Tuesday, May 18, 2010

2010 French Open Men's Preview: The Players

The familiar refrain: Who can stop Nadal at the French?

Not much has happened to Rafael Nadal this spring. No, it's been pretty ho-hum. Just breaking the all-time record for Masters titles and becoming the first player to sweep through all three clay court Masters events without a blemish on his record.

As far as the rest of the field goes, they can at least take solace in the fact that the spotlight is not firmly planted on them. While this is Nadal's tournament to win or lose, the rest of the field can go about it's business in the shadows, silently determined to prove to the world that they were wrong to ignore them.

Without any further ado, let's take a look at the phenom known as Nadal, and those that are secretly plotting his day of reckoning at this year's French Open.

The hands-down favorite:

Rafa. So eminent, so humble, and so impossible to beat on clay. 2009 proved that he may not be invincible, but if there were a word that meant "only a minor miracle will stop him," that would be the word that most of us would use to describe Nadal's chances of winning his 5th French Open title two weeks from this Sunday.

For several months we've been saying that Soderling's shocker will serve as constant reminder to the other top players on the ATP tour that Rafa can be beaten. But in reality it appears that the only one who is using last year's 4th round loss as motivation is Rafa himself.

The scintillating Spaniard has made such a compelling return to form, that as he swept through the clay season (while wisely skipping the Barcelona event for rest) without hardly losing a set (two to be precise), it was hard to fathom anybody actually getting the best of him at Roland Garros.

One thing is for certain: Not many people talked about Robin Soderling in their 2009 French Open previews. Could this year's phantom be another player who is currently not garnering much attention as a possible breakthrough player in the French?

Probably the most amazing statistic about Rafa is how well he is managing his serve. A quick glance at the statistics showed that he is third on tour at winning service games (90%). He is sandwiched between a couple of behemoths named Isner and Karlovic, who both dwarf him in size and in service speed. But Rafa has become the master at using his serve to give him an advantage in the ensuing rally, and once he achieves this his opponent is basically running down a dream.

Of course his stellar return game is as defiant as ever, and when he is doing both so well, it leaves his opponent almost no margin for error.

Possible Usurpers:

Just what kind of Herculean effort will it take to knock Rafa off his game? Here is a look at the players who are likely trying to answer that question as I write.

Roger Federer: Federer has worked to put his game back together after another alarmingly poor spring. Unlike last year, he came up short against Rafa in the Madrid final, but Federer is well rested and perhaps he'll probe deep into his inner psyche to find that je ne sais quoi that has been missing for him so often when he faces off against his arch rival.

To do the deed Federer will undoubtedly have to come out with reckless abandon, looking to do damage with the forehand whenever possible and looking to serve to perfection. He's capable of all this, but first he'll have to win six matches to reach the final. Will he have enough left in the tank if he gets there?

Ernests Gulbis: What is uncanny about Gulbis is his ability to deliver soul-crushing first serves almost nonchalantly. When he does this, the match almost always tilts in his favor and he is free to dictate with his punishing groundstrokes and connect a few dots with his very precise dropper. When his serve falls off, so does his game. He's one of only two players to steal a set from Nadal this spring, and if he continues to play with a high level of confidence, it's not outrageous to think he can't challenge Rafa again.

The Spaniards: This has been the season of the Spaniard, as David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, Fernando Verdasco, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Feliciano Lopez, and Albert Montanes have all done some damage over the last three months. Verdasco broke through to his first Masters final, but played a loose match and was hammered by Nadal in Monte Carlo. Ferrer was basically hell on wheels throughout the European clay swing, but he couldn't do the deal against Rafa, or for that matter, Federer. Almagro, perhaps overlooked, mightily swung his way to a one set lead over Nadal, but he couldn't cash in on the opportunity.

Expect Spaniards to move through the draw swiftly at Roland Garros. They've all got the game and they all relish the chance to shine on the clay. But when they butt heads with their country mate, it never fails: They seem willing to take a back seat to Rafa. Psychologically, I don't think any of the Spanish players believes that they can beat Rafa in a meaningful match.

Maybe one of them will finally say "enough is enough" to Rafa, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Gael Monfils: La Monf finally got a few matches under his belt in Madrid, and he played well until he got steamrolled by Nadal. He's made the semis and the quarters of Roland Garros in the last two years, and he is without question one of the most entertaining players to watch, due to his joyful and artistic brand of showmanship. La Monf patrols the red clay with such a reckless abandon, such a joie de vivre, that it is hard not to imagine him winning it all in Paris when you watch him play.

What would it be like in Paris if Monfils won the crown? How crazy would that be and what would it do for not only tennis in France, but for tennis around the globe? It's fun to think about, but when reality sets in, the hard truth is that Monfils has not put in the hard miles this season. Roger Rasheed, his fitness-crazed coach, can only do so much with a man who has been out since Indian Wells due to injury.

Murray and Djokovic: It's strange to be putting Murray and Djokovic in the same category but that is where I am putting them. Is it where they belong? I'll let you decide. Both have been bitten by the inconsistency bug in 2010, and both come in to Roland Garros with very little buzz surrounding them.

Djokovic is one of the best clay courters in the world, but his 2010 campaign paled in comparison to his results in 2009, where he pushed Rafa in Monte Carlo and Madrid. This season has been one of turmoil and health issues for Djokovic. His seperation from Todd Martin was supposed to give him the freedom to find himself again, but so far that has not been the case. Still, many have been waiting, almost expecting, a breakthrough from the Serb. He's gone deep in Paris before (semis in '07 and '08) and he certainly has the game to do it again.

Murray played some pretty good tennis in Madrid, and it appears as if he has finally shaken the Melbourne blues from his system. But Alex Corretja hasn't really turned him into a clay afficionado, so it's hard to imagine him getting any further than his career best quarter-final run of 2009.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Tsonga is underrated when it comes to clay. No, he isn't a clay specialist, but he appears to be very comfortable on the surface, and he's played at Roland Garros throughout his junior career many times. 2010 will be Tsonga's 3rd French Open, and last year was his best performance as he maneuvered into the fourth round before being taken out by Juan Martin del Potro.

Much like Monfils, Tsonga is very good at rallying the home crowd and using their energy to his advantage. He may be headed for a career best performance at Roland Garros if the draw works in his favor.

Robin Soderling: Twice he avoided a clay rematch with Nadal by losing earlier than expected in Rome and Madrid. But Soderling is good at responding to a few poor weeks with a superb one. Factor in the fact that the Swedes have a great history at Roland Garros (9 titles), and it's not too hard to imagine Soderling making a run here.

The no-shows and the walking wounded: It's a pity, but this years Roland Garros draw will be missing several top players who would normally be getting major ink. Juan Martin del Potro is recovering from wrist surgery, and Nikolay Davydenko is not quite healed from his wrist issues. David Nalbandian is out again, as minor injuries keep derailing his comeback from hip surgery. Gilles Simon, Radek Stepanek, and Tommy Haas are also still out with injuries.

Fernando Gonzales, a semi-finalist last year, will play for the first time since his early departure from the Barcelona draw in April. A knee injury has kept him on the sideline.

The best of the rest: Andy Roddick had his best showing at Roland Garros last year, but he hasn't played a match on clay all season. John Isner and Sam Querrey, the bomb-serving Americans don't strike the same type of fear into the hearts of their opponents as they do on clay. Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil had some great results on clay earlier in the season, but he hasn't been able to cause much of a stir in the Masters events. Marin Cilic is off his game, but I wouldn't write the young Croat off just yet. Tomas Berdych and Juan Monaco, as usual, will be fun to watch - both are capable of causing a stir. German Philipp Kohlshcreiber is always capapble of an upset.


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