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Todd’s Tennis Takes – 2012 French Open Preview

TTT – French Open Preview

The ATP Tour has just about wrapped up the April/May clay tune-up season, leading to the ultimate red clay event – Roland Garros and the French Open. Last year Novak Djokovic came into Paris riding a 37 match win streak to open the year, only to have it – and hopes for a first French title – stopped at 41 by 2009 French champ Roger Federer.  Fed then fell in the finals for a 4th time at Roland Garros, to the same man he lost to the prior three times – the King of Clay, Rafael Nadal.

This year is a different story…the King of Clay has somewhat reasserted his dominance on the dirt, winning Masters Monte Carlo, Masters Rome, and Barcelona this year…over Djoker, Djoker, and Ferrer, respectively. Between those 3 tournaments and the French, Nadal has over half his career titles (27 of 49). Fed took the other Masters tuneup, Madrid, but the awful blue clay tainted the event, as both Djoker and Nadal failed to make the semis and voiced their displeasure afterwards, neither coming back unless Madrid ditches their blue experiment, which made footing for fast, defensive-minded players treacherous – a groin pull just waiting to happen.

Anyway, to start the preview, let’s look at the best two players in the game, Rafa & Nole – I was able to watch their Rome final in complete solitude Mon morning and have a few observations:

1)      I am a huge fan of Djoker’s game, and was rooting hard for him to win, but am now happy he lost, because it got Nadal back to #2, so he’s guaranteed to not see Djoker until the finals. These two are clearly the best in the game, and the gap is growing between them and Fed.

2)      When they are both on top of their game, Djoker should win 8 out of 10 times – he’s naturally more aggressive, moves and plays defense just as well as Nadal, and has an uncanny ability to control the shot with his wrist when completely stretched out on a dead sprint. His ball often still clears the net by only 5-10 inches, a testament to his phenomenal hand-eye coordination, wrist strength, and feel.

3)      Djoker goes in and out of being ‘on’ and ‘off’ more than Nadal, which is why Nadal won the match (huge unforced errors # from Djoker, especially on the backhand side).

4)      Nadal is like the eager puppy who wants to chase down everything you throw for it as fast as he can…lucky for us, he’s still only 25, in his prime, and a treat to watch. Also, people talk about Rod Laver’s left forearm being so much bigger than his right…well check out Nadal’s left bicep vs. his right – it looks about 30% bigger!

5)      There was a missed call late in the first set, on serve, after a 20+ ball rally, that cost Djoker a break point opportunity (called an in Djoker forehand out, they replayed the pt). Djoker was a mess mentally afterwards until suddenly he was down a set and 2-0…Nadal wouldn’t have reacted like that, I don’t think.

6)      If they meet in the final, I think it’s an honest to goodness coin flip as to who wins…Djoker has the belief and confidence from 3 straight slam final wins over Nadal, but Nadal has the confidence from seeking his 7th French championship, an absurd number that will differentiate himself from the legendary Bjorn Borg and his 6 French titles. Djoker meanwhile is looking to complete a Djoker Slam, as he’d be the first male to hold all 4 slam titles since Laver in 1969.

7)      Enjoy and appreciate watching these two…this is Gonzalez/Laver, Connors/Borg, Borg/Mac, Lendl/Mac…Becker/Edberg…Sampras/Agassi…the best going against one-another, 15 slams between them, 10 for Rafa…some of the finest tennis you’ll ever see – definitely two of the fastest guys to ever chase down balls.

To complete the preview, I’m going to go player-by-player through the 1st 20 picks of my French Open Draft between myself and 5 other very knowledgeable tennis fans. We threw out Nadal and Djoker, and handicapped Fed & Murray (Fed way more) pretty significantly to equate the process. Here’s the results:

1)      Fed…….He was handicapped heavily, and yet was still the first player chosen, speaking to his greatness… also speaking to his greatness – he has won 7 of the 14 tournaments he’s entered since turning 30 last August, giving him a career total of 74. Two that he didn’t win were slam semi losses, both to Djoker, giving him 30 slam semi appearances in his career.

2)      Murray…………A mediocre clay season…did not make the semis of any major tune-up event, though did make Miami hard court final where Djoker beat him 6-1, 7-6(4). Made semis here last yr for the first time, QF’s in ’09…Has still never made a clay final on the tour, let alone win an event on the dirt.

3)      Ferrer……….The Spanish Bull Dog will not go away! He reached the Barcelona finals, Rome semis, and Madrid QFs.  He also took a couple smaller clay titles in February and March, winning Buenos Aries and Acapulco. Surprisingly, he’s only made two French QFs (’05 & ’08), never a semi, and lost in the 3rd round in 2009 and ’10…4th round a year ago (to Monfils). Lost in QFs at the Aussie this year (Djoker).

4)      Berdych……..…I might have taken Berdych first in the draft if I’d had the chance, in spite of his surprise 1st round exit here a year ago. In the 3 Masters clay tune-ups, he lost in the finals (Madrid), semis  (Monte Carlo to Djoker), and QFs (Rome to Nadal). He’s still just 26, and made the semis here in 2010, losing a tough 5-setter to Soderling. He made the QFs in Australia at this year’s first slam, losing to Nadal.

5)      Del Potro………….The 2009 US Open winner made the semis here that year, missed the event in 2010, and then lost to Djoker in the 3rd a year ago. He made the semis of Madrid, taking out a rather fearsome foursome to get there – Florian Mayer, Youzhny, Cilic, and Dolgopolov. He also won at Estoril on clay less than a month ago, taking out Wawrinka and Gasquet in the semis and final. He too was a quarterfinalist in Australia, losing to Federer.

6)      Tsonga………(My pick)……His best result here is the 4th round in 2009 and ’10…lost a heartbreaker here in the 3rd a year ago to Wawrinka after going up 2 sets to none in the match. Made the QFs at Rome (beating Del Potro before losing to Djoker) and Monte Carlo (l. to Simon) this year. With his size, power, and athleticism, you might say he’s a bit of an underachiever, though he does have three slam semi appearances under his belt (including an Aussie final in ’08). He lost a thrilling five set 4th rounder to Nishikori Down Under in the year’s first slam.

7)      Simon………(My pick)…….Turned in a career best 4th round performance here a year ago, losing to Soderling. He still has only one slam QF appearance to his name – Aussie 2009. He won Bucharest this year, a smaller clay tune-up, beating Fognini in the final. At the Masters tune-ups, he lost to Tipsarevic in the 3rd (Madrid), Ferrer in the 3rd (Rome), and Nadal in the semis (Monte Carlo). Was upset by his countryman Benneteau in the 2nd round at the Aussie Open.  

8)      Almagro………….The feisty Spaniard has had a solid 2012 so far, making the 4th round of the Aussie for the 3rd year in a row, winning Sao Paulo on clay, losing in the finals at Buenos Aries, and beating Berdych at Indian Wells on his way to the QFs. He’s a two-time quarterfinalist here (2008, ’10), though he suffered a bad 1st round loss here a year ago to Lukasz Kubot after winning the first two sets 6-3, 6-2. He lost in the 3rd round of all 3 Masters clay tune-ups this year.

9)      Isner……………His clay success this year came in Davis Cup matches in Europe – first shocking Federer in February 3 sets to 1, then taking down both of my first two picks against France in April – Gilles Simon (straight sets) and Jo Wilfried Tsonga (3 sets to 1). He also made the finals of the Houston clay event, losing to Juan Monaco. He only played Madrid and Rome for the Masters tune-ups, winning just one match between the two tourneys (Cilic & Seppi took him out). Lost in the 3rd to F. Lopez at the Aussie after barely squeaking by Nalbandian in the 2nd, taking the 5th set 10-8. Was up 2 sets to 1 on Nadal here last year in the first round before bowing out. Career best 3rd round here in 2010.

10)   Juan Monaco………….Probably playing the best tennis of his life right now, ranked 15th, just one spot from his career high #14 in 2008. Won the Houston event, took a set off Djoker in Rome (3rd round), and made the semis at Masters Miami (again, lost to Djoker). Strangely, made the 4th round here in 2007 but has won just one match at Roland Garros since. Lost 1st round to Verdasco last year.

11)   Tipsarevic……………..The 27 yr old late bloomer is ranked a career high 8th right now…Took out Simon and countryman Djokovic at Madrid before bowing out to Fed in the semis, but then followed that up with an immediate blow-out loss to Wawrinka in Rome, 6-3, 6-1. His best performance here is the 3rd round, and his last 6 trips read like this: 1st round, 3rd, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 3rd. Last year’s 3rd round loss was to Fed in straight sets. He also lost 3rd round in Australia this year, to Gasquet, also in straight sets.

12)   Monfils……………The Dominique Wilkins of the tour, Monfils seems to be more concerned with making amazing, acrobatic plays than winning matches. He made the semis here way back in 2008, and the QFs last year, but has not done much on clay yet this year, losing to Berdych at Madrid (3rd round), and then going down to far-past-his-prime Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome. Interestingly, Ferrero also took him down at the US Open last year in the 2nd round. He lost in the 3rd to Mikhail Kukushkin at the Aussie in January.

13)   Verdasco………….The Spanish southpaw with the big forehand is having a typical Verdasco year so far – he lost a 1st round 5 set epic at the Aussie to Tomic, but has rebounded with a finals appearance at Acapulco, a semi at Barcelona (l. to Nadal), and QF in Madrid (where he upset Nadal, only to be demolished in the next round by Berdych – 6-1, 6-2). He made the 4th round here 4 straight years before losing in the 3rd last year to a now retired Ivan Ljubicic.

14)   Dolgopolov……………Like Monfils, a tremendously entertaining player to watch, with an extremely unpredictable game. In his brief career (just 23 yrs old and playing only his 9th grand slam), Dolgop has had some solid slam results: 3rd round here twice, 4th round at US Open last year, and a QF at the Aussie in 2011 where he took out Tsonga and Soderling in succession before bowing out to Murray. On the clay this year, he made the quarters of Madrid, taking out Tsonga in the 3rd, but then retired out of his 1st match in Rome to Verdasco. He beat Chela and Tomic in Monte Carlo before running into Djoker in the 3rd round.

15)   Wawrinka…………….Much like Verdasco, Stan the Man is doing his typical thing this year: 3rd round in Australia, semis at Buenos Aries , Acapulco, and Estoril, and decent results in the Big 3 Tune-ups…QFs at Monte Carlo (Nadal), then 3rd round at Madrid (Djoker) and Rome (Seppi). He had that huge 3rd round comeback here a year ago vs. Tsonga before losing to Fed in the 4th. Coincidentally, he also lost to Fed in the 4th here in 2010, his best French result.

16)   Raonic…………….The 21 yr old Canadian – tall, heavy hitting, and hard serving – had a nice result at Barcelona this year, taking out Almagro and Murray before losing to Ferrer in the semis. But at the Big 3 Masters clay tune-ups, he only managed one victory in four matches – defeating Nalbandian in Madrid. He lost to Montanes in Monte Carlo, Fed in Madrid, and then Florian Mayer at Rome. He had a disappointing French debut a year ago, losing to Michael Berrer in the 1st round.

17)   Gasquet……………The talented Frenchman with the beautiful one-handed backhand finally made the 4th round here a year ago, his best French result. He also made the 4th round at this year’s Aussie before losing to Ferrer. He made the finals of Estoril (l. to Del Potro), 3rd round at Madrid (Federer), and QFs of Rome this spring, where he took out Murray before bowing out to Ferrer. He has still only once made it past the 4th round at a slam – 2007 at Wimbledon when he’d just turned 21 yrs old.

18)   Cilic………(My pick)……..Another tall, talented kid; at the age of 23 he’s playing in his 20th slam here at Roland Garros, where his best result is a 4th round appearance in 2009 and ’10. He was injured at the start of the 2012 season, missing the first two months of activity. At the Big 3 clay tune-ups, he lost to Berdych (Monte Carlo 2nd round), Del Potro (Madrid 3rd round), and Almagro (Rome 1st round)…but he did make the finals at Munich, a smaller clay event at the beginning of May. Kohlshreiber took the title there, beating Cilic 7-6(8), 6-3. His best slam result was in 2010 when he made the semis in Australia.

19)   Philipp Kohlschreiber………(My pick)……The German veteran has had a solid 2012 campaign, making the 4th round at the Aussie, semis at Montpellier (beat Gasquet, lost to Berdych), and later winning Munich. He didn’t do much though at the Big 3 clay tune-ups, winning just one of his 4 matches. He made the 4th round here in 2009, where he lost to one of my all-time favorites, the speedy Tommy Robredo…sadly, it looks like Tommy’s career is fading away as he only played 15 events in 2011 and hasn’t played any this year.

20)   Kei Nishikori………………..The surprise quarterfinalist in Australia this year injured himself a month ago at Barcelona, forcing him to retire from his 3rd round encounter with Verdasco there. He hasn’t played since, and just announced Tuesday he’ll have to miss this French with his stomach injury – a mistake pick by a drafter. Only 22 years old, he’s made the 2nd round here twice (2010, ’11), and made the 4th round at the US Open as an 18 yr old in 2008. He made the 3rd round in Monte Carlo before Berdych took him out.

Other names to watch out for that might be able to sneak into the 3rd or 4th rounds:   Albert Ramos – tall, young Spanish southpaw at career high 38th in rankings…Mikhail Youzhny – veteran still playing well, will be seeded here…Florian Mayer – tall skinny German made the 3rd round at US Open last year…Tomasz Bellucci – another tall southpaw, beat Ferrer at Monte Carlo, made 3rd round here a yr ago, 4th round in 2010…Kevin Anderson – 6’8”, won Delray Beach this year (hard court), made 2nd round here in ’11, 3rd round at 2011 US Open, 2012 Aussie…Nalbandian – hasn’t played here since 2008, semifinalist here in ’04 & ’06, made 3rd round at US Open, Wimby last year…Pablo Andujar – 26 yr old is at career high #36 in rankings, made 2nd round here 4 straight years, made Belgrade semis (small clay tune-up)…Andreas Seppi – career high #25 right now, took out Isner & Wawrinka at Rome, made French 2nd round last 3 yrs.

So there you have it…the names to look out for on the men’s side at Roland Garros this year. If you’re wondering what the odds-makers think, here you go:

Nadal – 5:6…Djoker – 9:4…Fed – 8:1…Del Potro – 20:1…Murray – 28:1…Ferrer – 33:1…Berdych – 40:1…Raonic – 50:1…Isner – 66:1…Tsonga – 100:1…everyone else is 150:1 or worse. I though Berdych and Tsonga would be lower, maybe 25:1 for Berd Dog and 40:1 for Tsonga. Enjoy the tennis, and look for Todd’s Tennis Takes updates throughout the fortnight. 


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