Men's Preview: Week of May 23
Men's Look Forward: Roland Garros
Could this finally be the year that the fastcourters do unto Roland Garros as the Spaniards have long done unto Wimbledon?
Probably not, but it's interesting that the two potential seeds who withdrew from the French Open before the draw was made were Lleyton Hewitt, who prefers faster courts, and Taylor Dent, who really, really, really prefers faster courts. And, after the draw came out, we saw #11 see Joachim Johansson (who, yes, really prefers faster courts) pull out with an elbow problem.
Of course, that has its advantages for everyone else, since it means that Juan Ignacio Chela and Juan Carlos Ferrero get seeds. It's not as if Dent or Johansson were going to win the thing anyway....
The truly interesting thing is to hear so many people predicting Roger Federer to win, for all that this is the one Slam where he not only has never won but has never so much as made the semifinal -- his best result was a quarterfinal, way back in 2001, and he has first round losses in two of the last three years. Can he win? Sure. But we'd have to say that "field" has a much better chance at this Slam than any other Slam.
It's unusually hard even to pick strong candidates. Compared to the other Slams, the number of past winners here is surprisingly high -- 2004 champion Gaston Gaudio, 2003 winner Juan Carlos Ferrero, 2002 titleist Albert Costa, three-time champion Gustavo Kuerten, 1999 victor Andre Agassi, and 1998 champion Carlos Moya. And that list doesn't even include the two guys considered the strongest favorites other than Federer: Rafael Nadal and Guillermo Coria! It's true that Kuerten is in poor form and unlikely to contend, and Agassi lost first round last year, and Moya is a mess, and Costa was probably a fluke -- but still, it's a wide-open draw.
The French will probably be spending most of their time watching Richard Gasquet, who historically has had most of his best results in or near France, but who now has raised his game to a whole new level. Combine his recent results with the "France Effect" and you have a guy who might indeed be ready to do some damage. The Young France crew also includes Gael Monfils, who suddenly finds himself not their brightest hope, but that might actually help take some pressure off him. He came in as a wildcard.
Another guy who might be worth watching is David Nalbandian, who is ever prone to break down but who was a semifinalist last year and one of the few true all-surface players on the ATP. Nikolay Davydenko, who has never come close to winning something this big but who is having a very good clay season (though he comes in tired), may well be ready to provide some upsets though he probably can't win the whole thing. Mariano Puerta won't win the thing, but he's in the quarter headed by Andy Roddick (hates clay -- or, at least, European clay), Andre Agassi (not consistent on clay), Guillermo Canas (can be upset), and Ivan Ljubicic. Given how well Puerta has been playing this year -- he started the year at #132 but made it into the Top 40 last week (and higher in the Race) -- he could well surprise a few people.
Plus Marat Safin always gets mentioned at any Slam -- and indeed his 20-6 career record at Roland Garros is impressive, though he has only one career semifinal here.
All in all, it's quite a field of contenders. Federer, Nadal, Gaudio, and Coria are the obvious leading candidates, but "field" surely includes also Ferrero and Agassi and Kuerten and Nalbandian and Moya and maybe even Gasquet and Safin. Expect to see some pretty wild fluctuations in the bookmakers' odds as the first week progresses!
Noteworthy First Round Matches
Alberto Martin vs. (14) Moya. Moya missed Hamburg, and he wasn't playing very well even when he did play. And Martin has been playing pretty well lately. Moya is barely ahead of Martin in the Race (106 points to 104). If the 1998 champion doesn't get things together fairly quickly, he could be in genuine trouble.
(31) Chela vs. Schuettler. Chela started the year poorly, then found some life recently. Can Schuettler possibly imitate that?
Starace vs. (7) Henman. Henman has come to like clay, but he still isn't entirely consistent on it. And Starace, while not yet a world-beater, has shown upset skills.
(23) Grosjean vs. Monaco. These days, every match is an adventure for Grosjean, simply because he's so fragile -- plus he's had his best results on faster surfaces, and Monaco is more of a slowcourt guy.
Srichaphan vs. (16) Stepanek. This probably won't be noteworthy for the result; Srichaphan has been having a worse clay year than usual, and he's never had a good one. But he's one of the higher-ranked unseeded players.
(33) Soderling vs. Verdasco. This was supposed to be the spot of big-serving Swede Joachim Johansson. Johansson pulled out with a bad elbow -- and was replaced by big-serving Swede Robin Soderling. Fernando Verdasco probably won't even notice the difference: he's a very solid young Spaniard who likes clay a lot -- and his before-and-after opponents both hate it.
(21) Haas vs. Mayer. Florian Mayer has not been having much of a year, but he did win a key match at Dusseldorf, and he seems to like clay. Haas isn't nearly so thrilled with the surface. And there is also the German-versus-German aspect.
Spadea vs. Costa. It hasn't been a good year at all for the American, but he's due, and he's good at out-lasting opponents. Costa has been playing pretty well lately, but he's no kid any more....
Kuerten vs. Sanchez. Kuerten is still trying to come back from his latest injury, and hasn't been having much luck, but he's a three-time champion. Sanchez just made the St. Poelten quarterfinal, but he was a wreck before that. This one is all about who is recovering faster.
Draper vs. (19) Thomas Johansson. Hard to believe Scott Draper would come here in his sort-of-comeback-attempt, but he did. And, at first glance, his draw looks pretty good: Thomas Johansson has a career record of 3-7 at Roland Garros and has never been past the second round. But the Swede seems to be adapting to clay -- he was brilliant at Dusseldorf.
Clement (WC) vs. Popp. Too bad this couldn't have happened on grass! As it is, we have the slumping Clement (though he's recovered a bit lately) against Popp, whose only real weapon (his serve) is nullified on clay. Don't expect many long points.
Karlovic vs. (26) Kiefer. This is a part of the draw that hates clay -- Agassi, Bjorkman, Karlovic, Kiefer, Popp. Karlovic has never won a match at Roland Garros. On the other hand, Kiefer is 3-8 here, and at one point they held him out of Dusseldorf. Somebody has to win this!
(24) F. Lopez vs. Mathieu. Paul-Henri Mathieu remains inconsistent on clay -- but Feliciano Lopez has consistently shown himself to be a fastcourter. It's hard to get any sort of feeling for this match.
Monfils (WC) vs. (9) Canas. Talk about a lousy draw for both guys! Guillermo Canas is steady, and likes clay a lot, but he generally needs some help from his opponents to beat them. Monfils has more weapons -- but he doesn't have much experience, so maybe he'll give Canas the help he needs.
(13) Ljubicic vs. Puerta. It's been a great comeback for Mariano Puerta this year, and -- based on his history -- it's nearly his last chance for 2005; he won't do anything after the schedule moves away from clay. Just how much damage can he do here?
Once again we insert our broken record: Roger Federer is safe at #1. Indeed, if everything goes right for Federer, he could end up with twice as many Entry points as his nearest competitor.
Below that, of course, there is competition. Lleyton Hewitt's inability to play costs him most of his lead over Andy Roddick -- most, but not all. Roddick has to reach the Round of Sixteen to pass him.
It's theoretically possible that Marat Safin could get into the act, too -- possible, though not likely. He needs at least a final to pass Roddick, and at least a title to pass Hewitt. In practice, Safin's chances of moving down look a lot better than his chances of moving up. That's not just because he's having his usual mid-year slump. Much more important is the fact that Rafael Nadal is only about 300 points behind him -- and Nadal is now the #4 seed, so he could possibly pass Safin just by holding his seed if the Russian does lose early. And if the Spaniard wins Roland Garros, then he is #4 unless Safin is the guy he beats in the final.
Even if Nadal doesn't move up, it's going to be hard to knock him off the #5 ranking. He has over a 300 point lead on Andre Agassi in safe points, and over an 800 point lead on everyone else. From those numbers, it of course follows that Agassi has a 500 point lead on everyone else. Thus it's effectively certain in practice that Nadal will be no worse than #6 and Agassi no worse than his current #7.
Below that, things get pretty complicated, because we have three Top Ten players (Coria, Gaudio, Henman) with semifinal points or more to defend. Henman, amazingly, is #7 in safe points (ahead of his #8 ranking!), barely ahead of Guillermo Canas at #8, the inactive Joachim Johansson at #9, Nikolay Davydenko at #10, and then Gaudio, Ivan Ljubicic, Radek Stepanek, Coria, and Dominik Hrbaty. But the gap from Davydenko to Hrbaty is barely over 150 points, and the gap from Henman to Coria less than 450, so we could easily see anyone in that group end up at #10, or even #9 or higher. It seems likely that Federer, Hewitt, Roddick, Safin, Nadal, Agassi, Henman, and Canas will be Top Ten when all is done (meaning that, yes, Canas is threatening to become the #1 Argentine!), but the other two Top Ten players are anybody's guess.
Of course, for every rise there is a corresponding fall. David Nalbandian, the only one of last year's semifinalists who is not presently Top Ten, risks falling out of the Top 20 if he has another early loss. Carlos Moya, with quarterfinalist points to worry about, is below #20 in safe points and could end up outside the Top 25. Juan Ignacio Chela, another quarterfinalist, could fall below #40. As for quarterfinalist Gustavo Kuerten, we almost hate to think about it.
Players who lost in the Round of Sixteen last year were Feliciano Lopez, Marat Safin, Igor Andreev, Xavier Malisse, Tommy Robredo, Michal Llodra, Nicolas Escude, and Olivier Mutis. The latter pair will be particularly hard-hit; Escude will at least get an injury ranking when he comes back, but Mutis was not deemed worthy of a wildcard and lost in the first round of qualifying.
Somewhere in the draw, of course, there is this year's equivalent of Andreev, last year's young surprise. But there is no obvious candidate for that role, unless perhaps it's Verdasco.
There is one interesting sidelight on all this, and that's the ATP Race. The Race, of course, is not the rankings, but it gives us some perspective on what could happen for the rest of the year. And in that department, we actually do have a contest, between Federer and Nadal. Federer's lead is currently 110 points, meaning that Nadal could overtake him if he makes the final and Federer loses in the first couple of rounds, or with a title if Federer goes down before the semifinal. (If Nadal wins and Federer makes the semifinal, or if Nadal makes the final and Federer loses in the Round of Sixteen, they're tied.) Odds are, after this week, that Federer will earn points faster than Nadal; the surfaces are better for him and he has more optional slots left. But if Nadal can build up enough of a lead, it just might make life interesting for Federer.
Usually we try to organize this by round. But this time, perhaps, we should do it by ranking.
For Roger Federer, looking at his Race standing, he can guarantee himself the #1 spot unless Nadal wins Roland Garros by reaching the third round. His first two rounds should be no problem, but that means beating Fernando Gonzalez in third round.
And it doesn't get better from there; in the quarterfinal, he would face past champion Carlos Moya. And then comes either Tim Henman or last year's semifinalist David Nalbandian, who used to be a Federer nemesis back in the days when there were Federer nemeses. Win that, and he clinches at least the co-#1 Race standing.
If he does win that quarterfinal, he would potentially face Nadal in the semifinal, assuming both hold seed. Given the situation outlined above, that would help decide the #1 Race standing -- and, possibly, the year-end #1.
Andy Roddick's situation is a lot simpler: Win three matches, and he's #2 in the rankings (unless Marat Safin wins the whole thing). His first two matches (against Tsonga and then Acasuso or Mirnyi) aren't bad at all. The key is his third round against Filippo Volandri. Given Volandri's recent results, that is definitely not a sure thing. If Roddick can manage to stay in form that far, he has a decent shot at the quarterfinal -- his quarter is surely the easiest, with Agassi, Canas, Ljubicic, Massu, Lopez, and Kiefer the other seeds (since only Canas and the out-of-form Massu are really clay players) -- and there are eight qualifiers in that section!
There isn't really much point in talking about Safin and his prospects of moving up; he needs to do too much. But he also has to worry about Nadal coming up behind him. He has two easy matches -- but then faces Juan Carlos Ferrero, who barely beat him in a match marked by some nasty verbal exchanges two weeks ago. After that comes the out-of-form Tommy Robredo, or maybe Kuerten, and then Guillermo Coria. Hard to believe Safin can survive all that, but if he does, he'd face Roddick in the semifinal, so winning his quarterfinal might well open the path to the final.
As luck of the draw had it, the next two guys in the rankings, Rafael Nadal and defending champion Gaston Gaudio, are in the same quarter. Both will face some challenges getting to their meeting. Gaudio's second round opponent is Stefan Koubek, who has been compared to Thomas Muster though he's obviously a much lesser version. Jiri Novak in the third round likes clay. And then comes David Ferrer, who has been having a great clay season. Nadal's first test will probably be Richard Gasquet in the third round -- if Gasquet can win that, he'll surely be Top 30. Radek Stepanek or Sebastien Grosjean in the Round of Sixteen are no jokes, either. Still, odds are good that the Gaudio/Nadal match will come off. If Nadal wins that, he potentially gets that meeting with Federer, and he also has the chance to pass Safin -- and Gaudio will be left between #9 and #11. But if Gaudio wins it, then Nadal stays stuck at no better than #5, and Gaudio will almost certainly stay Top Ten.
Andre Agassi needs at least a semifinal to overtake Nadal, and probably a lot more; he needs a final to pass Safin, and perhaps more. But he is in that Roddick quarter, so it might be possible. Assuming he plays reasonably well, he should at least be able to reach the Round of Sixteen, where he would face Canas or maybe Monfils.
Tim Henman has a vicious draw, and he's 500+ points behind Agassi; it's going to be very hard for him to move above #7. But he and Canas are nearly tied for that ranking, so every match he wins improves his chances for the #8 (or higher) Wimbledon seed. Unfortunately, he faces Starace in the first round, then maybe Haehnel. Then he would face #31 seed Chela, who has quarterfinalist points to defend, so that match is big for both of them. Then he would face Nalbandian, his fellow semifinalist last year. Then Federer. Thus either Nalbandian or Henman is guaranteed a rankings hit, and probably both; Chela is in trouble too.
Guillermo Coria is the #8 seed, but he's also the top clay-courter in the bottom half; it's definitely a top-heavy draw (consider that Federer, Moya, Nalbandian, Nadal, Gasquet, and Gaudio are in the top half, while the bottom boasts Coria, Davydenko, Ferrero, Safin, and Kuerten). He has an easy first couple of rounds, and the first seed he would face is slumping Mikhail Youzhny. Then comes Davydenko; that ought to be Coria's first real test. Lose it, and he's guaranteed to be out of the Top Ten; he'll probably be around #12 and with very few clay points available for the rest of the year. Win it, and he faces Safin or somebody, then Agassi or Roddick or Canas or whoever. Win the first of those matches, and he might stay Top Ten; win the second, and he almost certainly will.