French Open 2011: 7 Predictions for the Men's Draw
For the first time in recent memory, Rafael Nadal isn't the overwhelming favorite at the French Open, which began Sunday in Paris. Nadal is 38-1 all time on the red clay with his one loss coming in the 2009 quarterfinals to Robin Soderling. Nadal faces John Isner—the 6'9'' American with the booming serve—in the first round.
The favorite at the French (for the first time in his career) has to be second-ranked Novak Djokovic. The Serb stands perfect on the year with 37 wins and no losses, including four wins over Nadal. With his pounding backhand and heavy forehand (as well as his superb movement, topped only by Nadal and, perhaps, Gael Monfils), Djokovic has defeated Nadal on his home surface (clay) twice this year already.
Of course, the third-seeded, formerly anointed Greatest of All Time, Roger Federer, will be in attendance as well. The struggling Federer drew a tough first-round match against Spaniard southpaw Feliciano Lopez. If Federer can get by the free-swinging lefty, his draw opens up—only Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer, Stanislas Wawrinka and Monfils should pose even remote problems.
Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are the favorites (as they are in every tournament), but there's a lot of tennis to be played elsewhere. Here's a few predictions on the tournament, including my pick to win the 2011 French Open at the conclusion.
The Drought Continues: No Americans Reach the Quarterfinals
Mardy Fish—not Andy Roddick, nor the next great hopes in John Isner or Sam Querrey—is the top-ranked American in the world at No. 10. Clay is Fish's worst surface, but he has, by far, the easiest draw of any American. He shouldn't run into any trouble until the third round against 18th-seeded Gilles Simon of France, who has won three titles on clay.
Roddick recently pulled out of the Open with a shoulder injury. He's ranked 11th in the world and has never advanced further than the fourth round at Roland Garros.
Isner faces Nadal in the first round, so count him out in straight sets. Querrey doesn't have an easy match in the first three rounds—expect him to fall to either Philipp Kohlschreiber, Ivan Ljubicic or, at the latest, Fernando Verdasco.
Michael Russell, Ryan Sweeting, Tim Smyczek, Robert Kendrick and Alex Bogomolov Jr. round out the American contingent. Don't expect any of them to make it past the first or second round.
Richard Gasquet and His Backhand Will Make Some Noise
(I recommend viewing that video on YouTube in 720p HD. This just won't do.)
For fans of beautiful tennis (that is, the Federer type as opposed to, say, the Nadal type), Gasquet has long been a favorite. His insanely powerful and deceptive one-handed backhand is a marvel. Even though I've watched that video a few times, I still can't tell where he's taking that one-hander. What I do know, however, is that he's hitting clean winners, on clay, against the fourth-ranked tennis player in the world. And that says something.
Gasquet hasn't won a match at Roland Garros since 2007 and has never advanced to the fourth round on the red clay of Paris. Recently though, he won a tough three-setter over Roger Federer on clay, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4). He went on to defeat Tomas Berdych in three sets before falling to Nadal, 5-7, 1-6 in the semifinals of ATP Rome. That momentum and confidence should carry over to the French Open.
The Frenchman should win his tough first-round match over Radek Stepanek. Gasquet should take an easy second-round win, but he'll likely run into red-hot Novak Djokovic in the fourth round. Nobody very well expects Gasquet to prevail there, but a strong showing would help put that once-in-a-generation backhand back into the fans' peripheral.
Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov Were No Flukes
Raonic and Dolgopolov both found success at the 2011 Australian Open, with Raonic reaching the fourth round before falling to David Ferrer and Dolgopolov reaching the quarterfinals before losing to Andy Murray.
Raonic, seeded 26th, faces Michael Berrer of Germany in the first round. The big-serving Canadian will likely face fourth-seeded Murray in the third round. Again, no one expects him to win this match, and a loss to such a highly touted player in a major wouldn't hurt Raonic's standing. But I'm not willing to count him out in the same way I am for, say, Gasquet vs. Djokovic or Isner vs. Nadal. Murray hasn't found much success on clay and seems, at 24, to be declining (especially in light of Djokovic's recent success).
Dolgopolov is seeded 21st and will face Rainer Schuettler, the German, in the first round in a match that shouldn't pose any real problems. In fact, Dolgopolov has quite the easy draw to the fourth round, where he'll likely face the winner of Murray vs. Raonic.
Raonic's serve will be neutralized by Murray's strong return and the clay's slow bounce, but I expect Murray will require five sets to dispose of Raonic.
In the fourth round, Dolgopolov's unorthodox habit of trying to take every ball on the rise will benefit him on the clay. Murray likes to to counterpunch from the baseline because he's more consistent than most pros. I expect Dolgopolov to dictate as much as possible and work his way into net despite the slow clay.
Dolgopolov over Murray in four sets.
Gael Monfils Will Electrify Paris, but Ultimately Disappoint
Gael Monfils, seeded ninth, is an athlete's tennis player. He's big and strong. He's the fastest player on tour. And, unfortunately, he's been a disappointment to his legions of fans—the fans who want to see something unconventional, something new—displace the old guard.
Monfils reached the French Open semifinals in 2008 before falling to Federer in four sets. The Frenchman shouldn't have any trouble in the first three rounds, setting up a fourth-round matchup with David Ferrer. Monfils' run will end there, and even though it's an improvement upon his last two trips to Roland Garros, it'll be considered a disappointment and, as usual, Monfils will leave his fans wanting more.
Semifinal No. 1: Roger Federer vs. Novak Djokovic
Federer may be on the decline of his career, but he's still the most talented player the world has ever seen and is still crafty enough to survive five rounds on the clay. David Ferrer, his likely quarterfinal opponent, has given Federer trouble in the past. If the two meet, analysts will probably predict a tough, five-set victory for Federer. But I'm confident in the G.O.A.T. to run Ferrer off the court in straight sets.
Tough matches for Novak Djokovic into the semifinals include Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych, but none should have the firepower to overtake the Serb.
Djokovic has won his last three matches against Federer and, of course, hasn't yet lost in 2011. The two greats are on opposite sides of the hill, with Federer just past his prime and Djokovic, it would seem, just reaching his. The clay should slow the game down to where Federer wants it, but the Serb will be able to get the ball high to Federer's one-handed backhand—the same shot Nadal has used to defeat Federer time and time again.
Djokovic wins in three or four sets.
Semifinal No. 2: Rafael Nadal vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov
The 22-year-old Dolgopolov will defeat Andy Murray in the quarterfinals for the rights to lose to Nadal in the semifinals. Dolgopolov will have a great career; I think he'll win at least one major. Roland Garros against Nadal, however, is not a good way to get started.
Nadal in three sets.
2011 French Open Men's Championship: Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic II
Nadal defeated Djokovic in their first Grand Slam final, the 2010 U.S. Open, in four sets. That was before Djokovic rattled off 37 straight to begin 2011—before the Serb established himself as the player to beat.
Djokovic will exact revenge on Nadal by beating the Spaniard on the red clay, cementing his status as the top-ranked tennis player in the world. Djokovic will overtake John McEnroe's record of 42 wins to start a calendar season and move one step closer to the career Grand Slam many expect him to achieve.
Nadal won't go easily on his prideful home court, but I expect Djokovic to claim the title in three or four sets.