May 20, 2011

French Open: First Round Matches to Watch

Well it's that time of year again -- the main draws for the French Open are out and everyone -- except, they say, the players themselves -- are scouring the brackets to see what potential match-ups lie ahead.

As always, there will surely be a few early upsets and a couple Cinderella stories, and while the most exciting tales are those that are the least expected, I've chosen to point out a few that are particularly ripe for surprises. And, as always, I'll start with the men.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

If recent losses in Madrid and Rome didn't do it, a quick look at his quarter should prove the gods have finally turned against Rafael Nadal. Since 2003 his first round opponent at the Slams has, on average, ranked 116 in the world. But this year he'll face big-serving John Isner in his opener. It's not the worst fate -- the clay clearly neutralizes the American's biggest weapon and the defending champion has won both their previous meetings -- but the bigger threats come later in the uber-stacked section. Rafa's best bet might be hoping the other early match-ups tire out the rest of the contenders.

Fernando Verdasco faces Juan Monaco in his first match, but it might not be the seeded Spaniard that emerges victorious. Monaco pulled off a nice win over Mardy Fish in Dusseldorf, helping his Argentina make the finals. And Verdasco is back in a funk, winning just one match since handily losing in the Estoril final. And unfortunately, the pairing of Pablo Andujar and Santiago Giraldo, both of whom have been making strides this seas, can only result in one winner.

More interesting could be the match-up of Ivan Ljubicic and Somdev Devvarman, neither of whom are seeded in Paris. The Indian is at his highest career ranking and has notched defeats over Marcos Baghdatis, Milos Raonic and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez this year. Clay may not be his best surface, but so early in his career it can't hurt to make a statement now. And Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who beat both Richard Gasquet and Jurgen Melzer in Madrid, will meet Robin Haase to kick off his campaign -- that could be a fun fight between next-generation stars.

The late-round match-to-watch: If they live up to their seedings, Nadal could meet Robin Soderling for a third straight year in Paris for a spot in the semis. He more than avenged his heart-wrenching defeat from 2009, but this year things might be a bit more up in the air.

Second Quarter

Novak Djokovic should have a much easier time in France as he looks to improve his already-impressive streak. In a quarter co-lead by Tomas Berdych, he doesn't have a lot of early threats, so look for a nice run from the Serb.

It won't be easy for everyone, though. Estoril champion Juan Martin Del Potro faces fellow big-man Ivo Karlovic in his first French Open match in two years. The Croat's actually won their only previous meeting, but that was several years ago, and DelPo has certainly adapted his service game to this surface. Still, I worry that if he's not completely recovered from that muscle tear in his leg, he may have a tough start to the tournament.

This section of the draw also boasts the return of two legends in the sport. Lleyton Hewitt, who we haven't seen since a first round loss in Indian Wells. Dealing with injuries for the better part of three years, he hasn't really been a consistent force in some time. He could have some trouble, then, against clay court specialist Albert Montanes in the first round -- though he leads the head-to-head, both meetings were a long time ago and on different surfaces. I'd expect Montanes to come out swinging.

Tommy Haas has been out of the game slightly longer -- after hip surgery last February, he's played a tiny bit of doubles this year, but has no singles wins since San Jose in 2010. The gorgeous German will meet a qualifier in his return to Grand Slam play, so hopefully that's a stage on which he can be eased back into competition. As the fortnight wears on, it's only going to get harder.

The late-round match-to-watch: Nole and DelPo are slated to meet in a far-too-early third round. It should be the first big test Djokovic faces this tournament, and if Del Po plays to his ability, it could be a good one.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer hasn't been ranked this low at a Major since Wimbledon 2003 -- which he won, by the way. But he faces an early test from Feliciano Lopez, who took him to three tough tiebreak sets in Madrid a few weeks ago. That nearly three-hour match exposed some of Roger's shortcomings on clay and proved that the Spaniard is capable of hitting big. I'm hoping the rematch is just as exciting.

On the other side of the quarter, David Ferrer could get a struggle from veteran Jarkko Nieminen. They've met two times this year, splitting victories on hard courts, and the Finn is making his way back up the rankings, putting up a struggle in the third round of Rome. I give Ferrer this edge, based on his experience and strengths, but if the fever that took him out of Italy lingers at all, it could be a fight.

The late-round match-to-watch: Ivan Dodig, who got off to a strong start early in the year, also beat Robin Soderling in Barcelona and could face a second round test from Janko Tipsarevic, who served him a one-handed defeat in Delray. Look for the rising Croat to regain his footing on what should be a good surface for him.

Fourth Quarter

The top seeds in the last section of the bracket, Andy Murray and Jurgen Melzer, both get qualifiers in the first round, and should have a fairly easy time advancing early. But like the top quarter, this section is pretty heavily stacke with veterans Nicolas Almagro and Viktor Troicki dappled among some rising stars like Milos Raonic and Alexandr Dolgopolov.

The latter, who ended a five-match losing streak with a semifinal appearance in Nice this past week, will meet Rainer Schuettler in just his second French Open appearance. This is far from his best surface, but if he wants to keep the momentum he gained in Australia, he's going to want to make a deep run here, and getting past the more experienced German would be a good start.

I'll also watch the match-up between Ryan Sweeting and Andreas Haider-Maurer. The champion in Houston followed up with a semifinal showing at a Sarasota Challenger, making him one of the most successful American clay-courters we've seen in quite a while. Haider-Maurer doesn't have a lot of experience on any surface, but he did take Robin Soderling to five sets in New York last year, so we know he can put up a fight. But a win for Sweeting could put him back on the radar as a future force in the country's arsenal.

The late-round match-to-watch: Both would have to cause an upset or two on the way, but Raonic could face Dolgo in the fourth round, and it would be great to see the Australian Open Cinderellas take it to each other.

The Women

First Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki is the top seed for the third Slam in a row, and people continue to ask the question over when she'll win that maiden Major. She could be in for a challenge when she meets super-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm in her opener. The forty-year old Japanese has continued to pull off upsets during her second career, so Caro can't take her lightly, but she should be able to survive this test relatively unscathed.

More interesting in this section of the draw is the pairing of Aravane Rezai, out of seeding range this year, and Irina-Camilia Begu, the surprise finalist in Marbella last month. The young Romanian upset Klara Zakopalova and Svetlana Kuznetsova during that run, so you know she can hit. And against a struggling Rezai, she could very conceivably improve her year even more.

Then there's Tsvetana Pironkova, who hasn't passed a third round since miraculous semifinal run last year at Wimbledon. She's just barely holding onto a seed in Paris, but she won't have that luxury much longer and needs a few wins, stat. The Bulgarian will face Casey Dellacqua, a woman who's been pretty active since returning from injury in Estoril, in the first round, and a win would give a big boost to her confidence.

The late-round match-to-watch: I know most people are hoping for a quarterfinal rematch between Wozniacki and Stuttgart champion Julia Goerges, but I'll be watching a round earlier when the seventeenth seed could meet last year's Roland Garros runner-up Sam Stosur. The Australian was a victim in Stuttgart too and is more than susceptible to another loss.

Second Quarter

Kim Clijsters was given a bit of a pass in her first French Open since 2006 -- her first round date with Anastasiya Yakimova should present little trouble. And Maria Sharapova kicks off against Marjana Lucic, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1999, trying to launch a comeback.

But keep an eye on Estoril finalist Kristina Barrois. Her game is particularly well-suited to clay, and she could be a spoiler. But opening opponent Sania Mirza has been winning again this year, and some improved doubles play could help her game here as well. And Andrea Petkovic finally started showing her stuff on clay in Strasbourg -- I want to see if she can keep it up against up-and-comer Bojana Jovanovski who started off the year so strong.

And in a sadly ironic pairing, newly-single Jarmila Gajdosova meets Virginie Razzano, who just suffered the heart-breaking loss of her fiancé. I can't root against either of these ladies, circumstances notwithstanding, but Jarmila has played solid ball since hitting the clay, and I don't expect her to stop now.

The late-round match-to-watch: If the seeds play out as expected, Clijsters should face Petko in the fourth round. She's beaten her they're only previous meeting, but that was well before the German became a real force, and something tells me this time things will be a lot more exciting.

Third Quarter

Third-seeded Vera Zvonareva could face a tough test against Lourdes Dominguez Lino, the Spaniard who won a title in Bogota back in February. But the Russian seemed to regain form this week in Brussels -- she dropped just one point on serve against Alexandra Dulgheru in the quarterfinals. She is spotty on clay, though, and could be taken by surprise, but I expect her to be relentless from the get-go.

Last year's champion Francesca Schiavone may have a hard time defending her title, and that trouble could start early. First round opponent Melanie Oudin has had trouble recapturing the magic she possessed a few years ago in New York, but she did score an all-important victory over the Italian in last year's Fed Cup final. I don't know that she'll be able to repeat, but it sure would be fun to see her try.

The late-round match-to-watch: Young champions Alisa Kleybanova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova are slated to meet in the third round. They've been trading wins over their history, and all of their matches have gone the distance, so you have to think this could be a good one.

Fourth Quarter

Victoria Azarenka carries her best Slam seeding to Paris, thanks to a very successful spring. She's been told she's fit to play after an elbow injury forced her to retire in Rome, but watch her first round match with Andrea Hlavackova for any signs of stress. And Petra Kvitova, who skipped Rome last week in favor of an ITF event in Prague, returns to Tour with a match against blossoming thirty-two year old Greta Arn, a quarterfinalist in Italy.

But there are more intriguing pairings out there. One of two resurgent Italians, Alberta Brianti or Roberta Vinci, will have to step aside early -- unfortunate after the last few months they've had. And one-time Cinderella Sorana Cirstea could face a stumbling block as she runs into veteran Patty Schnyder in her first match. Meanwhile 2009 semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, who beat Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova in Madrid, is on the verge of breaking into the elite -- I'd like to see her really show her stuff against doubles ace Vania King.

The late-round match-to-watch: 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic and barely unseeded Ekaterina Makarova could meet in the second round -- Ana soundly beat her in New York and the Russian returned the favor in Melbourne and rode the momentum to her best Major performance. It'll be interesting to see how these two fare on a different surface.

I'm not sure if it's particularly bad luck for the favorites this year, or a field of underdogs who've shown their mettle all season, but it certainly seems like this year's draws have plenty of room for surprises. If Nadal does, in fact, get that Open-era record sixth title in Paris or if Wozniacki manages to silence her critics by finally claiming a Major crown, you know they'll have earned it.

And hopefully, there will be plenty of excitement in the meantime.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when I blogcast my full preview of the action at Roland Garros and highlight a few more things you'll want to watch at the year's second Grand Slam.

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