French Open 2011: 5 Bold Predictions for the Second Week
Rafa's virgin five-setter. Nole's surreal streak. Caroline's beatdown. Kim's meltdown.
It's been an unusually exciting, entertaining first week in Paris—and the best is yet to come.
For the sport of tennis, this is just another potentially-historic major in a string of many. As fans, we've been incredibly lucky.
What will we be treated to this time around?
Maria Sharapova completing her own Career Grand Slam? Rafael Nadal distancing himself from Bjorn Borg and capturing a sixth title on the terre battue? Someone—anyone—ending Novak Djokovic's red-hot streak?
Check out my five bold predictions here.
Troicki Ousts Murray
Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Luck can be one flighty S.O.B., especially when it comes to tennis.
Take Andy Murray's word for it.
The No. 4 seed saw luck's kind, forgiving side when it presented him with a dream draw to a maiden Roland Garros semifinal. Then luck's bitter, vindictive temperament flared up during the Scot's third-round match, when he twisted his ankle running for a drop shot in the second set against Germany's Michael Berrer.
Perhaps Murray got another good dose of luck when Berrer couldn't take advantage of his opponent's hobbled state. Murray grimaced throughout the rest of the match, but played aggressive tennis to scrape by in three and book a date with dangerous Serb Viktor Troicki, who I now believe will upset his higher-ranked opponent in four or five sets come Monday.
Paramount is the state of Murray's ankle. I watched him fall, and the injury didn't look like something he could recover from—at least, not something he could recover from in a couple days to play top-notch tennis. He admitted he might not even play against Troicki, but at least he has a shot, considering Berrer would rocket a ball 10 feet long anytime a rally went over six shots in that third set.
But Troicki's had a quietly-solid year himself and looked superb in upending one of my pre-tournament dark horses—Ukrainian teenager Alexandr Dolgopolov—in four hard-fought sets.
The 15th seed was this close to beating countryman Djokovic in the first round of last year's U.S. Open. Can he actually seal the deal Monday?
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Even if it's been said more than enough, it needs repeating: there has never been a women's Slam, in recent memory, more open than this one.
I'm staring at the women's draw right now thinking how almost all of these matches could go one way or the other.
Svetlana Kuznetsova could continue to play the lights-out tennis she's shown all tournament long and rock Daniela Hantuchova's world, or the Slovak could continue where she left off against Caroline Wozniacki and pound the baseline-prowling Russian into submission. How will Marion Bartoli's fatigue after three straight three-setters match up against Gisela Dulko's nervy anticipation of a maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal? Which ball-basher will make less errors come Monday, the more experienced Li Na or the supremely-confident Petra Kvitova?
Victoria Azarenka aside, the one player I feel really good about advancing along to the semis is Maria Sharapova.
The Russian couldn't have asked for a better draw: creampuff (and true nonentity in 2011) Agnieszka Radwanska in the fourth round, followed by either Andrea Petkovic or Maria Kirilenko in the quarters. Although Petkovic beat Sharapova in Australia, the German played a lot of tennis this week and is sure to have her hands full with Kirilenko. If Kirilenko manages to come through, chances are—like Radwanska—she won't have enough weapons to take down a confident Sharapova.
And then, like most predictions I make about women's tennis these days, doubts start to invade my once-confident decisions.
What if Radwanska has an error-less wall, and Sharapova hits a million mistakes? What if Petkovic plays with the same confidence that helped eliminate the Russian in Melbourne, or Kirilenko takes advantage of a rich vein in form?
Chances are, even if Sharapova makes it by these opponents, she'll still stumble in her quest to complete the Career Slam. Victoria Azarenka is making the Roland Garros final, folks.
Fed Ends the Streak
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Insane to suggest that even the unholy Roger Federer could somehow put a stop to the epic season Novak Djokovic has fashioned in 2011, right?
As an undying Fed fanatic, I've got to say the Swiss star's display thus far in Paris has been nothing short of flawless. He breezed past Feliciano Lopez, taught wild card Maxime Teixiera a lesson and was in rare form against Janko Tipsarevic, winning 24 of 28 from the net, smacking 10 aces and effectively deflating any hope the Serb had at an upset after a brutal opening set. Federer's spent just four-and-a-half hours on court in three matches (about as long as it took Nadal to beat Isner in Round 1), he's played early on, and he's been incredibly efficient on serve.
There will be a couple tough tests before Federer could even face Djokovic though.
Despite Stan Wawrinka's enormous talent and fight, I'm sure Fed will ease past his compatriot in straights. A much tougher test will come in the form of—most likely—seventh seed David Ferrer in the quarters. Ferrer's looked just as sharp as Federer so far on the clay of Roland Garros, and had a much more solid lead-up than the Swiss player did. But Fed's undefeated against the Spaniard (11-0 overall; 4-0 on clay), and he's not about to lose to him in the latter stages of a Grand Slam.
So, yeah—back to this streak and the possibility of Federer screeching it to a halt.
It's absurd the way Djokovic is playing. What by far impressed me the most when the Serb stepped on court against Juan Martin del Potro yesterday was how he would not relent on the big points—it's been the staple of his phenomenal run thus far this season.
For Federer, though, this sheer determination presents a challenge worthy enough to rise up to. I think Fed's got a few more Slams in him, and I think he knows it too. He also knows he'll have to beat players like Djokovic along the way to more major trophies.
His tennis this week has been big and bold, clean and confident. He's refreshed, playing well—and, as all of us Fed lunatics know, craving to vanquish the Serb's stranglehold on the ATP.
Come Friday, that stranglehold will cease to exist.
A New Women's Slam Champ Will Be Crowned
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Not such a bold prediction, you scoff—only three of the 16 women remaining are Slam titleholders, after all.
Still, those three—Svetlana Kuznetsova, Maria Sharapova and Francesca Schiavone—are all front-runners to take this trophy.
Two of 'em have already hoisted it before; Kuznetsova and Schiavone know what it takes and how it feels to triumph Saturday afternoon on Phillipe Chatrier Court to hoist the Coup Suzanne Lenglen up in the air.
Sharapova, meanwhile, is salivating at the thought of completing a Career Slam. Never has the picking been riper, and she—more than anyone—knows it.
But it's not going to happen.
After a decade of Williams sisters' dominance, then Henin dominance, then part-time dominance, the tour is in dire need of its new generation to step up.
The biggest representatives of the new gen still left in the draw lurk in the third quarter: fourth seed Victoria Azarenka and ninth seed Petra Kvitova. If both win—and both are likely to, although Azarenka far more than Kvitova—the quarterfinal could surely determine the overall winner of the tournament.
I, for one, am putting my eggs in Victoria's basket.
In my recap of Azarenka's victory over Sharapova in the Miami final, I reflected on how the Belarussian has everything it takes to be the next torchbearer of the WTA. Barring a couple typical retirements, she had a fantastic clay court swing leading into the French, and her tears after losing to none other than Kvitova in the Madrid final were proof that Azarenka knows she should've beaten the Czech, as well as how much she wants the titles and the success.
Azarenka's looked great all tournament, hitting about double the winners to unforced errors, getting in a high first serve percentage and taking down a slew of opponents with different game styles. It's her time to step it up.
And this coming week, I think she absolutely will.
Nadal Wins Again
Julian Finney/Getty Images
It's the worst he's looked in years at a major, no doubt about it. Even when up match point against John Isner in that memorable first-round encounter, I wasn't supremely confident Nadal would pull it out—and usually, match point down on clay against El Rey means you're pan tostada.
Toast. Get it?
Moving past my awkward forays into Spanish puns, I'll say that never before have I been more confident that Nadal would take this title.
I think he'll most certainly have his hands full with big-serving Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth round. I think Robin Soderling will look to build upon his reputation as the only player to beat Nadal at Roland Garros if they end up clashing in the quarters. I think any one of the four guys in the section below him—Murray, Troicki, Falla and Chela—could put up a more-than-game fight in the semifinals.
Still though, Rafael Nadal and the French Open are forever intertwined.
When the Spaniard arrives in Paris, he has an undeniably powerful aura about him—world No.1 ranking or not, King of Clay or not. He loves this tournament, and even when not playing his best, he will fight tooth and nail to make sure the other guy has to play remarkable tennis to take him down, especially on his beloved clay.
I think Nadal's overwhelmingly easy victory over qualifier Antonio Veic in the third round will do him a world of good, probably not in the confidence department, but physically and mentally, he'll have a couple relaxing days ahead. His subpar form the first couple rounds will surely increase the pressure on Robin Soderling's shoulders if they meet in the elite eight, and Nadal's biggest potential competitor in the semis is nursing a horrible ankle injury.
I think he'll effectively scrape his way to the final—perhaps not in the most confident fashion, but he'll act like it was.
And then, the final.
As I forecasted a couple slides ago, I really believe Fed will end Djokovic's unfathomable streak. If that's the case, Nadal will be waiting to reap the benefits.
Mentally, it can be said Nadal has Federer beat at the moment—particularly on a surface like clay. And it could be the titanic effort of sinking the bloated Djokovic boat wears Federer out enough that Nadal pounces on a weary opponent. Even if, begrudgingly, my prediction is wrong, and Roger does crash out to Novak, I'll still go with Nadal for the win.
Predicting someone will beat Nadal three straight times on clay isn't bold...
It's clinically insane.