Wimbledon is undoubtedly the Queen Mother of all tournaments. The U.S. Open is the surly uncle who drinks too much at parties and is always saying something awkward at dinner.
The French Open is the father figure: Strong, quiet, sure of his movements. He is the dignified, masculine counterpart to the lady in all white. He is stained red with hard work and filled with a reserved adrenaline. He is what we look forward to every spring, a revved-up start to the long winter hangover—the one we all suffer from thanks to our drunken collegiate cousin, the Australian Open.
The first question seems to be the only one anyone is asking: Is there someone who can stop Nadal’s quest for five trophies on the grounds of Roland Garros this year? My answer, in a word: No.
Take away any of what we’ve seen in the past four years at RG and state the blatant facts of the tournament’s specifics. It is the most physically grueling of all the slams, and the perfect player here is able to last five sets with an intense endurance. He will also excel on a surface well-suited to those who rely on a high bouncing ball as a weapon of attack, and where a slower pace of game is a huge positive factor, both physically and psychologically.
Did you build him in your mind? Is he screaming “¡Vamos!” and wearing a lot of neon? Good. You’re following along.
Barring physical injury, there is little to stop Nadal from all but massacring the field. Thinking Roger Federer’s victory over him last week on his home turf in Madrid will break his confidence? You can count out his emotions getting in the way—Rafa fears no man, except maybe Uncle Toni.
So it’s not a matter of who will beat Nadal—we’ve already concluded that’s not going to happen. Our next best question would be “Who is going to make him work a little harder for it this year?” It’s probably not who you’re thinking.
Anyone’s best guess would be the man Nadal has battled the past three years for the title, Roger Federer. He has won every other slam, but the French has always left him cold, Rafa handily (with the left, of course) clicking on the “No Vacancy” sign.
Federer has been down but not out for most of the 2009 season. Last week’s aforementioned victory in Madrid shows his form has somewhat returned. However, due to the well publicized climates playing like hard courts, it doesn’t speak as loudly as it should. Let us not forget his recent unlikely exit in Monte Carlo at the hands of his countryman, Stanislas Wawrinka.
At last year’s French, Rafa gave Roger a truly telling gift: Federer’s first bagel in nine years. It’s been a long time since Roger has bested the Spaniard on clay. It may be longer yet.
So if not No. 2, how about No. 3? The answer, to be blunt, is no. For all the media heralding Andy Murray has received this clay court season, he has given very few reasons for those words to even reach print. He does have a high-level endurance and the physicality to make it far in the tournament, but he’ll need to show much more than he has been in the past weeks.
Perhaps it’s a brilliant tactic—shock and awe—but listen: You’re going to have to come armed with much more than that to take down Nadal.
If you’re a betting person, Vegas odds have the next man in line, No. 4 Novak Djokovic and Murray dead even at 12/1 – Nadal, for those wondering, is a hands down favorite at 1/4. My money would be all on Nole, who has been Nadal’s opponent in the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome, and gave us the likely best match of 2009 thus far in the Madrid Semis (Two tie breaks! Three match points down! Four hours long!).
Djokovic is learning to adapt to Nadal’s game as it is on clay. No longer relying on technicalities to gain an advantage, he is slowly moving the pawns into place.
Never the man noted for his fitness, Djokovic has been working hard to improve his stamina since that awkwardly embarrassing run-in with a much stronger Andy Roddick in the Australian Open. My chips are on Nole for a bolt to the final against Rafa. It will be a miracle if he—let alone anyone—can last five sets, but he’ll give it his all—and for him, that speaks volumes.
The French will have few opportunities to show off on their home turf this year, with Richard Gasquet suspended and Gael Monfils likely out with a knee injury, this leaves Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to pick up the slack after lackluster showings on both their parts in recent events.
Argentina’s Juan Martin Del Potro can be a threat if he can keep himself from cracking under pressure. He has made a strong start in the clay season thus far, but seems to wilt under the big lights of the majors. (That double bagel handed to him by Federer at the Australian Open still stings.)
The Americans have bleaker hopes, latching on to the slight promise of Andy Roddick’s newfound confidence and his set-taking fete from Federer in Madrid.
Chile’s Fernando Gonzales and Spain’s Fernando Verdasco will also be exciting to watch, as they have both been running on a “quarterfinals or bust” streak on clay. Don’t be surprised if either one of the Fernando’s make it to the semis this year.