May 23, 2009

French Open Preview

In less than twenty-four hours we'll be getting the first results from the year's second Grand Slam tournament. The draws are set, and it could be a fun ride for some of the world's top players.

Rafael Nadal is out to make history as he goes for his record fifth straight French Open title, but perrenial rival Roger Federer -- among others -- stands in his way. A win here would not only put the seventh major trophy on Rafa's shelf, but also gets him halfway to achieving a Grand Slam this year, something only two other men have done before.

On the women's side, defending champ Ana Ivanovic will surely want to repeat, but Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic are all hungry for their first major title. And Serena Williams would just love to reiterate her case to reclaim the #1 spot.

But the red clay often proves to be a tricky surface for even the best players, and as always I'll be hoping for some exciting play!

Men's Draw

It's no surprise that four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal is the favorite to win in Paris, but now there may be a little chink in his armor. After taking home three consecutive titles in the lead-up clay-court season, Rafa was devastated by Roger Federer in the finals at Madrid.

Now in most instances, a straight-set defeat at the hands of the former #1 wouldn't be deemed "devastating" -- even after all his troubles Roger is clearly the favorite in most of his matches. But for him to win on clay, against Rafa, no less, is something of a coup, and might put him on the fast track to his nineteenth Grand Slam final.

To get there though, he's going to have to get past Novak Djokovic in the semis -- and he's lost his last two matches against the world #4. The Serbian has been quietly slugging away too -- he won the title in the inaugural Serbian Open after reaching three consecutive finals before that. And while Andy Murray has never won a tournament on clay, he did make the semis in Monte Carlo and the quarters in Madrid -- he has clearly improved his game on the surface.

Americans Andy Roddick and James Blake have surprisingly had some success on the surface while Juan Martin Del Potro and Fernando Verdasco are basically at home on the red dirt. Meanwhile players like Tommy Robredo and Thomas Berdych, both of whom have scored a few of their own trophies this year, could easily mark some upsets.

Women's Draw

Things are less cut-and-dry in the women's half of the tournament.

Ana Ivanovic won the title here last year as the second seed, claiming her first Grand Slam championship. Since then she's struggled a bit, taking home only one title in Linz and reaching one other final at Indian Wells. Her ranking has also slipped from #1 just after her victory to #8 now.

Ana's been quiet in the clay court season leading up to Roland Garros, making her only appearance in Rome, where she pulled out just one match win. And she's facing Sara Errani in the first round, and Italian would could easily prove to be a tough opponent. With such little practice, it's going to be hard for Ivanovic to repeat, especially with so many other strong players in the mix.

Last year's runner up and current world #1 Dinara Safina has had a pretty good run on clay, winning in Madrid and Rome and making the finals in Stuttgart. While she will certainly be the favorite as the top seed, there are plenty of opportunities for an upset. She's got an opening round match with Anne Keothavong who made the semis in Warsaw and a potential quarterfinal match with Victoria Azarenka, who beat her in Indian Wells.

At #2 and #3 in the world and having been at the top for so long, it's hard to believe that Serena has won the only Roland Garros title in the Williams family -- in 2002. It's always hard to count out the sisters especially when, on opposite sides of the draw, they could meet in the finals. Even still Serena hasn't yet won a match on clay this year, and Venus has a potential second round matchup against Sabine Lisicki, who ousted her in the third round at Charleston.

Then there's Jelena Jankovic, Caroline Wozniacki and Svetlana Kuznetsova, all of whom have all had impressive clay court seasons, advancing well into draws and bringing home a few of their own titles. And of course all eyes will be on Maria Sharapova, who won two matches in her return to the tour last week -- she's in the same quarter as Venus, Vera Zvonareva and Gisela Dulko.

Elena Dementieva, who started the year with a bang but hasn't had much success since Australia, is in a section of the draw that could have her meet Melbourne dark horse Jelena Dokic, Estoril champ Yanina Wickmayer, and resurgent Daniela Hantuchova all before the round of sixteen. Her quarter of the bracket could spark the most fireworks.

Things to Watch

A couple people made their marks in the few weeks leading up to Roland Garros, and probably should not be overlooked. Albert Montanes, who denied James Blake his first title in over twenty months when he beat him in the finals at Estoril, could face Andy Murray in the third round. And Ekaterina Makarova made two finals in a row as she continues to go after her first Tour title -- her opening match will rehash the Fes championships, where she lost to Anabel Medina Garrigues, 6-0, 6-1.

In the comeback category, two former number ones are trying to reclaim their former glory. Juan Carlos Ferrero, winner in Casablanca, opens against Ivan Lubijcic while Houston champion Lleyton Hewitt faces Ivo Karlovic in the first and probably Nadal in the third rounds.

It's clear no one is coming to Paris unwilling to fight for the crown.

Clearly at a tournament where Gustavo Kuerten took home the trophy when ranked sixty-sixth in the world and a nineteen-year-old from Mallorca changed the face of the sport forever, stranger things have happened -- and this might be the year.

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