Scanning each of this year’s French Open draws from top to bottom, the same thought comes to mind first: The guard, despite being tugged and pulled in various directions over the years, refuses to change. The top two men’s seeds, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have held those pole positions in virtually every Grand Slam for the last five years. But their dominance is in its infancy compared to the top two women’s seeds, Serena and Venus Williams, the latter of whom reached her first major final back in stone-age 1997—an entirely different century. Order just keeps being restored.
Once we get below the top rungs, though, the men’s and women’s draws diverge rapidly. The men’s side, where either Federer or Nadal have reached the final each year since 2005, is, on paper, more predictable than ever. Two players who have beaten both Rog and Rafa in the past year, Juan Martin del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko, are out, while the two guys who have given them more collective trouble in recent seasons than anyone else, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, come to Paris with question marks hanging over their heads. The opposite is true for the women. Serena and Venus may be No. 1 and 2 in the world again, but neither has been to the final at Roland Garros since they played each other there in 2002. And while one dangerous player, Kim Clijsters, won’t be in attendance, another, four-time champion Justine Henin, has to be on the short list of Most Imposing 22nd Seeds in history.
Predictable men, unpredictable women? Let’s give them both a shot.
Despite the high-profile pullouts, Federer still stumbled into a difficult draw. His quarter includes Soderling, last year’s finalist; Montanes, a pesky dirtballer who beat him a couple of weeks ago; Monfils, a crowd favorite who took a set from him here two years ago in the semis; and, maybe most dangerous of all, the newly reliable Ernests Gulbis, who has already played three three-setters with Federer in 2010, and won one of them. The top seed might even be tested in the second round, where he could get Janko Tipsarevic. They played a five-set classic in Australia in 2008.
Federer has, as usual, set himself up to peak for the French. He played his best tennis since the Australian Open last week in Madrid, avenged the loss to Gulbis, and nearly took Nadal to three sets in the final. The ugly shanks that had followed him through Rome and Estoril appeared to have been ironed out, and by the end of the tournament he was sounding almost defiantly confident about his chances to defend in Paris. So let’s ask the question again: Is this, at last, the major where Federer’s semifinal streak (what is it now, 23? 37? 73?) comes to its inevitable end? Which do we weigh more heavily, that inevitability, or the pressure that any opponent trying to beat Federer will feel as he tries to win a third set against him on center court? Soderling, Monfils, Montanes: Of those guys, only Soderling seems capable of rising to that occasion, but he’d have to win four matches just to get to Federer, and the Sod’s form has been highly erratic of late. Gulbis? Is this a Davydenko replay? A guy beats Federer in the warm-up event no one will remember, but not when history is watching.
First-round match to watch: Gulbis vs. a guy who plays well in his native France, Julien Benneteau
Surprise name to run across: Taylor Dent. What’s he doing here?
We start here with an aficianado’s special, between Andy Murray and Richard Gasquet, two sure-shot kids who are, at the moment, not too sure about much of anything. Each will want this match badly, because the winner will find a a pretty wide section awaiting him. Tsonga, Berdych, Youzhny, Isner, Baghdatis, Robredo, Garcia-Lopez: They’ve all had a nice run, or at least a nice match, this year, but can one of them really reach the semis?
Murray will come in with little pressure—he can only go up after the last couple of months, and if he loses, he gets more time to practice on grass. The fragile Tsonga, who retired in the second round in Madrid, will face home-crowd pressure, historically a problem for French players. He’ll also have to face his own frustrating unpredictability. Winning without his best, and sometimes even with his best, isn’t Tsonga’s forte. The stage may be set for Garcia-Lopez, an old-fashioned (and kind of old: he’s 26) clay grind who has had a steady season thus far and reached a career-high No. 38, to make his one move.
In other words, I have no idea whose coming out of this quarter.
Second-round match to watch: Tsonga vs. countryman Josselin Ouanna
Fourth-round match to hope for: The Luke War—Lukas Lacko vs. Lukas Kubot
More uncertainty lurks. Novak Djokovic, the top seed in the section, has had allergy issues and couldn’t play in Madrid. Andy Roddick, the second seed, hasn’t played a match on clay this season. In between them are other question marks, guys who could break out one day and fizzle the next: Monaco, Ferrero, Querrey. Even the obvious choice, David Ferrer, isn’t all that obvious. For all of his working man’s persistence and down-and-dirty clay prowess, he’s never made it work for him long enough to reach the semis at the French. But after the solid clay season he’s put in so far, he remains the obvious choice.
Sleeper: Santiago Giraldo, a kid from Columbia with a killer backhand
This is about as favorable a French Open draw as Rafael Nadal could have hoped for as the season began. No del Potro, no Davydenko, no Soderling; of the guys who have troubled him in the last year, only Ljubicic is in his vicinity, and he’s an unlikely threat on clay. Lleyton Hewitt, a tough out, is a potential third-rounder, and either Fernando Gonzalez, Fernando Verdasco or Nicolas Almagro, who took a set from him in Madrid, might be waiting in the quarters. But, compared to what might have been, Nadal has to like the sight of those names.
First-round match for lefty lovers to watch: Llodra vs. Bellucci. Odd but possibly highly entertaining shot-maker's special.
Semifinals: Federer d. Garcia-Lopez; Nadal d. Ferrer
Final: While Federer will be motivated to beat Nadal for the first time in Paris and exorcise all the clay demons for good, I’ll take Nadal, not just because it’s on dirt, but because in most of their major finals, he’s found a way to win, to stay a step ahead of Federer both tactically and physically, at the crucial moment. Nadal is not just the king of clay, he's the best at beating the best.
Champion: Rafael Nadal
As with the ATP side, the top section of the women’s draw is loaded (I’ll go with that word rather than the equally appropriate “stacked.”) Serena, Henin, and Stosur alone would make a murderer’s row—they’ve played the best tennis of 2010 between them—but you’ve also got Sharapova and home-faves Bartoli and Cornet just for kicks. There’s not a lot to keep Serena from reaching the quarters, where you have to guess she’ll get the winner of Henin-Stosur. And you have to guess, based on experience and their only head-to-head match last month, that that will be Henin. Right? I wouldn’t count Stosur out; she may get tight, but she’s been playing with so much strenght this year that it might not matter. Still, while Serena has said she wants another French, clay will never be her best surface. While Henin will probably have to win ugly a couple of times—she's still prone to the odd, inexplicable disaster—I’m not going to pick against the four-time champion.
With all that firepower up top, what’s left for the rest of the draw? The picking start to get a little slimmer in this section, where the top seeds are Jankovic and—believe it—Radwanska. But hidden between them are two intriguing names, that of last year’s runner-up, Dinara Safina, and 2009’s most improved player, Yanina Wickmayer. Of all these players, only Safina has reached a final at the French. But Jankovic has been playing the best tennis of late and seems to have found some of her 2008 swagger.
First-round match to watch: Safina vs. Kimiko Date-Krumm
What about Sveta, you might ask; she is the defending champ. What about her? She’s also as flaky as ever, her commitment and passion impossible to gauge. Do you have any idea how she’ll do? I don’t. She could lose in the first round to Cirstea; she could go all the way to the final.
The top seed on the other side is Caroline Wozniacki, whose athletic-wallboard game would seem to be a natural fit for clay, except that she’s been suffering from the opposite problem as Sveta: over-commitment. Woz has played a lot of tennis already this year. Does anyone else stick out in this quarter? Pennetta? Li Na? Safarova? Kirilenko? Petkovic? If you like chaos and surprise semifinalists, you might get your wish here.
Semifinalist: Maybe you can tell me
Order is somewhat restored, at least on paper, at the bottom of the draw. Venus Williams is the top seed, Dementieva is second, a beleaguered but perhaps still dangerous Azarenka is third, and Petrova is also in the area. But it gets interesting with two other, lower seeds, each of whom has come from close to nowhere to win important titles in recent weeks: Aravane Rezai and Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez.
For new blood’s sake, I’d like to see those two continue their strong play in Paris. Unfortunately, I’ve started to count on the opposite happening in the women’s game. That’s not necessarily the case for Williams, of course. She’s become a steadier week to week winner in recent years, but has also made a habit of not taking the next step at the most important tournaments. Her current clay form looks solid enough to give her another chance in two weeks.
Semifinalist: V. Williams
Semifinals: Henin d. Jankovic; V. Williams d. Maybe You Can Tell Me
Final: Henin d. V. Williams
Champion: Justine Henin
I know, those are pretty safe picks, but the French does breed dominant champions. Either way, I'm in Paris and will be out at Roland Garros for the first week, starting tomorrow.