Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hard Road Ahead For Top Seeds at French

By Mert Ertunga

Roland Garros begins in less than two weeks, and on the men's side, until a few months ago, any tennis enthusiast would have predicted that the winner of Roland Garros in 2012 would be either Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic — sorry, Roger Federer fans, but if you picked him, you were being partial.

It seemed highly unlikely that any player outside of the top two players the world could go through both of them and hold the winner's trophy at the end of the final day in Paris. Rafael Nadal, who would have been the only name to pick until Djokovic's amazing run since the beginning of 2011, seemed to be the favorite once again because … well … it's on clay, and it's Roland Garros!

Djokovic was also a legitimate favorite because he has been the best player in the world for over a year, including a seven-match winning streak against his top rival Nadal, that streak recently coming to an end three weeks ago in Monte-Carlo Masters Series tournament, where Nadal has not been beaten since his only loss there as a 16-year-old teenager against Guillermio Coria back in 2003.

But, as I said, that was a few months ago. Fast-forward to today, and it no longer seems so evident that Djokovic and Nadal are the only favorites to win the tournament.

That being said, let's be clear: Nadal is still the favorite to win once again, especially considering that he has rolled through competition in the only two tournaments played on "red" clay this year. If you have followed the "blue" clay charade of last week, you would know very well why I put the word "red" in quotation marks.

For those who did not follow, very briefly, the Masters Series tournament that took place last week in Madrid was played on blue clay, apparently Ion Tiriac's latest innovative idea. It fell barely short of being a complete debacle with multiple players complaining about the poor quality of the surface, and both Nadal and Djokovic threatening never to return again unless the tournament went back to traditional red clay next year. Just in case you wondered, neither of them made it to the semifinals.

Nevertheless, Nadal seems to be back on track now that his favorite time of the year has arrived: the clay court season culminating with Roland Garros. However, is he as much far ahead of everyone else in the field? If you compare his situation and the competition now to the several years past, unless you are an avid Rafa fan and are choosing willingly to deny it, the answer is clearly no. While anyone would have been shocked if Nadal lost in Paris every year since 2006 — and yes, we know the feeling from the Robin Soderling loss in 2009 — if he was not to win this year, it would not qualify as the biggest story of the tennis season so far.

Djokovic, for his part, has not looked as invincible in April and May as he did at this point last year. So far in 2012, he sits at 26 wins and 4 losses with two titles. While it seems like a redoubtable season by almost any standard, once taken into account where Djokovic was sitting at this time last year — undefeated and three wins over each of his two main rivals, Federer and Nadal — it pales in comparison. He has not faced Federer this year and he is 1-1 against Nadal, most recent one being a comfortable, straight-set win for Nadal in Monte-Carlo.

Perhaps this is why the Masters Series tournament in Rome, taking place as this article is being written, has become so important for both players. It is the last top quality event before the French Open, and each of them would be delighted to make an impression on the other by winning the tournament and mentally getting a step ahead of the other prior to Roland Garros. I don't believe it would be an exaggeration to say that the odd-makers would drastically be shifting positions on the title chances at Roland Garros depending on who wins in Rome, especially if the top two players end up playing each other in the finals.

Perhaps other players have also closed the gap between them and the top two players. In fact, Federer has just moved to the No. 2 ranking ahead of Nadal, although in terms of French Open discussion, Nadal is the king of Roland Garros. Nevertheless, it shows that the chances of having a winner other than the top two players in the world have recently increased. There is no denying that Federer is coming into Roland Garros with plenty of confidence and tournament wins under his belt, and the possibility of having both Djokovic and Nadal on the other side of the draw. Roland Garros was also where he played his best tennis in 2011, so why not in 2012? Who knows if it will be enough, but it is certainly worthy enough not to take him off the possible winner list.

There are certainly other players who could come out of nowhere to step up and take the title, but it is not the goal of this article to list possible dark horses for Roland Garros. Nonetheless, I can already hear the seemingly-all-erudite "not this year, buddy" comment coming my way, but I would have probably heard it also if I listened carefully in the years 2004 (unseeded Gaston Gaudio), 2002 (20th-seeded Albert Costa), 1997 (unseeded Gustavo Kuerten), 1989 (15th-seeded, 17-year-old Michael Chang), and 1982 (unseeded, 18-year-old Mats Wilander).

If this list is not enough, then consider the No. 1 players in the Open era who have never managed to lift the "Coupe des Mousquétaires" at the end of the two weeks: Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andy Roddick — okay, they are Americans, so they have an excuse — but also consider Marcelo Rios, Patrick Rafter, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, and John Newcombe.

It has been a nightmarish tournament to win not only for the No. 1 ranked players, but also the player entering the tournament as the top seed. Through the '70s and '80s, there were only three players, Jan Kodes, Bjorn Borg, and Ivan Lendl, who lived up to their top-seeded status; but two of them, Borg and Lendl, did it more than once (Borg five times!).

Things went from bad to worse for the top seeds beginning with the '90s. Since Lendl's last title in 1987, only three times has the top-seeded player managed to win Roland Garros: Jim Courier in 1992, Kuerten in 2001, and Nadal in 2011. That is only once in each decade! If tennis was a numbers game, Djokovic winning Roland Garros this year as the top-seeded player would have to be considered an extraordinary anomaly!

With Rome going on this week, and Roland Garros beginning next month, a lot is on the line for the top two players in the world, as well as several other players looking to prove that they are ready to join the elite group of top-ranked players; and nothing would make that a reality quicker than being crowned the winner, on the last Sunday of the tournament on the Court Philippe Chatrier.

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