He has what many call the most beautiful backhand in sports. British tennis commentator Barry Cowan went as far to say that Gasquet is "naturally more talented than Federer." Watching him hit up close, one is blown away by the fluidity of his swing and shot-making abilities. Certainly people have never been short of praise for the young Frenchman.
Unfortunately for Gasquet, and something that remains a bit daunting, is his ability to transform his all-court game to achieve results at the French Open. Whether it's the pressure of playing in front of a large audience or home crowd, Gasquet has consistently failed to get past the second round at Roland Garros; he only did it once. In fact the French Open is the only Grand Slam in which Gasquet has a losing record (4-6).
Gasquet will be a heavy favorite in his opening-round matchup with the much less heralded Stepanek.
However, while not a consistent threat, top players will tell you that no one wants to draw the crafty and stubborn Stepanek, who has a history of both sneaking up on top players and pushing them to the limit with grinding five-set matches. One such memorable match took place in the second round of the 2007 U.S. Open when Stepanek pushed then 3rd seed Djokovic 7-6 (4), 6-7 (5), 7-5, 5-7, 6-7 (2) in a match that lasted four hours and 44 minutes.
Gasquet is still the favorite but he shouldn't overlook the Czech journeyman, a player he has lost to in their two previous encounters. If Gasquet wants to finally make some noise in Paris, he will have to start by playing a solid, mistake-free first-round match.
Stepanek leads the head-to-head series 2-0.
Stepanek defeated Gasquet 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 in the semifinals of 2009 Brisbane (hard court).
Stepanek defeated Gasquet 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 in the quarterfinals of 2005 London Queen's Club (grass).
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 3.4
Gasquet is playing the best tennis of his career and finally living up to the hype. If he is really going to turn a corner he must put together a string of victories and reach the second week at Roland Garros. First, he must unravel the mystery of Stepanek that he has so far yet to crack.
Mardy Fish should beat Ricardo Mello. He needs to; American tennis depends on it. Right now, American tennis depends on Mardy Fish. With Roddick and Blake out (not that they ever lit up the French Open) and Isner and Querrey hopeless on clay (their games aren't suited for a slower pace), Fish is America's last hope.
Before anybody jumps on the bandwagon (I wouldn't recommend it), Fish must overcome Brazil's Ricardo Mello. Certainly no Gustavo Kuerten, Mello is nonetheless extremely comfortable on clay and could give Fish major fits.
Neither of the two has a particularly stellar record at the French Open. Mello is 0-4 while Fish is 2-5 in over 10 years on tour.
While the Fish and Mello split their two matches, Fish has been the much hotter and more constant player of late. After dropping 30 pounds to go from 200 lbs. to 170 lbs. Fish's improved fitness has allowed him to change his style of play and rely on counter-punching skills much more. He is also more capable of staying in longer points, both traits which should help him on clay.
The series is tied at 1-1.
Fish defeated Mello 6-2, 6-1 in the third round of 2011 Delray Beach (hard court).
Mello defeated Fish 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in the third round of 2004 Delray Beach (hard court).
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 2.1
Mello will be tricky, but Fish should roll in straight sets.
Roger Federer has owned Feliciano Lopez. In their seven meetings, Federer is a sweet 7-0. In the 20 sets that they have played, Federer has won 16.
It's not like Lopez is a lousy player; far from it. Federer just makes everyone look bad. However, could there be a chink in the armor? Could Lopez finally break through?
Doubtful, but it's possible, especially after their last encounter. If their match in Madrid played just two weeks ago was any indication, this might be Lopez's best chance to beat the sport's greatest champion.
In a 7-6(13), 6-7(1), 7-6(7) epic thriller that was touted as one of the most riveting matches of the year, Lopez, buoyed by a fervent home crowd, played inspired tennis forcing Federer to save a match point in the third set.
Federer did, and went on to take the match, but it's hard to imagine Lopez won't be gunning for revenge, as he must believe he finally has/knows what it takes to beat Federer.
Even though the world's No. 3 is still the clear favorite, he knows better than to take Lopez lightly.
Upset Watch (1-10 scale): 2.9