The French Open was once the most difficult of the Grand Slams when it came to previewing players’ chances and who the likely champion would be.
While top players traditionally reigned at the other majors, the clay at Roland Garros had a habit of throwing up less-heralded names. Remember Albert Costa and Gaston Gaudio, 2002 and 2004 winners respectively? Or finalists Andrei Medvedev (1999), Magnus Norman (2000), Alex Corretja (2002) and Martin Verkerk (2003)?
Yet consistency is now a feature at the top of the men’s game and that’s translated to the terre battue. Rafael Nadal has scooped seven of the past eight titles at Roland Garros, and Roger Federer features regularly on the final Sunday. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have been frequent quarterfinalists and semifinalists in Paris.
This year, however, the form guide has been harder to read going into the year’s premier claycourt tournament.
Andy Murray was blitzed early in Monte Carlo, winning just three games against Stanislas Wawrinka. Rafael Nadal, as usual, made it through to that final, but his streak of eight straight Monte Carlo crowns came to an end against Djokovic in a one-sided loss.
Djokovic then fell in his opening match at the Madrid Masters, the victim of inspired youngster Grigor Dimitrov and a dodgy ankle. And Federer has only just returned to tennis in the Spanish capital after months away – although he won his first match, limited activity has made gauging his form a challenge. A loss in the third round to Kei Nishikori doesn't inspire confidence.
While Nadal and Murray remain alive in Madrid, and Djokovic has almost a week to rehabilitate his ankle before appearing in Rome, it has nonetheless been a surprising season on clay thus far. And it’s one that makes the looming French Open all the more intriguing.
Who could upset the apple cart?
Dimitrov is front and centre of a group of dangerous dark horses. As well as ousting Djokovic he earlier reached the quarters in Monaco and took Nadal to three sets. His stylish game seems well suited to the red dirt, as do the games of Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet, fellow quarterfinalists in Monte Carlo. Wawrinka last week won the Portugal Open, beating David Ferrer in the final.
The group just below the Big Four of Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro are all capable of springing an upset, or being dumped from the tournament earlier than expected. While all are monstrous hitters with prior success at Roland Garros, each comes in under a question mark – del Potro has been felled by a virus and Tsonga remains inconsistent, and won’t have forgotten blowing four match points against Djokovic in the quarters in Paris last year. Berdych, although relatively steady, lost early and meekly in Monte Carlo.
Another member of that group is Ferrer, who although is ranked No.4 in the world, is a combined 14-48 against the Big Four (1-12 since January 2012) and has reached the semifinals at Roland Garros just once.
While the women’s game has been recently ruled by Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka, Williams and Sharapova have surged ahead to become Roland Garros favourites while Azarenka has slipped to a distant third. Having not played since Indian Wells in mid March, the Belarusian looked awry in Madrid, with Ekaterina Makarova bringing to an end Azarenka’s stunning 18-0 start to the 2013 season.
Meanwhile, her chief rivals have set about scooping the big clay titles, as they did in 2012 – Serena claimed her second straight Charleston title on green clay in April, and Sharapova defended Stuttgart. A potential one-versus-two battle in Paris would be the final many are hoping for, especially given it’s probably the second-ranked Sharapova’s best shot at stemming a nasty 11-match losing streak to Serena.
But there are plenty of women capable of spoiling the party. Power-packed Grand Slam champions Li Na, Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur can hit through the court and have all enjoyed success at Roland Garros. They’ll be hoping their early defeats in Madrid are mere aberrations. The resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova (the 2009 champ) and world No.11 Nadia Petrova (twice a French Open semifinalist) are also threats.
Throw in Angelique Kerber (a gritty retriever with power to boot) and Sara Errani, who reached the final in Paris last year, and you’ve got an army of women just below the top three all capable of hoisting the silverware.
With unprecedented depth in the women’s game, and perhaps the early signs of increasing parity on the men’s side, the upcoming French Open is a swirling mass of questions.
From Sunday 26 May, we’ll begin to get some answers.