What the Top Men's Players Proved at the 2015 French Open

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistJune 9, 2015

What the Top Men's Players Proved at the 2015 French Open

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    A grueling fortnight of tennis wrapped up in grand style at Roland Garros as Stanislas Wawrinka captured the jewel of the clay-court season.

    Further solidifying his status as a champion, Wawrinka put an exclamation point on a tournament full of surprising results and even redemption for several players.

    But not all involved were as fortunate. Some, like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, left in bitter disappointment, while Roger Federer's Grand Slam drought continued.

    So, it’s time to look back on all that transpired at the 2015 French Open. The following slides will review what several men in the Top 10 proved in Paris and where they stand as the season shifts to grass.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Will Be a Contender This Summer

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    Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had played only 11 matches and won just six times this season heading into Roland Garros. None of it mattered once he returned home to France.

    After being forced to skip the Australian Open and Indian Wells due to an arm injury, he spent much of the spring just trying to get back into the flow of the tour. But those raucous Parisian crowds amped him up.

    He coasted through the opening rounds of the tournament to set up a heavyweight fight against Tomas Berdych. Undeterred by facing the fourth seed, Tsonga bullied his way past the Czech.

    In the quarterfinals, he faced a craftier opponent in Kei Nishikori. Bursting out of the gates to a 6-1, 5-2 lead, Tsonga looked like the far superior player, but then Nishikori put together a stirring comeback to force a fifth set. 

    Fueled by the adrenaline on Court Philippe Chatrier, Tsonga steadied himself and closed out his Japanese foe. An unexpected second trip to the Roland Garros semifinals had arrived.

    In the end, Stan Wawrinka foiled his plans to become the first Frenchman since Yannick Noah in 1983 to win the event. Undone by his failure to break the Swiss' serve, Tsonga exited after four punishing sets.

    Just reaching that moment was an incredible triumph for Tsonga, though. The 30-year-old showed how potent he can be when healthy. It's not tough to see him continuing his resurgence at Wimbledon, where he's made two previous semifinals. 

Kei Nishikori's Learning Process Continues

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    Kei Nishikori is a player many view as a potential Grand Slam champion. Yet his journey toward that shining moment will have to wait a little longer.

    Blessed with a diverse arsenal of shots and elite athleticism, he is becoming an all-surface force. His blend of deft offense and relentless defense makes him a tough opponent on any court in the world. None of those gifts could carry him past a determined Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Paris, though.

    Flat in the first two sets, Nishikori fought to extend the match, but he came apart in the deciding set. No match for the sheer nature of Tsonga's power, Nishikori bowed out.

    What he can feel proud about is the fact he's now reached three consecutive major quarterfinals (including the 2014 U.S. Open final). He's certainly proved himself as the top young contender. Will the 25-year-old take that next leap?

    Time is on his side, but Nishikori may still have to endure a few more lessons before he's ready to bring a Grand Slam back to Japan.

Andy Murray Is Close to Winning Majors Again

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    Andy Murray wasn't himself for much of 2014.

    Back surgery at the end of the previous season put him on the shelf, and his recovery proved slower than expected. Sure, he still consistently reached the latter end of tournaments, but he lacked that extra juice against his top rivals. Not until last fall when he won Shenzhen, Vienna and Valencia, did the Scot finally begin to mount real momentum.

    Though his tormentor, Novak Djokovic, dashed his hopes in the finals of this year's Australian Open and Miami Open, as well as the semifinals at Indian Wells, Murray unexpectedly hit a new gear with the switch to clay.

    Prior to 2015, he had never even reached a clay-court final. He erased that mark with dominant performances to clinch titles in Munich and Madrid, the latter thanks to his thrashing of Rafael Nadal.

    Sporting an unblemished 15-0 record on the terre battue heading into the French Open semifinals, Murray's remarkable streak came to an end against none other than Djokovic.

    Yet he proved something even in defeat.

    After losing the first two sets in fairly convincing fashion, Murray didn't quit. He pushed back and secured late breaks in both the third and fourth sets to force a deciding showdown. Ultimately, he couldn't quite seal the deal in their two-day battle royal. Djokovic stormed ahead in the final set, handing Murray another tough loss.

    But that match seemed like an important step in Murray's journey back to major contention. With Wimbledon looming, he's confident he can close the gap further on his rival. Perhaps those lush lawns where he won the 2013 championship will rekindle the fire within him.

Roger Federer's Best Hopes Remain on Grass

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    The 2015 French Open reconfirmed what many thought leading into the event: Roger Federer's most realistic (and perhaps last) shot to win another major is at Wimbledon.

    Handed a tailor-made draw absent of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal in his half, Federer couldn't take advantage. After surging through his first three matches and then overcoming a hiccup against Gael Monfils, he failed to weather the storm against Wawrinka.

    Heading into their quarterfinal match, Federer owned a 16-2 record against his Davis Cup teammate. Just weeks earlier, their Rome semifinal turned into one-way traffic for Federer. But this time, it was Wawrinka who shined.

    Never letting Federer get into a rhythm, Wawrinka pummeled him repeatedly with monstrous groundstrokes. There's simply no defense for offense of that caliber, and Federer looked feeble trying to contend with the firepower.

    After his countryman swept him aside in three sets, Federer's bid to reach another final at Roland Garros came to a crashing halt. But with the grass-court season already underway, surely he sees another opportunity ahead.

    What more can be said about his resume on the lawns? From Halle to London, he's been an artist on the surface for more than a decade. His precise forehands, biting slices, nasty kick serves and willingness to come to net are all perfectly suited for the grass.

    With his 34th birthday approaching, Federer is running out of chances to add another Grand Slam title to his collection. Maybe a trip to the All England Club will prove fortuitous one final time. 

Rafael Nadal's Aura Is Fading

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    His struggles began at Wimbledon last summer and continued well into this spring. Multiple injuries and the culmination of five losses on his precious clay in 2015 had rendered Rafael Nadal vulnerable heading into the French Open. 

    Not even the King of Clay could reverse his fortunes on the red dirt in Paris.

    It's been a stunning spiral for Nadal, who now sits at No. 10 in the rankings after his five-year reign at Roland Garros came to an unceremonious end at the hands of Novak Djokovic. Their quarterfinal clash, predicted to be a match for the ages, turned into a dud.

    Nadal sailed through his first four matches of the tournament, dropping only one set along the way. But Djokovic exposed that run as a mirage, breaking down the Spaniard in a straight-sets romp.

    Where does he go from here? At age 29, Nadal's peak years are likely already behind him. His 29-10 record this season says it all: He's simply not the dominant force we're so accustomed to seeing. Every badly mishit ball, puzzling defeat and public confession about a lack of confidence further chips away at his aura. 

    The fear he once struck into opponents is gone. They now take the court against him believing they have a shot to win.

    One thing you can count on is that Nadal won't go down without a fight. He's too talented and determined to stay in his present rut. Yet it's becoming apparent that he's facing a steep climb back to the summit. 

Novak Djokovic Has Become an Enigma in Grand Slam Finals

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    For all the praise (and so much of it deserved) heaped upon Novak Djokovic's sinewy shoulders, one statistic can't be discounted: He's just 3-6 in major finals since the 2012 Australian Open.

    That ominous trend has Djokovic pondering what could have been. Despite his staggering records the last few seasons and near monopoly of the World Tour Finals and Masters Series events, he's stumbled far too often in the most important moments.

    When he beat Rafael Nadal for the first time at Roland Garros, he'd finally shaken a heavy burden off his back. The coronation appeared imminent. But his failure to close out Andy Murray sooner in their prolonged semifinal match proved costly.

    Playing three straight days in torrid heat had to take its toll on Djokovic. Against Stan Wawrinka, he was hit off the court by a fresher and more powerful opponent. His 28-match win streak, quest to win the French Open and the completion of his career Grand Slam all vanished in one deflating afternoon.

    It was a humbling result for a man used to inflicting so much humiliation on opponents; Djokovic whiffed on a golden opportunity to enhance his legacy. He couldn't grasp the title he wanted to hold so dearly and must now pick up the emotional pieces.

    Djokovic, like he so often does, will rebound from that defeat. He may soon go on another torrid run and claim a bounty of wins and titles. All those accomplishments, however, will lose part of their luster if he keeps coming up short in major finals. 

Stan Wawrinka Is Not a One-Slam Wonder

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    Once an afterthought living in the shadow of his Swiss compatriot, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka has maximized his talent in a late-career renaissance. Before the 2013 U.S. Open, he had never even advanced to the semifinals of a major.

    Today, he's a two-time major champion.

    The mercurial Wawrinka first tasted Grand Slam glory when he raced past a physically hampered Rafael Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final. That unlikely victory seemed like a fluke as he suffered through an inconsistent end to the season.

    It turns out Stan the Man just needed to taste some more humility before he could rise again.

    Entering the French Open with a 22-8 record and the eighth seed, Wawrinka wasn't expected to capture the title. He was supposed to be just a potential sparring partner for Federer—if he could even make it that far. But he had other plans and dominated his good friend in their quarterfinal match.

    After passing a stern test from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals, Wawrinka ran into a train by the name of Novak Djokovic. And he refused to blink.

    Djokovic didn't lose the match so much as Wawrinka stole it from him. His punishing groundstrokes left the Serbian shaking his head all day as winner after winner oozed from the Swiss' racket. Even when facing pressure on his own serve late in the match, Wawrinka coolly brushed away break points.

    What a turnaround for a player who lost in the first round at Roland Garros the previous year.

    Wawrinka has now firmly encroached on the Big Four's terrain. He's a perfect 6-0 in finals appearances dating back to the start of 2014. His ability to perform well in pressure situations against the best in the world is a testament to his metamorphosis on the court.

    As he celebrates along the Champs Elysees, he can credit his rededication to the game—and those magical shorts.

    All statistics are courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted. 

    Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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