By Matt Cronin
PARIS: Even though the results of Roland Garros have been very predictable since now seven-time champion Rafael Nadal raced on to the scene in 2005, it’s a little more difficult to tell what will occur this year given that on the Saturday morning before the tournament was to begin it was 40 degrees. It actually hailed a bit on Friday . For a city like Paris whose name has been romanticized with glorious and warm spring nights, that is odd, and the forecast isn’t much better for the first week, so when the players walk on court on Sunday, they may not only have to hold onto their hats in the blustery winds, but possibly to their mittens as well.
“The only negative thing is this cold,” said Nadal.
The Spaniard is once again favored to win the title, but for those fans who like a bit of unpredictability in their draws, at least he and his primary rival, No. 1 Novak Djokovic, are not on opposite sides of the draw and are slated to meet in the semifinals.
That leaves the bottom half of the draw wide open, which could very well mean a first-time French Open final round appearance by a veteran such as David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych or Frances Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, maybe a breakthrough by a youngster such as Milos Raonic, possibly by a dark horse such as the widely talented but often erratic Ernest Gulbis, or another walk in the final Sunday park by the much loved, but sputtering 2009 champion Roger Federer
The Federer of two years ago, or even last year, might have been a pretty heavy favorite to reach the final again without Nadal or Djokovic on his side of the draw and Andy Murray having pulled out of the tournament, but the 31 year old hasn’t won a tournament this year, is struggling a bit with back trouble and there are capable men is his quarter such as France’s Julien Benneteau, who beat him early this year, or Tsonga, who is overdue to score a gigantic win at his home nation’s Slam.
In fact, the Swiss first round could prove to be quite difficult as he faces Spanish phenom Pablo Carreno, a 21 year old who won 42 of 43 ITF matches this year, qualified and reached Portugal semis and also punched his way through the Roland Garros qualifying. He is said by some to be the most talented young Spaniard since (gulp), Federer’s nemesis Nadal came of age.
The Swiss receives huge crowd support in Paris (he does just about everywhere, including in Spain), but fans wearing ‘RF’ hats and screaming out his name won’t be the key to another successful Roland Garros: he has to play confidently and at a very high level. In Madrid and Rome, that wasn’t always the case.
“It was a bit different from a traditional preparation because I took time after Indian Wells,” he said. “When Madrid was beginning the ball was quite fast there. Conditions were difficult against [Kei] Nishikori.
After that I played four matches during the night and I only had the final during daytime. So it was a big change for me. Then I played Rafa [in Rome where he lost in the final]. But I’m happy about the way I play when I practice, but also during the matches. I felt fit and I have a good level of confidence. I’m at the level I want to have for this tournament.”
While the bottom half of the draw is chock full of possibilities, Djokovic and Nadal’s top half have more limited ones. But that does not mean that there won’t be any fireworks, and there is no real guarantee that the two will reprise their 2013 Monte Carlo final, which was won by Djokovic.
Djokovic has tougher road to the final four than Nadal does: he opens against the flashy yet slumping Belgian David Goffin and could face the same young guy who took him in Madrid, Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, in the third round. The big serving John Isner and the revived veteran Tommy Has are potential quarterfinal foes. The Serbian has pointed at the tournament all year as the one he desires to win the most as it’s the only major he doesn’t have in his pocket, but he’s had some complicated moments in Paris: like last year when he couldn’t sustain his momentum after an overnight rain break and lost to Nadal; the year prior when Federer beautifully mixed up his attack and took him down in the semis; and in 2010, when he arguably played his worst Grand Slam match ever and allowed Jurgen Melzer to come from two sets down and stun him in the fourth round.
He realizes that even getting to the second week could be problematic, which is perhaps the reason why he asked the press conference moderator to request that reporters not ask him about any other part of the draw or tournament expect his first round against Goffin. He is tired of talking about Nadal’s greatness on clay. Now all he has to do is display his own greatness or he will find himself, well, out in the cold.
“I feel comfortable on the court,” Djokovic said. “This is the tournament that is the No. 1 priority of my year. This is where I want to win, and I’m going to go for it. I think my game is there, and I’m very, very motivated.”