May 25, 2012

French Open: Draw Analysis

The draws are out for this year's French Open, and at first glance it sure looks like there will be plenty of room for surprises. The seeds are a little different from what we've been used to at Grand Slams past -- at least on the ladies' side -- but there are sure to be some players who take advantage of whatever shake ups there may be in their brackets, and by the time June rolls around, a couple favorites may not be still standing.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Top-seeded Novak Djokovic doesn't have the same momentum coming into the French he did at this time last year, but that doesn't make him any less of a threat. With runs to finals in Monte Carlo and Rome, he's clearly still able to win on clay. He could face potential spoiler Lleyton Hewitt in the second round, but it should be a few matches after that before he faces any true challenge.

Jo Wilfried-Tsonga comes to his hometown Slam with his highest career ranking, but it may not serve him too well -- he's never gotten past the fourth round here, and with clay-court specialists like Cedrik-Michel Stebe and barely-unseeded Pablo Andujar in his section of the bracket, it might be hard to improve that stat. He should also keep an eye out for Thomaz Bellucci, well off his career-high ranking at #70 in the world. But the Brazilian beat David Ferrer in Monte Carlo and former French Open champ Juan Carlos Ferrero in Nice, and if he can get through Viktor Troicki in his opener, he could be a tough third round opponent for the Frenchman.

Players should also keep an eye on surprise Nice finalist Brian Baker -- the Tennessee native won one Major match, way back at the 2005 U.S. Open, but hasn't done much of anything since. He might be exhausted after his week of upsets, but now would be a good time to prove those wins were no fluke. But if someone's going to really prove the spoiler in this quarter, it might just be Fernando Verdasco, who notched his first career win over Rafael Nadal on the strange blue clay of Madrid. The #14 seed, he should have an easy start in Paris, and if he keeps his level high, he might just be able to make the second week.

Who'll survive? There are a few threats out there, but chances seem good that Nole will be able to work his way through the quarter with little drama.

Second Quarter

Whatever his seed is at Roland Garros, six-time champion Rafael Nadal is always the favorite, and this year is no different. Three times a winner this season, he's looking healthy and confident enough to make another run here. He's got plenty of clay courters in his section -- first round challenger Simon Bolelli, rising-star Carlos Berlocq and second wind Argentine Juan Monaco, to name a few -- but none should be too big a threat to the Master. Perhaps most interesting would be the potential fourth round match-up against big-serving Milos Raonic. The nineteenth seed hasn't won yet in Paris, but if he's able to raise his game on the surface, fireworks could fly.

Janko Tipsarevic, still new to this level of the tennis elite could have a more interesting first round against Sam Querrey -- the American is back in the top hundred after a Challenger win in Sarasota, and has beaten the eighth seed in three of their four meetings. If he's back in form, he might be able to pull off an upset. And Munich champion Philipp Kohlschreiber seems to be playing with a mission these days -- after his loss to Tipsy in Dusseldorf, he could either be out for revenge, or breathing a sigh of relief. But this surface may best suit Nicolas Almagro, twice a quarterfinalist here. He very quietly made the final in Nice and nearly took out David Ferrer in Madrid. I expect he's in form to play for the semis this year again.

Who'll survive? Despite the challenges out there, you have to think Rafa will play like he always does. If Monte Carlo is his house, this is his vacation home.

Third Quarter

This is an interesting quarter -- Roger Federer leads the charge with four titles already the year, including one in Madrid, and for that he's rewarded with a possible second round against veteran David Nalbandian, who's climbed his way back into the top forty this year. The Argentine, who has a solid record on clay is still a guy willing to go the distance -- he's played thirty five-set matches in his career and won most of them. I wouldn't be surprised if he took it to Roger early.

Tomas Berdych is also high on the radar. After making the final in Madrid, he led his Czech teammates to the final in Dusseldorf, winning all three of this round robins and dismantling Andy Roddick in the process. He could face an early challenge from Guillermo Garcia-Lopez -- once my underdog favorite in Paris, he's found a way to start winning agin -- and will likely meet 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Porto for a spot in the quarters. With everyone playing so well on clay this year, we could see a lot of battles as the dirt flies.

It'll be tough for players to sneak through this quarter, but watch for a possible early upset when Roddick, seeded low at #26, meets co-marathon man Nicolas Mahut. We know the Frenchman will be willing to brawl, and with Roddick's weak showings on clay this season and nagging injuries, he might be able to fight through for the win this time around.

Who'll survive? My heart -- and most of my mind -- says this quarter belongs to Fed, but I'd love to see Del Potro take revenge on the man who's stopped him four times already this year.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray did make the semis here last year, and I don't mean to dismiss that. But the world #4 hasn't had even the same clay court success he had last year, never losing to a player outside the top thirty, but also never winning more than two matches in a week. He's got a couple threats early, too -- veteran Jarkko Nieminen looms in the second round, and strong specialists like Alejandro Falla and surging youngster Bernard Tomic could await a match later. He should survive, but it won't be easy.

David Ferrer, at the top of this quarter, is a much likely contender at this Slam -- with eight clay court titles to his name, he knows what he's doing on this surface. But he could have an interesting second round against either Belgrade finalist Benoit Paire or Casablanca runner-up Albert Ramos, both making their way up the rankings. But if he makes it through that test, it'll be a while before he is challenged again -- the next highest seed in his section is John Isner, certainly a threat on clay, but one who hasn't won a lot recently.

There are a couple dark horses in this section of the draw. Grigor Dimitrov, for all the headlines he grabs, is only just ranked in the double digits. But with wins over Juan Ignacio Chela and Tomas Berdych this year, he might have learned how to pull off the upset -- he faces a struggling Donald Young in his opener and the highest ranked opponent in his immediate section of the bracket is world #19 Alexandr Dolgopolov, wholly beatable on this surface. And U.S. Open doubles champ Philipp Petzschner kicks off his campaign against little-known Malek Jaziri. He's had a couple near wins over big-named opponents in the Slams, so if given a chance, he could take it.

Who'll survive? Murray might be the favorite, but Ferrer is so much more comfortable here. I expect he'll be able to breeze through most of his matches.

The Women

First Quarter

Victoria Azarenka comes to Paris as the top seed at a Major for the first time in her career, but she's lost a bit of momentum the last few months. That's not to say her run is over -- she's made finals in Stuttgart and Madrid and has won on clay before. But it'll be tough. Junior stand-out Caroline Garcia, who very nearly ousted Maria Sharapova here last year, could be her second round opponent, and Dominika Cibulkova, my New Year's pick to win the title might just be able to put up the kind of fight she did in Miami.

Sam Stosur headlines the bottom half of this draw, but the one-time runner-up in Paris hasn't made many big statements recently. Her early rounds look a little clearer, though, and her potential fourth round opponent -- Sabine Lisicki, if the seeds play out like they should -- has been struggling to stay healthy during the spring.

There are a couple unseeded players in this quarter who could upset the bracket a bit, too. Aleksandra Wozniacki is climbing back from injury herself and is much more talented than her #57 ranking suggests -- she followed up a disappointing loss in Miami with wins over Christina McHale in Charleston and Shahar Peer in Budapest. And Ekaterina Makarova, the Cinderella of the Australian Open might cause headaches for a couple favorites early. Also watch out for perennial threat Simona Halep, Junior champion here in 2008 -- she's coming off a run to the final in Strasbourg and has the kind of game that could be troublesome for the seeds in her section.

Who'll survive? Even with that first Grand Slam under her belt, I feel like Vika thinks she has something to prove. She made the quarters here last year and will want to do one better.

Second Quarter

What a quarter, this one -- Maria Sharapova, fresh off defending her title in Rome, Serena Williams, taking the trophy in Madrid, and Caroline Wozniacki, who lost her #1 ranking but made up for it with a win over Williams. None seem to have challenges early, which means the fireworks in the later rounds of this section could be loud (literally) and bright (that too).

As for who could upset the apple cart, well, Julia Goerges was one of the dark house favorites here last year, and she could rally again. But her first round opponent, Madrid semifinalist Lucie Hradecka, could stall those plans. And former world #15 Aravane Rezai has fallen way out of the spotlight over the last year and a half, but she could be tested by last year's newcomer Irina-Camelia Begu. And while the top seeds leave each other battered and bruised, perhaps they'll clear the way for Estoril champ Kaia Kanepi who had one of the best starts to the year on Tour. She could take this chance to resume the momentum she may have lost after Australia.

Who'll survive? All that said, something tells me this will come down to Maria and Serena for the semi. I'd love to see MaSha take it, but I don't think that will happen this time.

Third Quarter

These quarters get more interesting as we go. Aggie Radwanska, coming to a Slam with her own career-high ranking, has only notched one loss to anyone other than Victoria Azarenka this year. She'll have to regroup quickly after her Brussels final, though, as Venus Williams will likely be her second round opponent in Paris. The Pole scored a win over the veteran champ on her way to the title in Miami, though, so confidence is on her side, but things will get tougher from there.

Angelique Kerber may be the favorite in the bottom half of this quarter. A couple titles and even more wins over top-ten players this year prove she can hit with the big girls, but a fairly clear draw means she might not have to for a few rounds. Her first real threat will likely come from ninth seeded Marion Bartoli, technically higher ranked than the German, but probably not favored to win the meeting. After her run to the semis in New York, we know she can handle the big stage, and now's her chance to deliver on it.

And you can't count out Sara Errani, already three times a titleist this year. Like Kerber, the Australian Open quarterfinalist has shown she too can perform at the Majors, even if her trophies only come at smaller events. The potential of a third round meeting with 2008 champ Ana Ivanovic might derail those dreams, but it's possible she could pull off the upset.

Who'll survive? I'd love to see Aggie capitalize on her seeding, but the quarter might be Kerber's to take.

Fourth Quarter

Why not make this even more interesting? Both of last year's finalists, incidentally the last two women to win the title here, are both in this quarter, and it won't be easy for either of them. Na Li put up an amazing battle in the Rome final and hopefully that won't take too much out of her -- she meets one-time Paris Cinderella Sorana Cirstea in the first round. And Francesca Schiavone will take on uber-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm in her opener -- her run to the Strasbourg final, shows she can still play, but if she's at all tuckered out, it could work to her disadvantage.

Meanwhile, the top seed in this quarter, defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, has been quiet recently, making little dent in any draw since Melbourne. She's not the most comfortable on clay, so contenders like Strasbourg semifinalist Pauline Parmentier -- potentially a second round opponent -- have a good chance to pull off a win. And experienced players like Vera Zvonareva, injured the last few months, and Jelena Jankovic, now ranked just out of the top twenty, have been non-threats of late as well. That could open the door for their early round opponents too.

One of the most interesting matches, though, might come from the possible second round meeting between two up-and-comers. Mona Barthel and Christina McHale, who barely fell out of seeding territory have never met before, and it's a shame that one will have to go home so early. But if some of the on-paper favorites fail to make good on their seeds, whoever wins could take the momentum forward farther than anyone expects.

Who'll survive? I'm not confident about any of these girls' chances, but I'm going to put my money on Li -- no one thought Schiavone would get back to the final. Hopefully Li will make it through this far.

Things might seem cut-and-dried for the men, while the ladies' draws look to be ripe for upsets. But something tells me nothing will go as we expect over the next fortnight. With so much on the line, you can be sure everyone will be fighting for those titles.

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