French Open 2015: 10 Players with the Most to Prove

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistMay 24, 2015

French Open 2015: 10 Players with the Most to Prove

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    Andrew Medichini/Associated Press

    The 2015 French Open is the ultimate proving ground for slow-court and baseline tennis. It's also a unique title opportunity for different players who have different kinds of motivations. Whether it's Rafael Nadal looking to continue his dominance or Novak Djokovic looking to finally claim that title, several players are highly motivated to have a big fortnight.

    Some of the women's stars could certainly prove that they are elite by winning this title. Yet how does Caroline Wozniacki differ from Serena Williams? It's very important to both players but for very different reasons.

    Everyone is motivated to win the French Open, but the following 10 players might have even greater incentive to play well at Roland Garros. Here are their stories and hopes.

Rafael Nadal

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    Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

    He's already proved that he is the greatest player ever on clay. No other tennis superstar can make a similar undisputed claim on any other surface.

    So there's nothing that Rafael Nadal needs to prove to fans, the media or anyone else.

    Except that Nadal is one of the greatest champions in sports history. Athletes like this are driven to prove it to themselves. They do not go quietly, so long as there is a chance to taste another championship.

    Nadal wants to win this for himself. He's put his entire life, heart and soul into being the best player he can ever be. It has not been perfect, and he has battled injuries while winning with his grinding, physical style, but he has been relentless in building himself up for repeated comebacks.

    Can Nadal find his game for two weeks? Will he hold up through demanding attrition, media doubts and hungry competitors? Nadal would love nothing more than to prove he can do it one more time.

Eugenie Bouchard

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    Eugenie Bouchard is the world's most marketable athlete, according to the Conversation's Simon Chadwick (via CNN.com).

    So there are lots of endorsement sponsors hoping that the Canadian star can break through a tough year and make waves at the French Open.

    Bouchard seemed to enjoy her rise in 2014, which saw her get to at least the fourth round in all four majors, including semifinal showings at the Australian and French Opens and a final appearance at Wimbledon. She compiled a 45-23 record and rose to No. 5 in the WTA rankings.

    In 2015, she is only 7-9 in eight tournaments and has dropped off the map since her quarterfinal at Australia. She needs a big showing at Roland Garros to stave off the next half-dozen players looking to move past her. They could boot her out of the top 10 by the time Wimbledon finishes up.

    If Bouchard can get back to playing like it's 2014, she has a cakewalk draw to the quarterfinals. That should be enough to get the cash registers ringing and the sponsors chirping. Money aside, this is a great opportunity to get back to having fun with tennis, and that means winning matches.

Ernests Gulbis

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Will this be the last time we remember Ernests Gulbis as a tennis threat? A year ago, he defeated Roger Federer on his way to the French Open semifinals. This capped off his usually solid spring, and he at least found an audience when he said, according to ATPWorldTour.com, that his goal was to be the No. 1 player in the world.

    This year has been a nightmare. Gulbis had one win in 11 tournaments until notching his second win last week at Nice, France. He has dropped from No. 10 to No. 25 in the rankings and will now be defending his semifinal points.

    So forget about the No. 1 ranking for now. He's already won his first match at Roland Garros, and we will see if he can pick off another pigeon and come after Gilles Simon for a place in the fourth round. Seriously, he might need this to save his career.

Caroline Wozniacki

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    At least Caroline Wozniacki is headed back up the rankings, although there's a long ways to go if she is to get back to No. 1. It's hard to believe that it's been four years since her time at the top, which was an unusual stint because she never won a major title.

    Since summer 2014, Wozniacki has mustered up a second wind, and it could have been greater had she not been defeated by Serena Williams in four huge matches from August to November. Wozniacki played with more conviction and better fitness. She even ran the New York City Marathon in under three-and-a-half hours.

    So a French Open title could launch her back to the top, fulfilling a career ambition for a major title and perhaps giving her the confidence to chase after No. 1 once again. There's one major problem: Serena likely stands in the way in the quarterfinals.

Gael Monfils

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    Claude Paris/Associated Press

    The clay-court season has been a microcosm of Gael Monfil's career. The Frenchman defeated Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov to reach the semifinals at Monte Carlo, and he followed that up with a semifinal effort at Bucharest. Then he battled disappointment at Madrid and withdrew from Rome with a knee injury. Which is the real Monfils?

    We may never know. He's the entertainer, throwing himself into his unique shots and showmanship, but his tennis talent has derided consistency. Injuries and questionable tactics have long hampered his chances to be an elite player.

    Meanwhile the French are starving for one of their own to make a heroic run through the next fortnight. They have seven of the top 44 players and a cluster of players on the fringe of the top 10, including Gilles Simon (No. 13), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 15), Richard Gasquet (No. 21) and Monfils (No. 14). Somebody has to make a run, right?

    Monfils has a big opportunity in the bottom of the draw to stir up France. If he takes care of business, he would have the eyes of the world on him for another crack at Federer. Monfils nearly took Federer out at the 2014 U.S. Open, and his Monte Carlo win over the Swiss champion makes this an enticing possibility.

    Monfils still has the opportunity to go forward in his career. A 2015 French Open title would be ideal.

Simona Halep

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    David Vincent/Associated Press

    One down and six to go for Simona Halep. She's out of the first round, and her draw sets up nicely to go after the French Open title. She could get Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals and Maria Sharapova in the semifinals, but there's a lot to prove until then.

    For nearly two years, Halep has flirted with becoming a superstar. She has won plenty of titles and improved in beating some of the top-10 regulars. She even hammered Serena Williams at Singapore last fall.

    But Halep needs to win a major title. There's a bit of Agnieszka Radwanska or Andy Murray in her efforts to climb past players with bigger weapons. Sure, she hustles and competes on every point, but will she be able to dominate with her beautiful game?

    At the French Open, the red clay plays into her retrieving strengths and gives her a better chance to compete against more powerful players. Sharapova and Williams have each won this title twice and could stand in Halep's way.

    Can Halep finally break through and develop the status to be a threat at every major venue? A dominant performance could set her up for the next couple of years.

Kei Nishikori

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    As he enters his mid-20s, Kei Nishikori has proved he can contend at top tournaments. He was a finalist at Madrid and the U.S. Open in 2014, and he has won back-to-back titles at the Barcelona Open. But there is a lot more to prove.

    It's possible that Nishikori has already maxed out. He has impressive reflexes and consistency but no real tennis weapon that allows him to control more lethal stars. There's a sense that he could carve out a career similar to that of David Ferrer or Tomas Berdych, consistently crashing the quarterfinals but falling short in the biggest matches.

    Or Nishikori could become the next Andy Murray and bag a couple of majors. If he can stay healthy, keep evolving and play with greater grit and versatile tactics, he might move up to the Murray level.

    It's asking a lot, but the 2015 French Open room service has delivered him the cozy bottom bracket. He should cruise until his potential quarterfinal matchfittingly enough against Berdych. Then it's off to battle the players who carry bigger sticks, like Stan Wawrinka, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.

Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Christophe Ena/Associated Press

    Is there more major magic for Stan Wawrinka? The 2014 Australian Open champion has proved to be a hard-hitting baseline threat, but he has been just as wild and inconsistent in 2015. He often goes out early in tournaments, but then again, he walloped Nadal in Rome's quarterfinals.

    Wawrinka has already won his first-round match, something he failed to do at the 2014 French Open. If he can roll into the quarterfinals, as he is favored to do, he sets up possible matches against Federer and Nishikori to get to the French Open final. These are matches he can win with his baseline power.

    How much of it is in Wawrinka's head? Can he channel his focus into greater patience and avoid self-destructive play?

    He's already 30 years old and may not have too many more opportunities. Red clay is a surface that he should succeed on. It allows his more pedestrian footwork time to get ready, and he can wind up his big backhand.

    There's no Djokovic, Nadal or Murray in his half of the bracket. It's time to prove that he can get past the quarterfinals for his best mark at Roland Garros.

Serena Williams

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    Riccardo De Luca/Associated Press

    We weren't going to include Serena Williams as a player who has to prove something at the French Open. Really, she's proved just about everything in her career.

    But former coach Patrick Mouratoglou made comments that at least implied that Serena is looking to surpass Steffi Graf's 22 majors. You can judge whether Mouratoglou is merely stating his own opinion or accurately representing Serena, per Mark Hodgkinson of ESPN.com:

    I think, as a player, you need to play for something. Serena has won everything in tennis in singles and doubles. She loves the sport and still enjoys playing a lot but that is not enough to stay competitive. Everyone needs a goal. Writing tennis history is a very motivating goal for her.

    If Serena is to further make an argument that she is a greater player than Graf, she needs to win another French Open title. She has two on her mantlepiece, but one argument against her is that she does not have Graf's balance of dominance on every surface. (It's the kind of argument that Federer fans can bring up in pointing out that the Swiss star has greater balance in his majors distribution when compared to Nadal. Some might feel that Nadal needs to win more hard-court majors or add another Wimbledon title.)

    As it stands, Serena has six titles apiece at the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, five titles at Wimbledon and two at the French Open.

    Graf accumulated seven titles at Wimbledon, six at the French Open, five at the U.S. Open and four at the Australian Open. This is a more dominant distributionfour career Grand Slams plus a lot more.

    Serena can greatly enhance her numbers and legacy in catching up to Graf by adding this year's French Open.

Novak Djokovic

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    As we stated with Nadal and showed with Serena Williams, champions must always prove they can win again. In the renowned case of Novak Djokovic, it's French Open or bust. Everything is seemingly hinged on the Serbian finally winning the biggest title on clay.

    The pressure must be enormous. Suppose Djokovic does not win this time around. It's not like the Earth will stop spinning, but the post-match interviews and discussions would be the most difficult and disappointing moments of his career.

    Djokovic has often, and refreshingly, bared his soul to the media and reached out to fans. He's made no secret of his great desire to win the French Open, and he has won just about everything over the past half-year. If not now, will a French Open title ever happen?

    He is at the peak of his career and is the most dominant player in the world. He insists he can deal with the pressure. Djokovic has every opportunity to finally claim this elusive title after falling short the past four years, most notably losing a heartbreaking 2013 semifinal to Nadal.

    Djokovic must prove that he can finally finish the job and forever be a French Open champion.

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