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French Open

French Open preview: Who can stop Rafa and Serena?

May 24, 2012 04:44 PM
Rafael Nadal will be going for his seventh Roland Garros crown.
Serena Williams will be gunning for her first final in Paris since 2002.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com

The MEN:


Two weeks ago, despite his nearly spotless record at Roland Garros, I  would not have called the Spaniard the favorite coming into Paris, simply because the only time that he had beaten Novak Djokovic in their past eight matches was in Monte Carlo, when the Serbian was grieving the loss of his grandfather and was clearly checked out. But that was not the case in Rome last week, when Nadal showed that he is capable of controlling matches against Djokovic again and that he will not always be hit through or out-steadied in key moments. There, he beat up Djokovic in straight sets and regained his confidence, and it will take a phenomenal performance from anyone to stop him from takinig his seventh Roland Garros crown. At his best, on red clay, Nadal is still peerless.


There is tremendous pressure on Djokovic going into this major because he’s going to try to win the "Nole Slam" -- four consecutive non-calendar year majors. He's very aware that no one has been able to pull off the feat since 1969, when Rod Laver won four straight in a calendar year. The great Federer couldn’t do it, Nadal couldn’t do it, and now Djokovic, who has struggled at the French more than any other Slam, will attempt it with a huge target on his back.

Overall, he's still been the most impressive player this season, but it’s by a razor-thin margin, and he's prone to lapses in concentration, something we have not seen out of him since 2010. What he'd dearly love is a crack at Federer in the semis so he could avenge his 2011 Roland Garros defeat to the Swiss and then somehow find a way into a fifth set against Nadal in the final because, even though he's lost to him in their last two matches, he's won marathons against the Spaniard in their last three Slam meetings.


Without question, former No. 1 Roger Federer has had an excellent year, but does anyone really think that he can beat Nadal at Roland Garros, where the Spaniard has stomped him time and time again, despite Federer changing up his game plan? If Nadal was not playing the tournament or if he gets hurt, then I would give Federer a shot because he plays Djokovic much tougher overall than he does Nadal, but all things being equal, the best he can hope for is another runner-up trophy.

There are three men who have equal chances at the last semifinal spot: big-hitting American John Isner, the Spanish warhorse David Ferrer and the imposing Czech Tomas Berdych. Isner has become an excellent big-match player but occasionally plays down to the competition, so he will have to be very wary during the first week. But considering that he owns 2012 wins over Djokovic and Federer and became the only man to take Nadal to five sets last year at Roland Garros, the 11th-ranked Isner is the guy that none of the Big 3 want to see in their round of 16.

No. 4 Andy Murray has been struggling with a back injury and has not been extremely impressive this year. He reached the semis last year and is still a Slam threat, just not in the next two weeks. It sort of blows my mind that No. 6 Ferrer, for all of his fine play on clay and slow hard courts, has yet to reach a French semi. As hard as he works, he simply cannot hang with the Big 3 in three-out-of-five sets. Berdych has also reached the French semis before, and while he has equal problems against the Big 3, he brings a tremendous firepower to the table. I'm not thrilled with any of the other veterans' play as of late, including France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Argentine Juan Martin del Potro. Two younger players do bear watching, though: Canadian sensation Milos Raonic and the tricky Ukrainian Alex Dolgopolov.


Let's face it: Since the last U.S. man to win the French -- Andre Agassi in 1999 -- retired, it’s been a tough road for the American men in Paris. It’s been all anyone can do to get out of the first week. While Isner appears to be the country's only legitimate hope, his doubles partner, Sam Querrey, has been making progress in the last month, and in dry weather, he is capable of overpowering a portion of the field and winning three rounds or so.

I wish I could say the same of former No. 1 Andy Roddick, but he's just returned to the circuit and has been battling hip and hamstring injuries that just won't quit. For Roddick, the tournament will serve as a way to get match practice prior to Wimbledon.

Mardy Fish is out due to exhaustion, Donald Young is in a deep slump, and James Blake isn't completely healthy, either. That leaves two other men to keep an eye on: 20-year-old Ryan Harrison, who is due for a big win at a major, and USTA wild-card winner Brian Baker. Baker once reached the Roland Garros boys' final, is in the midst of a comeback from multiple injuries and has been playing solid ball on dirt. A few wins in the main draw would bring a big smile to his face.



The last time Serena could be called the out-and-out favorite in Paris was in 2003, when she came into the tournament after having won four straight majors and then was taken down by the last decade’s most accomplished clay-courter, Justine Henin, in the infamous "Hand of Justine" match, when Henin denied holding her hand up to stop a Williams' serve midway through the third set. Serena became unraveled and lost the match 7-5 in the third and left the facility in tears.

Thirteen-time Grand Slam champion Serena has not reached a final in Paris since 2002 and has taken some difficult losses there, including in her last two appearances in 2009 and 2010, when she lost marathon, tight three-setters to Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur, respectively.

But Serena comes into this tournament not having lost a match on clay in 2012, winning Charleston, two matches in Fed Cup, Madrid and then winning four matches in Rome before pulling out of the event as a precautionary measure due to a sore back.

Serena is by no means a clay-court dominator -- never has been -- and at the age of 30, likely never will be. But here's why the world No. 5 is the favorite: She's in great shape and moving beautifully; she's one of only a few WTA players who can dominate with her serve; and she absolutely owns her two biggest contenders, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.


No. 1 Azarenka was terror on hard courts during the first three months of the year, but she has not been on clay, losing to Sharapova in the Stuttgart final, to Serena in Madrid and then pulling out of Rome with a shoulder injury after her first match. She's a terrific ball striker and has matured a ton mentally, but she has never won a big tournament on red clay and is not that accurate striking the balls while sliding. She has a lot to prove in Paris.

No. 2 Sharapova is in the midst of her best clay season ever, winning Stuttgart and Rome and really appearing to enjoy clay-court point construction. At the age of 25, she's actually better off working points than going for quick kills. If she keeps moving forward and can avoid Williams, she has a terrific shot of completing a career Grand Slam.


There is a long list of other hopefuls who have a lot of potential to shine and also room to doubt. I like the way that defending champ Li Na was striking the ball in Rome and think she's one of the few players who can contend with Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka on their great days. But she's mentally in and out. Stosur reached the final in 2010 and showed by winning the 2011 US Open that she has the weaponry to win another major. Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova appears due for a great tournament, but she's been hurt a lot and can be had in long rallies. Aga Radwanska is a little magician but has yet to reach a Slam semifinal and seems to have stage fright. France's Marion Bartoli and former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki are in slumps, but I could see Wozniacki making a run to the final four on desire alone. Here are two players whom I think will do damage and have semifinals shots: former champion Ana Ivanovic, who has been steadily rising again, and the German lefthander Angelique Kerber, who has big weapons and has been on the upswing since she reached the semis of the 2011 US Open.


I have no idea what to expect out of Venus Williams in Paris, other than that we know she'll fight hard, and if she's feeling fit, she can give anyone trouble. While she has played brilliantly at times in her return to the tour while battling an auto-immune disease, she has also looked understandably tired at times. A quarterfinal would be an accomplishment. 

Christina McHale just missed being seeded, and she has improved on clay, although the 20-year-old still needs to learn the finer points of how to win points on dirt. She's a battler, so she won't go out easy. The same can be said of Vania King, who needs to win a couple of rounds in order to give herself a great shot of making the U.S. Olympic team. Lefthander Varvara Lepchenko needs to do the same in regards to the Olympics, and she's put up some fine wins on clay this season. Teenager Sloane Stephens loves the surface and has picked up her game over the past couple of weeks. Jamie Hampton is a gamer, and Irina Falconi seems to get clay-court play. And guess who won the USTA wild card with some fine clay-court play? None other than 2009 US Open quarterfinalist Melanie Oudin, who seems to be ridding herself of some mental demons. It's good to have her back.


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