Thursday, May 25, 2006
French Open Preview: Nadal Repeat?
By Ricky Dimon
Some years, magic happens at Roland Garros. Small miracles of sorts. Often, a champion emerges that leaves even the most passionate of tennis fans asking, "Who in the name of Gustavo Kuerten is he?"
In 1997, Kuerten was that miracle. The unseeded and relatively-unknown Brazilian shocked the tennis world that year by reaching the French Open final and erasing veteran clay-court specialist Sergi Bruguera in straight sets to win the title.
While Albert Costa had already made a name for himself on the ATP Tour by 2002, his triumph that year at Roland Garros was nothing short of shocking. Once again, an unseeded player toppled a heavily-favored opponent (this time the victim was Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero) in the championship match.
The same sort of miracle graced the French Open in 2004. Unseeded Argentine Gaston Gaudio rolled through the likes of Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian en route to a final clash with countryman Guillermo Coria. At the time, Coria dominated the clay the way Rafael Nadal does now. Five sets later, after squandering a two-set lead and two match points in the fifth set, Coria was reduced to just another victim of Roland Garros magic. On the other side of the coin, Gaudio entered the tournament destined to be forgotten by history, but left a history-maker.
Of course, in other years, the champion has been exactly who we anticipated. Following his stunner in 1997, Kuerten slowly evolved into a clay-court force with whom the Roland Garros faithful fell in love. By the turn of the century, with no French hometown hero as a true contender, he was the man the crowd rooted for and expected to win. He did just that in both 2000 and 2001.
At the 2003 French Open, Ferrero was No. 3 in the world, but easily the top clay-court player. He finally realized his potential and erased the disappointment of falling to Costa the previous year.
And we all remember what happened last year, when Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal rode a tidal wave of momentum into the French Open by dominating the clay-court season. As expected, he could not be stopped at Roland Garros.
Lest we forget, however, even when the odds-on favorite has triumphed at the French Open, the magic is never lost. When Ferrero won in 2003, the runner-up was Dutch giant Martin Verkerk. I must admit I had never heard of him before that tournament. Not once. He had done nothing before, and has done nothing since. Adding to the shock factor is that Verkerk's game was best-suited for grass — clay should have been his worst surface. His run to the 2003 French Open final is something that can never be explained — it was truly a miracle.
Similarly, little-known and now-forgotten Mario Puerta stormed into last year's championship match and gave Nadal everything he could handle. Like Verkerk, Puerta had done absolutely nothing before his coming out party at Roland Garros. And all he has done since is test positive for performance-enhancing drugs (his second offense) and get banned for eight years from the ATP tour.
Needless to say, the forecast for what will take place at Roland Garros is never clear. Sometimes it calls for a miracle, other times it calls for the old reliables to put the upstarts in their place. It's impossible to know, but here is my best shot at a preview for the 2006 French Open.
Rafael Nadal — He has won a record 53-straight matches on clay. He is three-for-three in clay-court tournaments this year, including Masters Series titles in Monte Carlo and Rome. Not only is he playing better than anyone else at the moment, but Nadal has also learned to play the big points better than anyone else (see: Rome final against Roger Federer when he saved two match points in the fifth set). Of course, at this year's French Open, he may not face any crucial points unless he plays Federer in the championship. Right now, Federer is the only player who can stay on a clay court with the Spaniard. Nadal is the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament and should not be bet against at any cost.
Roger Federer — Overall, he's still the best player in the game, although Nadal always gets hyped up during the clay-court season. At any other Grand Slam tournament — especially Wimbledon — Federer would be an even bigger favorite than Nadal is here. As the top two seeds, Federer and Nadal will be on opposite sides of the draw, so Roger should get to the finals. If Nadal somehow gets bounced along the way, Federer would instantly become the favorite, but even he does go up against Nadal in the championship, his showing in Rome proves he still has a legitimate chance.
David Nalbandian — In my mind, he is definitely the third choice to win the tournament. The Argentine won the year-end Masters Cup last year in a five-set epic over Federer, and the momentum has carried over into 2006. He has a whopping 24-6 record for the year, including a semi-final appearance at the Australian Open. Without question, Nalbandian is unfazed on tennis's grandest stages. He has also been thriving on clay as of late. He won three weeks ago in Estoril, and had strong showings at both Rome and Monte Carlo, losing in three sets to Federer and Tommy Robredo, respectively. Nalbandian should be seeded third at Roland Garros, so he can avoid Nadal and Federer until the semis.
Tommy Robredo — He is coming off the biggest win of his career, crushing Radek Stepanek in straight sets to win the Masters Series Hamburg on Sunday. Robredo certainly benefited from the absence of Nadal and Federer, but he still had quality wins over David Ferrer and Mario Ancic, in addition to his domination of Stepanek. The Spaniard also reached the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo (lost to Gaudio) and the finals of Barcelona, where he gave Nadal a decent match. Robredo is playing the best tennis of his life right now, and if he receives a favorable draw (i.e., avoiding you know who), he can do some serious damage.
Since "pretender" is synonymous with "American" at Roland Garros, I'll just put all the notable American players in this category. Hey, it's exactly where they belong.
Andy Roddick — I remember a few years ago when Roddick lost to Nadal in the Davis Cup final on clay and I considered it an upset. All I can do now is laugh hysterically at myself for thinking that. Roddick stinks on clay. He's played two tournaments on the red stuff this year and has produced no notable results. Tommy Haas took him out in Houston in early April, and 19-year-old Gael Monfils erased him in two uncontested sets in Rome. Adding insult to injury, Roddick has not even played well on the hard courts this year. His loss to Marcos Baghdatis in Australia is somewhat explicable (the Cypriot was unconscious the entire two weeks), but losses to David Ferrer, Igor Andreev, and Julien Benneteau are simply unforgivable. He'll be gone the first time he sees a seeded player, if not before.
James Blake — He's actually playing decent tennis right now and is really the only hope for an American man to get past the third round. Blake has had his fair share of clay-court disasters in the past, though, so advancing well into the second week would be a stunner.
Robby Ginepri — He's won three times in 2006 ... I'm talking about matches, not tournaments.
Taylor Dent — Please.
Mardy Fish — Zzzzz.
Paul Goldstein, Vince Spadea — That's when you know it's time to stop analyzing.
Ripe For an Early Upset
Lleyton Hewitt — He just played his first match of the year on clay two days ago, and to say it did not go well would be the understatement of the season. The fiery Australian lost to someone named Marcos Daniel from Brazil. The rest of Hewitt's 2006 campaign hasn't been much better. He has reached the quarterfinals of the French Open twice, in 2001 and 2004. He won't get close to that far this time around.
Gaston Gaudio — He is lethal on clay, as we all saw in 2004. But Gaudio embodies the unpredictability of the French Open better than any other player. He could either win the tournament or lose in the first round. After losing to Robin Vik last week in a World Team Championships match, Gaudio said, "I think I have to start again from scratch. That's as bad as I'm playing at present. I am very frustrated and simply only bad on the court." Uh, sounds like a first round exit is the safer bet.
Guillermo Coria — He spared himself by withdrawing from the tournament. Coria cited an elbow injury, but more likely is that he understood how bad he was playing.
David Ferrer — The Spaniard is ranked 15th in the world and clay is by far his best surface, so it would only be a miracle if he won the whole thing. Ferrer has the tools to do it, but probably lacks the mental game to survive two grueling weeks at Roland Garros. He's a good choice to reach the quarterfinals, but if he goes down a set to one of the big guns once he gets there, he'll probably go in the tank and not come out.
Jose Acasuso — Another clay-court specialist who will never do anything noteworthy on any other surface. But the Argentine has had a good summer on the dirt, and he gained some valuable experience last year at the French Open in beating Roddick on his way to the fourth round. Acasuso has stormed into the top 30 in the ATP rankings, so he should be seeded at this year's proceedings. That will spare some other seeded player a terrifying early-round matchup.
Nicolas Almagro — This probably evokes a who-in-the-name-of-Gustavo-Kuerten-is-he kind of response from most readers, as Almagro is a relative no-name despite his recent climb to No. 42 in the rankings. With any luck, however, the 20-year-old Spaniard will make his presence known at Roland Garros. His record in 2006 is a mind-boggling 17-6 and recently he's been as hot as the summer sun. So far on clay, he has reached the semis of Acapulco, the semis of Barcelona (lost to Nadal), and the quarters of Rome, where he lost to Federer 7-5 in the third set. Almagro also won his first ATP tournament in Valencia. Still, however, his ranking won't earn him a seed at the French. Sound the upset alert.
The ingredients are there for a miracle of Kuertenian and Verkerkian proportions to take place once again on the hallowed grounds of Roland Garros. At the same time, however, the tournaments two biggest stars are more-than-capable of fending off the magic that the upstarts will attempt to throw at them.
So that leaves me with only one option for my fearless French Open predictions. On one half of the draw, I expect the unexpected. On the other half, order will be restored. Quite frankly, I am way too terrified (and also too smart) to pick against Nadal, so it will be Federer who bows out prematurely. Nadal, meanwhile, will storm through the field en route to the finals, where he will play the Martin Verkerk of 2006. Until the draw comes out, it is anyone's guess as to who that player will be.
What I do know, however, is that there's a reason why that player will be the "Martin Verkerk" of 2006 rather than the "Gaston Gaudio" of 2006.
Gaudio won the whole thing.
He didn't have to play Rafael Nadal in the finals.