May 22, 2010

Semifinal Predictions: French Open

Maybe it's the elusive clay, maybe it's the magic of Paris, maybe it's funny accents. Je ne sais quoi, but for some reason, the French Open has a tendency to offer more upsets than any of the other Grand Slams -- but also the most opportunity for little-known players to make a name for themselves.

After all, Gustavo Kuerten was ranked sixty-sixth in the world when he won his first career title here in 1997. And then there were the likes of Gaston Gaudio (#44 when crowned champ in 2004) and Anastasia Myskina (the sixth seed the same year, but anyone know where she went off to?).

Since then, however, the grounds of Roland Garros have been dominated by two people: Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin. And while they were noticeably absent from the trophy presentations the last year or so, both are back in full force in 2010.

But they won't be the only ones fighting for glory in France. And with ATP Masters Cup winner Nikolay Davydenko, both U.S. Open champs Juan Martin Del Potro and Kim Clijsters, and a host of others all out this year, a couple of wily upstarts may be able to sneak through the brackets.

So let's get to it!

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Roger Federer of course highlights the men's draw this year. The defending champion has made the semis or better for the last twenty-three Majors, and I don't think he's willing to break that record any time soon. He hasn't won a title since Australia, though, and is showing a few chinks in the armor, so potential opponents may be a little more hopeful. Then again, King Fed always brings his best to the Slams, and with Nadal now holding claim to a record he doesn't own, Roger's probably got a fire lit underneath him again.

That being said, Federer might feel he's on an episode of "This is Your Life" ("C'est la vie"?). Ernests Gulbis, Albert Montanes and Robin Soderling are all in his quarter of the draw. Gulbis, you remember, shocked him -- and, frankly, the rest of the world -- in Rome, while Montanes did the same a week later in Portugal. And Soderling, well, we all know no one beats him ten, eleven, thirteen times in a row.

Marin Cilic is also in this section, but I'm less convinced of his authority on clay. Though he made the finals in Munich, he didn't have to beat a top-thirty player to do so. And some upsets in the Masters 1000 events have pushed him out of the top ten. While I don't doubt he'll become a force in the coming few years, the Croat might have to wait for the hard court season to roll back around.

Predicted Semifinalist: Challenges aside, few people can endure the wrath of Federer in a best-of-five situation. I think Roger will keep his streak going.

Second Quarter

He's ba-ack! And in grand style, Rafael Nadal has won the last three tournaments he's entered, beating Fernando Verdasco, David Ferrer and Roger Federer in the respective finals -- by no means an easy feat. Not even twenty-four years old, he's already surpassed the Masters 1000 record it took Andre Agassi a decade more to achieve. Sure he still lags Roger in Grand Slams, but he's once again looking like the man I once claimed would far eclipse Federer when all is said and done.

Admittedly a few weeks ago, I was a little nervous about Rafa's prospects, even at the Major where he's so at home. And while it's too soon to gauge his prospects come grass or hard court season, he's certainly shown he can still beat pretty much anyone he faces on this surface. Even still, there are a mess of hopefuls who'll do their best to stop his inevitable run.

Former #1 Lleyton Hewitt could be the first challenge he faces in the third round -- the Australian has beaten him a few times, but not in the last four years. And Lleyton's viability remains in question as he continues to nurse a nagging hip injury. Nicolas Almagro had a solid run in Madrid and followed it up with a couple wins in Dusseldorf this past week. Fernando Gonzalez, who started the year with a couple solid results, has faltered a bit in recent months, including a opening round loss to a triple-digit player in Barcelona. He does have an impressive record on clay, though, and has won nine titles on the surface, so he can't be ignored. There's also Fernando Verdasco, who's been the unwitting victim of Nadal almost exclusively over the last eighteen months -- he's been a top-performer all season too, winning two titles and making the finals in Rome and Nice this year.

But Nadal has winning records against all those guys and he's looking healthy again. So I'm hoping he won't face any big troubles this time around.

Predicted Semifinalist: Rafa, mais oui.

Third Quarter

Novak Djokovic has a tendency of very quietly advancing well into draws without causing too much commotion. Having ceded his #2 ranking to Nadal a few weeks back, he's nevertheless a force on clay -- a semifinalist in Monte Carlo, he has four titles on the surface as well as a win over Roger Federer in Rome last year. But he can't be too happy with his draw in '10 -- Andy Roddick, David Ferrer and Juan Carlos Ferrero all live here for the next two weeks. Or at least they hope they do.

Roddick has been a little quiet this clay court season, most recently pulling out of Madrid because of nausea. He made the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, his best ever performance at the Slam, but without the same kind of practice as his opponents, I'm wary of his chances to improve on, or even repeat, those results.

Ferrer, on the other hand, has looked stellar this season. After dropping out of the top twenty for a few weeks last year, he won a title in Acapulco and made the finals in Barcelona and Rome already in 2010. And it's not as though he's had easy roads -- he's taken out the likes of Andy Murray (twice!), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Fernando Verdasco. And more importantly, he remains healthy -- healthier certainly than others in Paris -- and few should feel confident if David's in their way.

His countryman Juan Carlos Ferrero had also been on an upswing this year, claiming two trophies in a row then making the finals in another tournament back in February. He's been a little more under-the-radar in recent weeks, only making the quarters in Monte Carlo, but if he's rested in Paris, he should have an easy enough time making at least the fourth round.

Predicted Semifinalist: Even with so much talent in this section of the draw, David Ferrer has been unstoppable (by anyone not named Nadal) this season. I'm giving him the third spot.

Fourth Quarter

I know, I know. You're tired of hearing me talk down Andy Murray. But while even I have to admit he does have talent and probably will win a Major sooner or later, I just don't think it'll be this one, this year. Murray barely has a winning record on clay and only advanced past the third round of Roland Garros once in his career. And with a couple early losses on his resume in the last few months, 2010 doesn't look much more promising.

Fighting for his spot in the semis are a couple guys who've been a bit more successful on the dirt this season. Marcos Baghdatis has worked hard to resurrect his career in the new decade, shocking Federer in Indian Wells and even winning a title in Sydney. Though he lost in the quarters of Nice, he could give Murray a run for the money if they both make the third round. And Munich champ Mikhail Youznhy, dangerously close to the top ten again, is also in this quarter. I have a feeling the biggest surprise on the men's side of the draw will come out of this section.

Predicted Semifinalist: Guillermo Garcia-Lopez just barely earned seeding at Roland Garros and won his only title on clay last year. I think he's proven he can pull off an upset or two and may just be the one making it through this quarter.

The Women

First Quarter

We haven't seen much of top-seeded Serena Williams in the last few months -- a knee injury kept her out of commission for much of the early spring season. She did make the semis in Rome, but didn't face anyone too high up the rankings to get there. The next week Serena just barely got past Vera Dushevina in Madrid before falling to Nadia Petrova in the third round. So I'm not sure just how well she'll do this year in Paris -- the only Major in which she hasn't passed the quarters since 2003.

Add to that the fact that she is in probably the toughest section of the women's draw. Sam Stosur, Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin will all be vying for that semifinal spot -- and only one of them can get it.

It must ruffle some feathers that Justine Henin didn't get the top seed in her bracket, regardless of a ranking in the low twenties. The four-time French Open champion hasn't lost a set here since the Sweet Sixteen five years ago -- the last match she lost was in 2004. So far this year Henin beat both Jelena Jankovic and Stosur on her way to the title in Stuttgart and while she did lose in the first round of Madrid, it wasto eventual champion Aravane Rezai.

And Stosur shouldn't be overlooked either. After watching her trounce Vera Zvonareva in Charleston, I've seen just how well this girl can hit. This was, after all, the tournament where she kicked off her breakout performance last year, and her road to the Sweet Sixteen looks pretty clear.

Maria Sharapova hasn't played a lot of tennis this year, losing the first round in Madrid. But she did win a trophy in Memphis and staged a couple rallies to claim the title in Strasbourg earlier on Saturday. And -- since pundits like to make predictions based on totally useless statistics -- she has won a Slam in every even-numbered year since Wimbledon '04, so by extension...

Predicted Semifinalist: Weird handicapping aside, I think Stosur is playing most impressively in this section and I'm thinking she makes her second straight run to the Paris semis.

Second Quarter

Thanks partly to an amazing fifteen-match win streak earlier this year and partly due to her rivals' recent struggles, Venus Williams enters the second Grand Slam of the year with her highest ranking in seven years. She hasn't had the best luck in Paris, making it past the third round only once in the last five years, but after her run to the finals in Madrid, she probably has a better chance of living up to her seeding than does baby sister. She has a first round date with another veteran, Patty Schnyder, a woman she most recently beat in Rome -- her tenth win over the Swiss Miss in their twelve-plus year history.

Elena Dementieva is the other big name in this part of the draw, and she has the potential of a second round match with Melanie Oudin, possibly the only woman struggling more than she is this spring. And I would like Victoria Azarenka's chances if this were a different surface, and if she hadn't retired in three matches since April -- I'm not sure how healthy she is these days, but I'm hoping she gets back in top form soon.

Regardless, there are a few big spoilers in this section like Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, the champ in Rome, and Aravane Rezai, Venus's vanquisher in Spain, threatening to upset the balance here. And while nineteenth-seeded Nadia Petrova has seen her ranking drop a bit in the last twelve months, she's certainly one of those intimidating players who knows how to pull off an upset or two.

Predicted Semifinalist: Even though there are some possible upsets, I feel like at least one of the top women has to make the semis, and given the circumstances it will probably be Venus. Of the four, she's the healthiest and has the most experience on the big stage, and I'm giving her the edge here.

Third Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki headlines this part of the draw, but largely in name only. Since that devastating stumble in Charleston a month ago, she continues to struggle with a sprained ankle, retiring after losing a set to Jie Zheng this past week in Warsaw. After seeing her face that day in South Carolina, I have to admit I was surprised she entered so many tournaments leading up to Paris and agree with some of my Twitter friends that she should have sat out the French, gotten better, and actually been a legitimate threat at Wimbledon. Instead she's awarded with a draw that's so wide open, I'm having trouble calling anyone a favorite.

Defending champ Svetlana Kuznetsova is in this part of the bracket, but I'm not sure she's the biggest worry. Teenaged Polona Hercog made her first Tour final in Acapulco, while Roberta Vinci made a valiant effort to defend her title in Barcelona. Lucie Safarova made a nice run to the Madrid semis while Alexandra Dulgheru claimed her second trophy in Warsaw with wins over Na Li and Kateryna Bondarenko.

But I think this quarter will be a story of the Italians -- Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone both have won trophies this year, and both have a bit of experience with the other ladies in their section. As the hopefuls in their quarter take care of potential challenges for them, I think these ladies could be the ones ultimately fighting for the semi spot.

Predicted Semifinalist: Schiavone has won more of the pair's meetings, but Flavia has been slightly more consistent of late. This could be her chance to make her first Major Final Four.

Fourth Quarter

Jelena Jankovic is once again looking like the #1 player she once was. After winning the title in Indian Wells and making the finals in Rome -- beating both Venus and Serena on the way -- she's earned herself the best seed she's had at a Major in over a year.

Still there are plenty of potential problems in this quarter. Former world #1 and 2009 runner-up Dinara Safina could surprise us all and rally this time around, though I doubt it. Vera Zvonareva knows her way around a clay court, if she can keep her temper in check, and '08 champ Ana Ivanovic has been reminding us she's still in the picture. And Carla Suarez-Navarro has continued to surprise me all year, even if she did retire from the last match she played.

Then there's Aggie Radwanska who made a stunning run to the semis in Indian Wells this past March. She hasn't won a championship since 2008, but she's remained solidly in the top ten thanks to wins over players like Dementieva and Ivanovic in the past year. I keep waiting for her to pull out a big girl's title and though she's probably not ready to take it all home yet, I think she might get in a couple wins this run.

Predicted Semifinalist: What the heck, let's give this one to Aggie, with Ana being my close second choice.

So we're just hours away from the first serves and strokes of the 2010 French Open. And, if I'm right, we could be in for a few surprises in both the men's and women's brackets. As I mentioned in my blogcast yesterday, it looks like Rafa is primed to reclaim the crown which is so rightfully his. For the ladies, a lot of people have commented that whoever comes out of that top quarter should win the whole thing -- so I guess that means this is Sam's year! But who knows -- we've seen so many crazy things happen recently that in two weeks time we might be hailing champions that are completely off the radar right now.

But isn't that what makes Roland Garros so much fun to watch?!

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