Imagine being a strong favorite to win a tournament you've never played. That's where life stands this month for Rafael Nadal, the powerful, talented and successful Spanish lefthander who comes into this month's French Open with a head of steam and a strong sense of mission. A sound bet at Roland Garros: Nadal and Roger Federer versus the field.
A sound bet at Roland Garros: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer versus the field.
What makes Nadal so good? Let me confess, as a fellow lefthander, that I strongly believe Nadal's southpaw status is an exceptional asset. Shots that a righty traditionally plays to a backhand instead go to Nadal's forehand, forcing the righties out of their comfort zone. This is rare at the highest levels of contemporary tennis, as Nadal is the first lefty to crack the top ten in five years.
His forehand delivers a vicious mix of spin and pace, at once more creative than Thomas Muster, more physical than Marcelo Rios. Nadal's topspin creates all sorts of angles, putting his opponents in peculiar spots on the court. Though not as good as his forehand, Nadal's backhand helps him grub his way through point after point. Moreover, he's got that hunger in his eyes, that sense of eagerness and purpose of a player vaulting his way into the top echelon.
The biggest concern, after playing so hard in winning titles this spring in Rome, Monte Carlo and Barcelona, is if he's played too much tennis. Granted, it's hard to think that could happen to a hungry 18-year-old (Nadal turns 19 on June 3), but as we all know, those French Open matches take supreme energy. Of course Nadal wants to win in Paris and I think he's got the goods to do it but at this stage of his career even a quarterfinal upset won't do too much to damage his long-term prospects.
Though he's never gone past the quarters at Roland Garros, Federer certainly has the goods to win it all.
It's interesting to note that neither Nadal nor Federer played both Tennis Masters events in Rome and Hamburg. Yes, I believe there injuries were legit; but then again, playing those events back-to-back on the eve of the sport's most physical tournament is a tough go. Federer, having gone more than a month without a title since beating Nadal in the finals of the NASDAQ 100, played soundly in taking Hamburg. Though he's never gone past the quarters at Roland Garros (last year he was picked off in the third round by Gustavo Kuerten), to me Federer's still got much better tennis ahead of him. After all, two years ago he lost in the first round of Roland Garros to Luis Horna a defeat that made him seem yet a continued underachiever. Then he won Wimbledon and has been running the table ever since.
Federer's now won the Hamburg Masters event three times. Anyone who can wade his way through that event's extremely thick conditions cold weather, wind, long points has the goods to win the French Open. What he needs is a fairly easy first week so he's got plenty of energy for the late stages. Tactically, I'd like to see Federer play more offense rather than let him try and massage his opponents too much and in the process end up in lengthy, draining rallies.
Besides Nadal and Federer, the other major contenders include Guillermo Coria (two match points in the final last year), '03 champ Juan Carlos Ferrero (just about recovered from a debilitating bout of chicken pox that sidelined him for most of '04) and the holder, Gaston Gaudio (truly a happy warrior).
If Federer and Nadal should falter, Ferrero (left) and Coria could rise to the forefront.
As for the Americans, you can't count out someone with the stroke production of Andre Agassi. He played impressively in Rome, reaching the semis before losing 7-5, 7-6 to Coria. The feeling grows, though, that the energy it takes for him to play on clay is too much at age 35. His best chance is for three easy matches and weather warm enough to bake the court. Ditto for Andy Roddick, who continues working hard to became a better claycourter, and played well to win in Houston last month.
But there's another X factor that makes it hard for Americans in Paris: all the disorientation that comes from being in Europe, in the only Slam nation where English isn't the common language, where hotel TVs don't carry SportsCenter and where even ordering dinner can be an ordeal. Maybe future American male pros should buy a timeshare in Paris and lease it from mid-March to early June.
Even at 35, Andre Agassi may be the best hope for the Americans on the red clay.
If the Europe Thing is a tough deal for Americans of any gender, at least the female players are not nearly as uncomfortable on the surface as the men. Serena Williams won here in '02, beating her sister Venus in the finals. While Lindsay Davenport lacks the best recovery skills for the French Open, she's certainly got strokes for it. But I'd have a hard time picking any of these three for the title.
With Davenport, the issue is confidence. She just doesn't seem to feel she can assert herself properly on clay, and gets frustrated by not getting the proper yield from her first-round groundies. As for the sisters, it's not clear either has put in the time this year to improve. And while Venus and Serena once set the bar for power and speed, others have caught up and are far less intimidated.
The crop that's been most diligent, of course, is the brigade of Russians. Defending champ Anastasia Myskina, '04 finalist Elena Dementieva and '04 U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova are among the hardest workers in the game. I watched Dementieva frequently at Indian Wells earlier this year and was dazzled by her posture and footwork. I also think she should start off every press conference by proactively asking for questions about her serve so that the topic is rapidly taken off the table and she can feel more comfortable speaking in public (as she did so eloquently last year at the U.S. Open awards ceremony).
The three best picks are, in no particular order, Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and Maria Sharapova.
Kuznetsova has the goods to be number one. Vera Zvonereva, Nadia Petrova and Elena Bovina could also make news at Roland Garros. But this has been a tough year for most Russians. As Myskina told me last month, It's one thing when you're rising up the ranks, but another when people are chasing you.
And what of Maria Sharapova? She too has a good work ethic, and while technically she's still Russian, the reigning Wimbledon champ has spent so much of her life away from her native land that she's more a citizen of tennis than any nation. Her freedom from any nation's expectations helps her play liberated tennis. But that's not always the best way to win on clay, and if such elements as clouds, wind or other conditions enter the picture, Sharapova could find herself frustrated on the clay against a player whose name we provincial Americans have a hard time pronouncing.
But for yet another injury, a more mature Kim Clijsters might have been the odds on favorite at Roland Garros.
On style and even recent form given her recent victory in Rome, Amelie Mauresmo has everything it takes to win this title. But the magnitude of her national event seems to get to each year. One of most well-liked people on the WTA Tour, Mauresmo recently added Yannick Noah to her advisory team. Perhaps his capacity for the big match he ended a 37-year national title draught when he won here in 1983 could help her wonderful mix of spins and paces come alive at crunch time. But I doubt it. Mauresmo's most challenging rival is herself.
My two best hopes in Paris are the Belgians who reached the finals in '03 but missed a great deal of '04. She's come back strongly in '05, winning titles in Charleston, Warsaw and Berlin, once again showing off her scintillating backhand and sizzling shotmaking. But if the pragmatist in me favors Henin-Hardenne for the title, the sentimental analyst leans towards Clijsters. The friendly Clijsters has not only recovered from a severe injury to her left wrist, but she's also shed Lleyton Hewitt and emerged as more confident than ever. She played superb tennis in becoming the first woman since Steffi Graf to win Indian Wells and Key Biscayne in the same year, along the way beating the likes of Davenport, Sharapova, Myskina and Dementieva. Her athletic, all-court game was clicking on all cylinders. But unfortunately of late she's been reinjured. So alas, the three best picks are, in no particular order, Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne, and Maria Sharapova.
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