10 Players with the Most to Prove at 2014 French Open

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 31, 2014

10 Players with the Most to Prove at 2014 French Open

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    The 2014 French Open slides into its second week with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic mowing down opposite sides of the bracket. Meanwhile, longtime contenders Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova are hoping for nothing less than the championship.

    This comes on the heels of the first week, often a time of survival for the stars, where the title can only be lost. Already gone are the top three women in the world, Serena Williams, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska. Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova was also given her pink slip.

    For the men, casualties included No. 3-seed Stanislas Wawrinka and young challengers Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov.

    The second week only increases the stakes for the best of the rest. There will be bigger matches and added surprises, with even more for the remaining stars to to prove.

    Here are their ambitions as they battle for the dream of a French Open title.

Roger Federer

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    So far so good for Roger Federer. He's in the fourth round after winning nine of 10 sets. All things considered, he would take this anytime.

    The fourth round brings his first real threat in the form of talented and loose-talking Ernests Gulbis. The 25-year-old Gulbis has the explosive power to hit through the court like a second version of 2009-10 Robin Soderling. Federer is aware of his dangerous opponent.

    To most observers, Federer really has nothing left to prove at the French Open, but another run to the semifinals would set up a puncher's chance to win a second title at Roland Garros. There is less external pressure, but Federer always demands the best from himself. He works extremely hard and has a champion's pride. This will never go away, regardless of his ranking.

    A strong run to the final weekend would also be a confidence-booster for his chances to win Wimbledon and head into North America with more points to grab.

    For Federer, there is always something to prove.

Ernests Gulbis

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    It's too bad that Ernests Gulbis had to open his mouth once more at the wrong time—not that any time is ever a good one to make sexist remarks. But the subplot to this is the distraction it could bring to his own fine play. And it's never an ideal time to come in as a loose cannon when the next opponent is Roger Federer.

    Gulbis has powerful groundstrokes and an exceptional backhand. He can match some of the best servers in the game on a good day, and if his forehand is under control, he is lethal. It would not be overly surprising if he did defeat Federer, but don't bet on him being the more consistent player.

    What does he have to prove? He was happy to expound on his goals to ATPWorldTour.com, via Tennis Now:

    My long-term goal in tennis isn't to be Top 20. It's to be No. 1. Anything less than that wouldn't make me fully satisfied. I don't want to get to 30 years old, look back on my career and say I didn't make something of it. Everybody's looking for satisfaction in life and my joy and happiness is based on my tennis career.

    So Gulbis has to get squared away as soon as possible. Why not go all the way at the French Open right now? He only has to defeat Federer, and possibly Tomas Berdych, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

    Good luck.

Ana Ivanovic

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    At the moment, Ana Ivanovic is one of the hottest players in tennis, riding a controlled and aggressive attack. She defeated Maria Sharapova in the Italian Open quarterfinals.

    Once a No. 1 player and the 2008 French Open champion, the Serbian all but disappeared from top-level contention in subsequent years. She is a different player in 2014, older and wiser at age 26, and more willing to appreciate her odyssey.

    What better opportunity than the next week to win the 2014 French Open? With the top three players already packing up for greener tennis courts, Ivanovic is staring at a red clay landscape where the clouds have parted and the trophy is visible once again.

    But there is still very tough work. Ivanovic is favored to defeat the 23rd seed, Lucie Safarova, but she has lost four in a row after winning their first two head-to-head matches. (They last met at the 2012 Fed Cup finals.)

    Ivanovic is at another level right now and probably the favorite against either No. 5-seed Petra Kvitova or Svetlana Kuznetsova.

    Her biggest match might be the quarterfinals against No. 4 Simona Halep, the highest remaining seed and a budding star who embodies the clay-court model of defensive tenacity and intelligence.

    Will Ivanovic get a second French Open trophy six years after her glorious early success? She must continue to attack and play with her renewed confidence, but she has a solid chance.

Milos Raonic

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    Trailing two sets to one, Milos Raonic rallied to overpower clay-courter Gilles Simon in five sets.

    Is this encouraging or dispiriting? If Raonic were a veteran like Tommy Haas, it would undoubtedly take a toll on his legs and subsequent match. But the 23-year-old Canadian can take a lot of confidence from winning a match like this. It's another milestone by already achieving his best result at Roland Garros.

    Realistically, Raonic will be favored to win once more and face Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. This could be a quick rematch after their semifinal meeting at Rome. Then, Raonic pushed Djokovic with enormous serves that prompted the Serbian's comments to ATP World Tour:

    He played at a high level, especially on his serve, and I cannot recall the last time when I felt so helpless in the return games. I couldn't really read his serve.

    Can Raonic improve upon this performance if they meet again?

    It will likely be more difficult. Djokovic will have a three-of-five-sets format, which increases the odds for the better and more fit player. It also gives him more time to adjust to Raonic's blazing serves and create more break-point opportunities.

    Expect Djokovic and his team to study more film, and for the Serbian to sharpen his anticipation on service returns. It's doubtful Raonic will sneak up on him.

Simona Halep

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    Although she is the No. 4 player in the world, Simona Halep has been overshadowed by the WTA's more established superstars. It's also understandable because her steady ascension to the top was nurtured by winning seven mid-level tournaments in the past year.

    But Halep needs to play in the final weekend of the French Open to further establish that her fine grinding game can compete for the biggest trophies in tennis.

    Halep has shown greater consistency and fight than potential fourth-round opponent Sloane Stephens, but she must hunger for every point. There's a young Monica Seles-quality about her quieter intensity; she relies on defensive hard work and opportunistic offense. However, she does not wield a big offensive punch, and therein the Seles comparison has a long way to go.

    Halep could have a huge test against Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals, but if she thrives, she has a great chance to fight it out in the finals.

Fabio Fognini

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    Fognini undoubtedly checking to see if his shoes are untied...
    Fognini undoubtedly checking to see if his shoes are untied...Julian Finney/Getty Images

    There is a certain fascination in watching Fabio Fognini play tennis. One way or another there will be a show. The Italian is one of the best clay-court players in the world. He has an athletic feel for clay and augments his fine defense and groundstrokes by taking chances with surprisingly wonderful or ill-advised risks.

    But when things go wrong, the Fognini id is released, the fireworks of which can be volatile and entertaining. At Madrid, his latest outburst in a loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov saw him angrily smash a ball out of the stadium. He was handed a code violation for "ball abuse" (which is kind of comical because a large part of tennis is to bash a tennis ball, and the poor spherical victims last only seven to nine games apiece).

    The 27-year-old Fognini has continued a steady rise that has placed him near the Top 15 since last summer. He has won mid-level tournaments at Stuttgart and Hamburg, and Vina del Mar (Chile). He has the kind of ceiling that could make him the next version of David Ferrer, except that he has a long way to go to prove his consistency, and he must improve on hard courts.

    This French Open is a chance for Fognini to prove he can go deep at the one major at which he can make some noise—metaphorically, of course. Last year, he had very little chance to get past the third round, in which he did not play badly but was promptly swept by Rafael Nadal.

    Next up is an electric matchup against Gael Monfils. Word to Fognini: Don't even try to incite the French crowd. You will not win that battle. If he plays his best, Fognini might prove that he is worthy of topping Monfils, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and Andy Murray. He crushed Murray on clay during their April clash in Davis Cup competition.

    It's a worthy challenge that demands consistency and control (yes, the temper), but suddenly Fognini's road to the French Open semifinals is not an impossible dream.

Maria Sharapova

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    She is not the Queen of Clay, but say this about Maria Sharapova: She has the look of an assassin and she will fight for every point with a champion's tenacity. She also might be the favorite to close out the top of the women's bracket and overpower someone with less success and strength in the final.

    This is also one opportunity that Sharapova does not want to let slip away. History shows that she has won all four of her Grand Slam titles in even years (2004, 2006, 2008, 2012), and at age 27 may only have a limited shelf life near the top of the WTA rankings.

    Even if Serena Williams eventually fades away (something nobody would bet on anytime soon), a rising generation of young talent is making its presence felt.

    Ten years ago, Sharapova was the golden child of Wimbledon, but now she is the hardened veteran who would love to prove that she can win more majors into her 30s. This might be the best chance she gets, or it could be the start of a late-career surge.

Andy Murray

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    Andy Murray has never been one to throw in the towel. Though he has battled through nearly a year of adversity, including back surgery and the loss of his successful partnership with coach Ivan Lendl, Murray is showing signs of recovery.

    Life begins again on clay.

    OK, so Murray is not a clay-court genius, which puzzles a lot of tennis fans. He has great retrieval skills, endurance and toughness on other surfaces. He is also a patient player who knows how to construct his offense with a safe margin of topspin. Against almost everyone else on tour, this is enough to win on clay. The last time Murray was fully healthy in spring (2011), he made it to the French Open semifinals.

    Murray does know he cannot win when he plays four meters behind the baseline against Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. In Rome, Murray played the first set as if his result would save Wimbledon's Grand Slam status. (Maybe he forgot he was in Italy.) He stepped into the baseline, hit flatter when it was time to close out the points and genuinely surprised Nadal. From there, Nadal had to lift his game and outlast Murray at the end of the third set.

    Was this a fluke? Does Murray have what it takes to get back and challenge Nadal in the semifinals?

    Murray would love to win, but the big picture is to prove that he can regain his 2012-13 level that enabled him to capture two majors.

Rafael Nadal

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    There is nothing more Rafael Nadal needs to do to prove his career mastery of clay. He has captured 44 clay-court titles, eight French Open titles and countless accolades.

    But it's never enough for any champion. Total domination is all the reason to keep winning more. Nadal does not want to give up a single square inch of Roland Garros' red clay. The past is set, and only the present matters. More than ever, he has to prove, once again, that he is the best.

    It would be particularly sweet to defend his title in 2014. He suffered a back injury at the 2014 Australian Open, and the effects of this inconvenient timing lingered with him and affected his confidence.

    Add into the mix four title defeats to Djokovic in as many matches, including the Rome final on clay, and there are many experts like Jon Wertheim of SI.com who have picked Djokovic to win this French Open title.

    Despite the critics and pundits, Nadal most wants to prove to one more person that he can win the French Open for a fifth straight time and ninth time in 10 years: He wants to prove it to himself.

Novak Djokovic

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    Novak Djokovic's past French Open results put him in elite company with Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. They are the best players never to win the French Open. The difference is that Djokovic can still escape this frustrated fraternity.

    The Serbian has had 101 career weeks with the No. 1 ranking. He has won Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and four Australian Open titles. He has conquered all of the Masters 1000 tournaments save Cincinnati. He is a winner on almost every important place on Earth.

    Now he needs to win the French Open, complete his career Grand Slam and prove that his legacy belongs firmly inside the Top 10 of the Open era. Following this, he can find extra rejuvenation to add more majors during his prime years.

    Djokovic has wanted to prove that he can win the French Open during Roland Garros' "Age of Rafael Nadal." He lost a rain-interrupted final in 2012 and he was edged out in five hot, dry sets in the 2013 semifinal. How long has he set his sights on this prize?

    Long ago at his French Open post-match press confererence, a young Djokovic declared that Nadal was "not unbeatable" on clay. The sincerity and focus he delivered in that conference was truly a goal and thought that he has held for years: Defeat Nadal and win the French Open title.

    He gets his chance to finish the job this upcoming week.