May 31, 2010

Time-Out: French Open Reassessment

I seem to be doing a little worse in my predictions this time around, but in my defense it is always hardest to telescope results at the French Open. And we've seen some strong players fall by the wayside over the first few rounds and a few surprisingly resilient champs prove they're not quite ready to be counted out.

So with less than a week of play left, I'll take a moment to look back at what we've seen and figure out who still or now has the best chance to make the illustrious final four among the men and women.

The top men's bracket turned out to be a lot less competitive than I'd thought. Ernests Gulbis retired during his first round while Albert Montanes was only able to take a set off last year's runner-up Robin Soderling. A couple other seeds -- Gael Monfils, Feliciano Lopez, for example -- also lost before the third round, allowing Roger Federer to make the quarters without dropping a set. That set up a rematch of last year's championship game which Federer won easily. And while Soderling is certainly a stronger player now, I'm standing by my call that Roger will advance.

Same with the bottom bracket, where four-time champion Rafael Nadal is once again playing at the top of his game. He's been challenged a bit, losing serve a few times in his last few matches, but he still hasn't dropped a set. And when he got past Thomaz Bellucci in the fourth round -- the same round in which he lost last year -- he successfully overcame the mental obstacle and got back to the quarters.

His next opponent took care of the biggest threat in the quarter for Rafa -- Nicolas Almagro, who is having some of his best success this year, simply rolled through Fernando Verdasco in two of their four sets and only allowed one break of his serve. The Spaniard has made the quarters once before, but with recent wins over the likes of Tomas Berdych, Lleyton Hewitt and Robin Soderling, this is certainly his best showing based on skill and talent. He did take a set off Nadal in Madrid, but beating him three-out-of-five is a whole different story. While Rafa may face his biggest test of the tournament, I think he'll back up my earlier prediction.

My next call was negated a few days ago. In a bracket I claimed from the start was pretty stacked I'm actually surprised third-seeded Novak Djokovic made it so far. Of course, his biggest threats had been eliminated for him by Robby Ginepri and his next challenger, Jurgen Melzer. Ginepri, the unlikely last American man standing, pulled off a stunning upset of world #18 Juan Carlos Ferrero while Melzer took care of my pick, David Ferrer, in a fairly routine three sets. Though Nole has beaten the twenty-nine year old veteran in their last two meetings, the way he played in the last round makes me think he might be a little tired. And if the man who beat my choice for this quarter makes it to the semis, I'll chalk it up as a win for me!

The last quarter is much more up in the air. I'd said we'd see a lot of upsets here, and it turns out that we did. I had big hopes for Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, but he was downed in the second round; John Isner, too, lost unnervingly easily to Tomas Berdych in the third, and Andy Murray, the top seed in the bracket, was two sets and a break down in the first round. Ultimately it was Berdych and Mikhail Youzhny who made the quarters, two men who've met ten times before. And though the Russian has the slight edge in their head-to-head, I feel like Berdych has been just slightly more impressive this spring, and I'm giving him the last men's ticket to the semis.

The top women's quarter was hard to call for the exact opposite reason as that last men's section. There was just so much talent, so many titles, such high quality play that several people said the winner of this bracket would win the whole thing. And after a week of play, that certainly looks to be the case. The top seeded Serena Williams is still alive and playing some of the best tennis in the women's draw. So is my pick Sam Stosur, who handed four-time champion Justine Henin her first French Open loss since 2004. I still think the Australian has a fighting chance to make the final four for the second consecutive year, but I'm a little worried about that call -- Serena's been much more impressive than I would have expected, given her three-month layoff post Melbourne. Sam did beat her once though, last year in Stanford, and she played some phenomenal ball to come back for the win against Henin. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

The bottom quarter of the women's draw was also one with a lot of strength, and I don't think I would've called for either of the two ladies left standing. Fifth seeded Elena Dementieva has had a couple of challenges on her way to the quarters, having lost a break lead to Anabel Medina Garrigues and coming from behind to beat Aleksandra Wozniak, but she hasn't faced any seeded players to advance. Meanwhile, Nadia Petrova took out my pick for the bracket, Venus Williams, in a surprising two sets after saving match points against another tournament favorite, Aravane Rezai. As much as I'd love to see Elena back in a Major semi -- and then some -- I think Nadia, who hasn't beaten her countrywoman in over three years, might be able to pull off another upset this time.

This section of the women's game is where I've been most surprised. Sure, I said the Italians would do well and predicted Francesca Schiavone would fight for the semi spot. But I have to hand it to Caroline Wozniacki, who so many people said should have sat out this French Open. But, boy has she proved us all liars. She's the third seed in Paris, so she hasn't yet played anyone who should beat her, but I thought for sure red-hot Alexandra Dulgheru would take her out, and of course Marbella champ would stick it to her. But props to Caro -- I'm so glad to see her looking healthy. That said, Schiavone hasn't dropped a set since the first round, and wins over a tough Na Li and Maria Kirilenko show just how strong she is. I would love Wozniacki to continue fighting, but I have a feeling her luck has to end sometime.

Not necessarily so for fourth seeded Jelena Jankovic who is not only playing beautfully, but has the least experienced quarterfinal opponent of the top players. Though Yaroslava Shvedova actually took out my choice for this section, Aggie Radwanska, and beat Jankovic in the second round of the U.S. Open last year, so she shouldn't be overlooked. But this is the first time the Kazakh has gotten past the third round of a Slam, while Jelena is looking for her third semi. If she keeps her cool I see no reason she shouldn't get back.

So I'm not going to bother giving myself a score for my forecasts this time -- there's still a chance I get a couple right, after all, and I'll find a way to justify my other calls! But one of my predictions has certainly come to fruition -- this year's French Open has been chock full of great tennis and some very exciting moments.

As for who I think can win the whole thing, well my money's still on Rafa. And, man would I love Stosur to bring it home for the women! But with only a few days of action left, you know it's only going to get better from here!

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