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Men's Roland Garros Preview 05/22/2009 - 2:47 PM

Rafa

by Pete Bodo

Alright, let’s get right to the point. To me, the biggest question on the eve of the French Open is whether any of the ATP pros can man up and prevent a third re-match between Mr. Roland Garros Perfect Record (Rafael Nadal) and Mr. Just Give Me One French Title, That’s All I Ask (Roger Federer).

For three years in a row, the improbable “dream final” pitting the two players battling for the no. 1 position in tennis came to pass. For three years now, Nadal has beaten Federer, and the way he crushed his Swiss rival last year, allowing Federer just four games, has led more than a few people to sigh and exclaim, Enough already, Rafa, you made your point. Let’s get Roger out of there and give somebody else a chance.

Let’s face it, another Nadal vs. Federer final and you might well rename those fellas Chrissie and Martina (and is there any doubt about which guy would be which gal?).  That’s how much  these two rivals have hogged the spotlight in Paris. On paper, it says that the two will meet agan in the final, but matches aren’t played on paper, and in some cosmic way it’s hard to imagine that Federer will be given yet another chance to beat Nadal in a Roland Garros final. It just doesn’t feel right.

If you prefer your analysis to be grounded more firmly in well-reasoned territory, try this: Given the inconsistency, impatience, and lack of confidence that Federer has shown so often this year (he didn’t win his first title until last week in Madrid; at this time in 2007, he had three, two of them at Masters Series events), whether or not he can reach the final is a more compelling question than whether or not he can find a way to beat Nadal once he arrives there.

So that’s my first – and sure to be most controversial – prediction. I just don’t see Federer making another final at Roland Garros; the use-by date on his chances has expired.  He certainly played well to win at Madrid, but in Paris three critical elements will be different:

1 - The court is bound to play much slower than the one in the Caja Magica in Madrid, partly because of the difference in altitude and partly because of weather conditions.

2 – The slower surface and five-set format will require more patience and focus than Federer has shown in recent tournaments.

3 – Nadal is not only confident, he’s extra-motivated by that loss in Madrid to Federer. That’s a great position to be in for a guy who’s never lost a match on the Roland Garros stage.

As for Nadal, correctly predicting his demise in Paris  would make any man seem more prophet than pundit. You just can’t get there from here, here being the world in which Nadal has not only won four consecutive French Opens, he’s also suffered exactly one loss during this entire clay-court season- the one he dropped to Federer in Madrid.

Okay, so let’s look at the draw, quarter-by-quarter, starting at the top, to see whose path is apt to be easy, and whose will be treacherous.

In the top, “Nadal” quarter, Nadal’s stiffest challenge is apt to come from the no. 8 seed, his pal, countryman, and Davis Cup comrade, Fernando Verdasco.  That’s if Verdasco can make his seed. It’s likely he’ll do that, because he’s made the fourth round for two years running now, and his game and confidence seem to have taken a quantum leap this year. No question that after the no. 3 seed Andy Murray (who‘s in Rafa’s half), Verdasco looms as Nadal’s main obstacle to reaching his fifth final.

Nadal opens against a qualifier, and while he has a seasoned veteran and multiple Grand Slam winner Lleyton Hewitt in a potential third-rounder, the former no. 1 has always been better on hard courts than clay. I don’t think Stanislas Wawrinka moves well enough, especially on clay and over five-sets, to pose a serious threat to Nadal, but Nadal’s quarter also contains two unpredictable players: Nicolas Kiefer and Ernests Gulbis – the latter by far the more dangerous of the two. In just two years in Paris, Gulbis had made the second round, then the quarterfinals. He’s unpredictable, but his heavy artillery is dangerous when he’s on his game.

My dark horse pick for this round is Nicolas Almagro, a lowly no. 31 seed but a quarter-finalist last year.

The “Murray” quarter is tricky, with a whole raft of intriguing and dangerous if flawed performers, starting with  Murray’s first opponent, Juan Ignacio Chela. He’s outside the top 200 now, but he’s a French Open veteran and just the kind of guy who can still paste up the big upset. That said, I still see Murray surviving Chela. One of the better first round match-ups pits Janko Tipsarevic against Albert Montanes, the winner to play a qualifier or Feliciano Lopez in order to (potentially) get at Murray.

Frenchman Gilles Simon, seeded no. 7, is in the bottom of the Murray quarter, and he could be playing US men in the first two rounds, which suggests that the no. 7 may finally make the second round of Roland Garros, something he hasn’t achieved in four attempts. On the other hand, it looks like Mr. Simon suffers from Mauresmo disease, which seems to afflict French players of either gender during Roland Garros. And with Radek Stepanek, Marin Cilic, Marat Safin, Mikhail Youzhny and Fernando Gonzalez also in this quarter, we might see some real fireworks.

I think Montanes will be the ritual “surprise semi-finalist” at the French Open. 

Nole The “Djokovic” quarter features six Frenchman, most of whom will also catch Mauresmo disease. But Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, seeded no. 9. may be an exception. Joe Willy has a big game, and he’s an unknown factor – he’s played at Roland Garros just once (a first-round loss in 2005).  Although his health is always questionable, he doesn’t seem as mentally fragile as some of his countrymen, and he could surprise everyone – including his potential fourth-round opponent, no. 5 seed Juan Martin del Potro. Both men have a lot of flesh and muscle to lug around, but the contrast in styles between the attacker, Tsonga, and defender, del Potro, would make for a very attractive battle for the right to meet Novak Djokovic in the fourth round.

Former French  Open champion and no. 1 player Juan Carlos Ferrero stands in Djokovic’s way in the second round, but other than that, it looks like pretty clear sailing for the no. 4 seed. Tommy Robredo, seeded 16 and with a Roland Garros resume littered with quarterfinal and fourth-round finishes, might not concede the quarter to Djokovic, but it’s hard to imagine Robredo withstanding the kind of bombardment Djokovic delivers with his groundstrokes.

The dark horse pick? Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber, seeded 29. But it’s a half-hearted pick, because Djokovic’s star seems to be on the rise.

The “Federer” quarter is at the bottom of the draw, and since I predicted that Federer would not survive to play Nadal in the final, let’s cut right to the chase. The players most likely to take him out are Paul Henri Mathieu, who’s case of Mauresmo disease seems fairly mild (he’s often gone three, four rounds), ever dangerous but unpredictable Tomas Berdych, or Gael Monfils. You’ll remember that Monfils played Federer pretty tough in the semis last year, and for 2009 the draw has Monfils playing the US’s Bobby Reynolds in the first round, then the winner between two qualifiers. The bad news for Monfils fans is that he has a bum knee and may even withdraw from the event.

Andy Roddick. the no. 6 seed, is in this quarter as well, with Eduardo Schwank of Argentina standing in his way in the third round. Schwank is a fourth-year pro who got to the third round of Roland Garros in his lone appearance (2008) in Paris.  If Roddick gets by him, he’ll have his hands full with Monfils. If the French player withdraws, who knows?

 Federer’s first opponent is Alberto Martin, who came within one game of being double-bageled by Federer in their last and only previous meeting, on clay in Monte Carlo in 2006. Federer mostly likely gets Jose Acasuso in the second round, then conceivably Mathieu, Berdych and Monfils – in that order. It isn’t the world’s toughest draw, but the three men I just mentioned are volatile and capable of playing brilliantly.

 So my Final Four are: Nadal, Albert Montanes (who will ambush Murray). Djokovic, and Monfils or Mathieu (should Monfils pull out). Nadal and Djokovic will play the final, and the winner will be Nadal.


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Posted by Just for fun 05/23/2009 at 11:22 AM

I am a bit surprised that a very few people actually expect Muzz to perform well this year at RG. Obviously, he has not been extremely successful on clay in the past, but he is learning fast and if he gets to the SF, he could even give Nadal a run for his money. He is one of the best tacticians on the tour and his fitness is second to none. In a nutshell, if he faces Nadal this year at RG, we may get to watch five long, hard fought, exciting sets. And in the end he may even prevail...

Posted by scineram 05/23/2009 at 11:28 AM

asodnsaodn

Posted by scineram 05/23/2009 at 11:28 AM

"at this time in 2007, he had three, two of them at Masters Series events"

Don't discredit yourself so early, Bodo!

Posted by susan 05/23/2009 at 12:08 PM

Just realised that portion of my comment at 1:10am was directed at the previous "Ballast..." post about Nole by Pete. Yikes, the flurry of articles on RG! Led to confusion. No one is reading it, of course, but just wanted to state for the record.

Posted by susan 05/23/2009 at 12:28 PM

REally surprised to see this prediction about federer just days after an article by Pete about the fed/nadal rivalry and fed's chances, etc. Bizarre. Don't mean to be rude, but seemed easy to do after discovering Novak was on Roger's side of the draw.

Posted by Mike DC 05/23/2009 at 12:29 PM

Pete, I hate your picks! They are so stuipid. It's far more interesting to read an article predicting that all results will follow according to seeding.

Just kidding... nice to see you making pics, don't necessarily agree, but interesting to read. I thought you hated writing these? Change of heart? Lost a bet?

Posted by TripleF-FedFanForever 05/23/2009 at 12:52 PM

(posted this Steve T's as well).

This is simply unbelievable. Novak - great player of course - played a couple of (very) good matches against Rafa and suddenly the feverish pitch with which everyone writes Fed off...Boy! Yes, Novak stayed toe-to-toe with Rafa but then he chose to play that way. Fed played a different game. I will bet anything that Fed will beat Novak in straights at RG...IF Novak makes it there and we will see about that. I am not sure about the finals though - being slower than all Clays and all - but guys, gals, don't write the Big Man off that cheaply...C'mon. He is 27, hungry and burning inside (all that Rafa questions and noise around him nowadays)...and am sure he is out to prove himself. He may not show it - which he never does - but how do you think he got 13? By just being stylish and elegant and graceful on the court playing "lovely" tennis? Kidding me?

Posted by Still a rabid rogiphile 05/23/2009 at 01:53 PM

How I miss the halcyon days when people used to bemoan my beloved Rog toying with the weak competition! Hello, a shoutout to fella rogiphiles and... Mon cher Rog, I'm burning oooodles of candles to wish you tres bonne chance, ALLEZ ROGI!!

Posted by Danilo 05/23/2009 at 06:16 PM

Final shall be:

Nadal vs. Djokovic

and Nole shall win.

He was better than Nadal in MC final, three times lost his chance to win him, instead Federer won and he didn`t say "thank you, Djoko!' as a gentleman should.

This time Nole shall not miss three times, believe it!

Posted by Don 05/23/2009 at 07:00 PM

When most people were attributing Federer's victory in Madrid to the conditions of the court a few days ago, you distinguished yourself from them by saying that he had earned the victory and that this might turn out to be a big turning point. Now when everybody is expecting something extraodinary for Federer, which you contribute to at least in part, you write him off citing the different conditions of RG. What a surprise tactic! It doesn't take a Federer fan to see self-contradiction or even deception here. I only see a businessman in you. You shouldn't have written the earlier one. You were not writing from your heart. Just a tactic. I am deeply disappoited.

Posted by Ashutosh 05/23/2009 at 09:26 PM

Pete .. First you present the dream scenario for Federer to win French... then just when things are going along the predicted route you seem to have a change of heart and say that Federer won't reach finals?

I think he has a very good chance ... particularly with all the Nole stamina issues I don't think he would have enough gas left in tank to defeat Fed in the semis... Mind you I still think that with his service working Federer will be anyway able to take care of business against Nole... and the rest in the run up to Finals...

Against Nadal in finals... hmmm...... well I hope Verdasco, Murray and someone else stretch him.... else its vicotry no. 5 for him....

Posted by mac 05/24/2009 at 12:23 AM

i think pete's an absolute genius! it is so much easier to predict big 4 semis than to come up with what pete did.

is there really a story at all in the men's. we already know who the winner is.

so the issue is down to predicting who the losing finalist will be

i think fed being upset early is not such a stretch as he has even lost to wawrinka in monte carlo and of course 2008 was annus horribilis.

pmh definitely can play clay and is playing well enough lately to cause an upset plus he's french!!!! if not berdych will want to prove he can close it out.

roddick under stefanki is not intimidated by fed( in fact probaly 95 % of the field are no longer intimidated by fed who's fast approaching tennis retirement age ; every player wants to bet fed as he's so beatable these days!) so roddick could whip fed in 5.

anyway he wont survive nole by any chance.

i know the fednatics will try anything to help him win (including disrupting 2 of his opponents' serves at crucial times in 2 recent clay tournies) and that's why fed will not have much success at rg if even his nutty fans have to stoop so low in tune-up events...

Posted by susan 05/24/2009 at 12:36 AM

well c-note, who is no roger fan, seems a bit disappointed in Pete's contradictory articles. rather harsh assessment on her blog. ouch.

Posted by fan 05/24/2009 at 01:17 AM

mac is another dishonest, delusional anti Federer fan who hates and disrespects Federer so much that mac even has Federer losing to a very flawed player like Mathieu or Roddick, and on clay too, and in a Grand Slam too with 20 straight Semifinals earned over 5 years, based on what evidence.
None.
mac is so sickly bad that mac will even claim Federer cheats.
mac also said that Federer is very beatable and 95% of all players think they can beat him.
Well mac, reality check to you, Federer still wins 90% of those matches against inferior, flawed players because he's better than they are. Pure and simply better, especially in best of 5 set Grand Slams. His resume of consistency over his career and this year of semis, finals, and titles speaks for itself, whether you or john or others want to hear it or not, you can't honestly deny it.
mac is just anti Federer, just like john and others too.
No reason and no evidence based on results and talent, that's for sure.

Posted by Don 05/24/2009 at 01:28 AM

Mr. Bodo's earlier writing about Federer's victory is no more and no less than phishing given his later picks which reveal his true thinking. Or did he change his mind in a couple of days? A tennis journalist is still a journalist. He or she shouldn't lie if he is a real one.

Posted by tina 05/24/2009 at 03:19 AM

Much as I would love a magical moment for Djokovic - maybe if that Madrid semi had been best of 5, he would have taken it and surprised all nay-sayers - I agree with Pete's predictions. The guy is doing everything he can to work on fitness and stamina issues, and is hungry to prove himself. Fed's gone rather blase about it all, and rightly so - even if he dreams of winning at RG, I think Mirka being pregnant clearly marks a transition in his life and career.

I also agree with C.P.M.'s Monaco over Tsonga prediction. We've recently seen "Juanaco" play brilliantly on the dirt, and I don't know if I've ever seen a good match from Jo on this surface.

Posted by edoubleu 05/24/2009 at 10:41 AM

Tennis.com: Another quality article by one of your writers. Last week, it was Roddick being predicted to beat Federer on clay. This week, it's Montanes and Mathieu making the semis of the French. You guys really need help. Here's something I just happened to write about Federer this morning for the RF website. If you guys like it and want to replace any of your present writers, give me a call:


Below are stats that should surprise a lot of people (http://www.atpworldtour.com/tennis/en/players/matchfacts/). See how Federer ranks compared to the only current player in the world who is ranked higher than him, Nadal.

Offense categories:

Aces- Federer #11, Nadal #37
First serve points won - Federer #5, Nadal #25!
Second Serve points won- Federer #4, Nadal #1
First serve percentage- Federer #34, Nadal #10
Service games won - Federer #4, Nadal #5
Break points saved - Federer #4, Nadal #7

Average offense ranking:

Federer - 10 (but just 4.25 excluding aces and serve percentage)
Nadal - 14 (but just 5.75 without first serve points won and aces)

Note that although Federer clearly has a better offense on first serve - #4 versus #25 on first serve points won, Nadal somehow ranks #1 to Federer's #4 on second serve points won! Still, Federer at #4 for both first and second serve shows an offensive advantage overall over Nadal.

Defense -

Points won returning first serve - Federer #18, Nadal #5
Break points converted - Federer #9, Nadal #2
Points won returning second serve - Federer #14, Nadal #1!
Return games won - Federer #14, Nadal #1

Average defensive ranking:

Federer - 13.75
Nadal - 2.25

Analysis: While Roger has a slight but decided advantage over Nadal offensively, there are an average of 12 players better them him in defense. What? The great Federer is only the 13th best defensive player in the world??

Wait, we all know Federer is a great defensive player: great movement, slice defensive backhand, squash forehand, fitness, turning defense into offense like no other player save perhaps Sampras. Where's the weakness, then? How does he fall so far down this list?

Simple: Return of serve. Block returning big serves like Roddick's serve aside, Federer tends to just put balls in play more than going for aggressive returns. When he goes after the return, he tends to break serve more often. The numbers don't lie: Federer ranks an average of #16 on first and second returns, where Nadal's average rank is #3! Here is an area that could CLEARLY improve Federer's results, all sorts of theories aside.

For a classic example of this, look at the 2005 US Open Final of Federer versus Agassi. Federer came out aggressive, won the first set easily. Then, he inexplicably started chipping his return of serve just to get the ball in play. This allowed Agassi to get into a groove on serve, and allowed him into the match. Agassi then found his form and won the second set easily, 6-2. You can even hear the commentator wondering aloud why Federer doesn't start coming over his backhand return again (meaning hitting it with topspin as opposed to slicing it). Suddenly, Federer seems to realize this, starts hitting over the return, immediately turns the tables on Agassi, and finishes the match strong, winning the third and fourt sets fairly easily. The type of return of serve made a huge difference in the outcome of the match!

Federer has the best offensive game in tennis. He also has great defensive skills. His one weakness - if you can call it that - is now plain to see: that he doesn't always return serve aggressively or effectively. Perhaps he is so confident in his abilities that he is content to just start the point from neutral while retuning serve. Perhaps he will recognize this pattern and win even more matches.

But wait, what is the difference between Nadal's return of serve and Federer's? Is there one? There sure is. Picture a huge, topspinning ball pinning the server on the baseline, versus a mid court chip return.

Can Federer change this? Sure. When you are "loose", it' easier to go for returns. When you lose confidence, you are less able to swing freely. There is no doubt this pattern played into several big mathes lately for Federer, especially the 2009 Australian Open Final. Federer was just putting returns into play rather than attacking Nadal's second serves. If you can't always swing freely, what's the solution? Get aggressive mentally, go for bigger returns, put your opponent under pressure early on, especially on second serve, build momentum. The confidence comes quickly in the right state of mind.

Lastly, I have heard some commentators recently talk about Nadal is always trying to improve his game, and how Federer should as well. When I heard that, I said to my self, how?? The guy's so good already. But when you see FACTS like these stats, you can indeed find an area to improve in. Nothing wrong with identifying areas to improve. Someone else should do a statistical analysis of how many return points Federer wins when he simply comes over the ball versus chipping it back into play. I don't have the time, but I have a feeling the results would be even more interesting...


Posted by gisele 05/25/2009 at 01:03 AM

leave these tennis players alone and let them play their own game!

Posted by Dave 05/25/2009 at 11:07 AM

Montanes to get to the semi final eh Bodo you MUPPET!

Posted by Fot 05/25/2009 at 01:20 PM

Montanes... Are there 2 Montanes in the draw this year? *innocently speaking* lol! Surely he didn't pick the same Montanes who lost in the first round to Tipsy?

Posted by Igor 05/25/2009 at 01:54 PM

"I think Montanes will be the ritual “surprise semi-finalist” at the French Open." Peter Bodo

Well done Peter!

Posted by TAK 05/25/2009 at 06:32 PM

Peter - why the need to make the "trendy" picks for the French Open semis. Montanes out in the 1st round. If this were the NCAA tournament, your bracket would be done.

Posted by edoubleu 05/25/2009 at 08:04 PM

Montanes and Berdych out in first round; tennis.com looking for new writers in near future.

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