May 21, 2014

French Open: 10 Things I Want to See

I admit I have a bad tendency to go into Grand Slams making big predictions, only to have the majority struck down in the first few days. Now I'm not all bad -- sometimes I pick the early upsets okay, but I tend to stick with the wrong Cinderella.

But I kinda did okay when telescoping the Australian Open this year. It wasn't all right, of course, but players like Simona Halep, Martin Klizan, Lauren Davis, Donald Young, and even Stanislas Wawrinka, to some extent, made some of my wishes come true. So hopefully by couching my "predictions" as "hopes" will yield similar -- or even better -- results this time around.

As before it's impossible for all the following to happen, and not just because a few "wishes" necessarily preclude others. A couple on this list are super long shots, others are practically in the bag. And while some may seem similar to those I highlighted in January, each carries with it nuances particular to the courts of Roland Garros, where we know nothing should be unexpected.

So without further ado here's the rundown, in somewhat particular order, of things I'm primed to see happen at this year's French Open.

10. A dubious seed proves his worth

As I did the last time, let's get the snark out of the way early.

It's natural that, no matter how closely you follow the sport, you get to a Slam and there are a couple players among the seeds you didn't expect to see there. Hopefully it's because they snuck up the rankings without anyone realizing it -- putting together consistent wins at Challenger or ITF events or by sticking around deep into main draws even if they don't make a big splash.

But then there is the other type of seed -- the kind that's "grandfathered in" to this year's elite by last season's successes, holding on to his place as a favorite -- or semi-favorite -- by the skin of his teeth. And it's high time these guys show they belong here.

Take for example Jerzy Janowicz, whose breakthrough at the Paris Masters in 2012 was followed by an unlikely run to the Wimbledon semis last year. He peaked at #14 in the world last August and put together a tidy 27-20 record for the year. But in 2014 he's lost more than he won and, in fact, dropped every match he's played since early February -- that five opening round losses at Masters-level events. Thanks mostly to his stellar run at the All England Club, he's still brandishing a #22 seed this fortnight, but his grasp on that standing is tenuous at best.

Then there's Roberta Vinci, who rose to a career-high #11 after a run to the fourth round here last June, picking up trophies in Katowice and Palermo to boot. But the year-end #1 doubles player, two years in a row, started off this season losing her first six matches. It wasn't until Oeiras last month that she was able to put together two wins in the same week. She's seeded seventeenth at the French, though in the road to Singapore she's an unimpressive #70, behind the likes of Monterrey finalist Jovana Jaksic, who was playing in just her third WTA-level event, and oft-injured Timea Bacsinszky, who's spent most of the last year recovering on the ITF circuit.

Even worse might be the recent performance of Sorana Cirstea, who maybe appropriately had her breakout in Paris five long years ago. She returns to Paris ranked #27 in the world, but since her run to the Toronto final last summer, she's lost in thirteen first rounds and four times to players ranked in triple digits. She's had to climb back from the depths before -- after her run late last decade she fell out of the top hundred herself in 2010 -- and this is her most successful Slam, so hope is not lost for the Romanian. But she'll need to deliver when she hits the courts this time, or she may lose her place so close to the top.

9. An underdog follows through

While these seeds are definitely vulnerable in the early rounds, they're certainly not the only ones. As with every event, we're sure to see upsets starting Day One, and no one is immune to that. The problem, of course, is what comes after that -- time and again we see players pull off one huge upset, only to fall a round later. Whether it's Julia Goerges taking out seventh-seed Sara Errani in her Australia opener and then losing to Lauren Davis, or Steve Darcis who pulled out of Wimbledon last year after stunning Rafael Nadal in the first round, it can be hard to keep momentum going. But this time a couple players who've managed big wins this season -- and have the potential for even more -- could just make this the tournament they prove they're not one-trick ponies.

Young Austrian Dominic Thiem has been chomping at the bit all year long, winning the first match he played at a Grand Slam in Melbourne and causing upsets of Gilles Simon and Marcel Granollers in the following months. His biggest triumph, of course, came in Madrid over Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka, a generally strong clay-court player who somehow crumbled after taking the first set 6-1. Thiem, however, withdrawing from the next round due to illness, didn't get a chance to back up the first top-ten win of his career. But he's having encouraging results in Nice, so far, coming back from a set and break down to beat Steve Johnson in his opener, so something tells me he'll have more cracks at the elite soon -- at a career high ranking of #58 in the world, he's not quite high enough to get a seed in Paris, but depending on how the draw shakes out, he has more than a good shot at causing a little bit of agita among the favorites.

Jeremy Chardy knows what it's like to tear up the draw a little bit -- last year in Australia he followed up a win over Juan Martin Del Potro by taking out then #23 Andreas Seppi. He's been a little more under the radar in 2014, but last week in Rome scored one of the biggest wins of his career -- after losing the first set to the great Roger Federer 1-6, he stormed back to force a third, eking out a win in a tiebreak. He was able to keep his buzz a little longer, winning his next round against only slightly higher-ranked Ivan Dodig and forcing Milos Raonic to a deciding set, but ultimately fell short of making his first Masters semi. He certainly has the talent, though, and if he pounces early he could just make another big run in Paris.

But perhaps the player with the best shot at taking out a couple seeds in Paris is young Italian Camila Giorgi. The twenty-two year old had been a master of the one-and-done game -- back in 2012 she stunned Nadia Petrova at Wimbledon and immediately lost to Aga Radwanska, last year she took out Caroline Wozniacki in New York and then fell in straights to Roberta Vinci, and just a few months ago she scored perhaps her biggest win over defending Indian Wells champion Maria Sharapova only to be dominated by Flavia Pennetta. She did finally learn how to sustain some momentum in April, when she took out two seeds on her way to the Katowice final, which, for a moment there, it even looked like she'd win. She upset ninth seeded Dominika Cibulkova in Rome and is just a hair outside the top fifty, too. And after avenging her loss in Poland to Alize Cornet in Strasbourg this week, something tells me she might be ready to rise even higher in Paris

8. A breakout has a breakthrough

These aren't the only players who can cause a stir at the French Open, of course -- a few who've hit some real milestones this season seem primed to finally deliver on a big stage.

Jiri Vesely might be the least accomplished of this lot -- still ranked outside the top hundred, the young Czech is making just his fourth Slam appearance. But the 2011 ITF Junior World Champion and the 2013 ATP Star of Tomorrow won his fist matches on the big boys' Tour this year, even taking a set off Andy Murray in the Indian Wells third round. This week in Dusseldorf, he's already upset eighth seeded Igor Sijsling and former world #3 Nikolay Davydenko. He hasn't yet made many strides at the Majors, but he did take the first two sets off big-serving Kevin Anderson Down Under, and with eight of his twelve Challenger and Futures titles coming on this surface, he might be able to do even better this time around.

Donna Vekic has long been on my radar at the Majors, but she's only managed a couple wins over low ranked players like Lucie Hradecka and Marina Duque Marino during her short tenure. She's had better showings elsewhere on Tour, though, reaching the 2012 Tashkent final as a qualifier and beating Urszula Radwanska and Sorana Cirstea in Birmingham last year. The problem is, like with many players trying to find their groove, the Croatian can be a little spotty -- she didn't win her first match this season until early March, then ousted Svetlana Kuznetsova in Miami, went on to defeat Melbourne runner-up Dominika Cibulkova for the Kuala Lumpur title...and failed to qualify for Madrid. Still, she's claimed her first trophy and marked her first top-ten win, putting her on track for bigger and better things down the road. But there's no reason she can't realize that potential in the short-term, and finally make some waves on a big stage.

Caroline Garcia nearly did that way back in 2011 at Roland Garros. At just seventeen, she was up a set and a break on Maria Sharapova, looking ready to cause the upset of the tournament, when experience won out and the Frenchwoman was sent packing. She hasn't done much at the Majors since, notching just a handful of wins over low-ranked opponents and never progressing past the second round. But she certainly seems to have turned things around this season -- after a 0-4 start, she took out Aussie Cinderella Genie Bouchard in Acapulco, pushed Serena Williams to three sets in Miami, shocked Jelena Jankovic for the Bogota title and reached the quarterfinals in Madrid. She comes to Paris at a career high ranking of #46 in the world, again shy of a seed, but certainly capable of an upset. And after the year she's had so far it'd be a shame to see her head home early.

Roberto Bautista Agut probably has an even better shot of sticking around in Paris. The twenty-eight year old was ranked well outside the top fifty this time last year, but has clawed his way to a twenty-seventh seed this fortnight -- and even that seems a little low. RBA made the semis in Auckland to start the season, stunned an albeit injured Juan Martin Del Potro at the Aussie Open, and ousted Tomas Berdych in Indian Wells. Earlier this month he reached his first Masters semi with wins over Tommy Robredo and Fernando Verdasco, and while he lost his opener in Rome, it seems he's primed to continue the tradition of great Spanish clay court players. And though his seeding certainly doesn't guarantee he won't be challenged early, it could give him added confidence once the pressure's turned up against the favorites.

7. A fish jumps out of water

It's no secret that the red clay is a tricky beast -- Pete Sampras, holder of so many records in this sport, and still one of the greatest of all time, only once got to the semifinals in Paris and won a paltry three of his sixty-four titles on the surface. It's hard for some players to make the transition to the dirt, and a couple who had stellar starts to the year have been pretty quiet since the season changed. But it would be nice to see them raise their voices again.

Despite hanging around the top-thirty range of this sport, Klara Koukalova has never really done much of note at the Slams. But she looked ready to do something big this year when she took out Sam Stosur to make the Hobart final and beat the top two seeds in Florianopolis to capture her first title since 2005. But despite making a nice run in Rio -- where she didn't face a single player in the top sixty, incidentally -- she hasn't won a match since the courts switched over in earnest. To be fair, she was given a few tough draws -- Sara Errani was her opening round opponent in Stuttgart, and eventual champion Maria Sharapova took her out in Madrid -- but she also lost to on-the-mend Polona Hercog this week in Nürnberg. Still, with a fourth round in Paris two years ago, she has shown some potential on these courts, and it would be great to see her make the transition in full.

Kevin Anderson also has a game that seems to translate better to the hard courts, especially this year. The South African reached finals in Delray Beach and Acapulco before pulling off his first real top-ten victory of the year over Stan Wawrinka in Indian Wells. His big serves don't seem to help much on the dirt though -- after a 15-6 start to the year, he's lost twice as much as he's won on clay since. He'll be a low seed by the time he gets to Roland Garros, sure, but on the upside, he's progressively done better each time he's played, winning one more match each year than he did the one before. With a trend like that, he could make the quarter this year, and a performance like that would certainly put an end to any doubts he has on this surface.

Meanwhile, Italian #2 Flavia Pennetta should be a powerhouse on the clay -- seven of her ten titles have come on the dirt -- but somehow her biggest recent successes were on hardcourts. She stunned four seeds on her way to the U.S. Open semis last year and cemented her resurgence with her biggest title to date in Indian Wells. But somehow during what's been the best part of her season, she's struggled a bit more -- while she too was the victim of tough draws, she fell to uber-veteran Kimiko Date-Krumm and only made it out of the second round once in her last four events. Pennetta is the kind of a wildcard wherever she plays, and my one-time pick for a semifinal spot, could surprise us all again.

Alexandr Dolgopolov may have even more potential to stir things up in Paris. Though he carries a somewhat middling ranking of #21 in the world, he's been the cause of some of the biggest upsets on Tour early this year -- it started, of course, with a win over Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells, the first time he'd ever taken a set off the defending champ, and he continued to the final by ousting Fabio Fognini and Milos Raonic, both ranked higher than him. He did well in Miami, too, reaching the quarters on the heels of a victory over Melbourne champ Stan Wawrinka. He was less impressive the last few weeks of the season, with only two wins at the clay Masters events, but we can't discount the run he had in Rio back in February -- he beat Fognini, Nicolas Almagro and then-#4 David Ferrer on his way to the final. And, as noted above, he's already avenged that loss to Rafa, so there's no reason to believe he can't see more success in the fortnight to come.

6. Hard work is paid off

As with the group above, there are a couple other players who deserve to see their successes rewarded with some nice results in Paris. But these guys have been putting in their time on the clay, and might just have a better shot at doing that.

After years of hanging out in the mid to low double digits, Santiago Giraldo has quietly scratched his way up to #34 in the world. The twenty-six year old Colombian made the semis in Viña del Mar and Houston, but really hit his stride in Barcelona where, even in a Rafa-less draw he reached the final with three top-thirty wins. A little over a week later, as a qualifier in Madrid, he stunned both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Andy Murray to make his first Masters quarterfinal. He retired from his opener in Rome, though, after battling through another two qualifying rounds, so hopefully he'll be rested enough when he makes the trip to the French Open. He's only survived the first round there once before, after all, but at a career high ranking he's never had a better opportunity to make a run.

Grigor Dimitrov finally made his own run to the second week of a Major in Australia, but he has a good shot at repeating that this time around. After winning his first clay court title last month in Bucharest, he took out Tomas Berdych and Tommy Haas in Rome, surprisingly his first ever Masters semifinal. He's now at a career high rank of #12 in the world, has marked an impressive 13-3 record on clay this year and has two top-ten victories for the season -- the first came over Andy Murray in Acapulco. But he's only once made it to the third round in Paris, and it seems high time he moves the needle on that stat.

Fabio Fognini has actually already tasted success in Paris. When ranked just inside the top fifty in 2011, he snuck his way into the quarterfinals -- the only Major elite eight he's ever made -- after a four-plus hour fourth round before pulling out before his next match against Novak Djokovic. These days, he's much higher profile, sporting a #15 ranking and laying claim to three titles, all on clay. This is, not surprisingly, his best surface by far, and even when he struggles -- he lost his first ten games in Barcelona before retiring to Santiago Giraldo -- he seems to rebound nicely -- he followed that up with a second place finish in Munich. As with every Slam, his solid seeding doesn't necessarily guarantee an easy run, even early on in the tournament, but if the Italian can perform to his potential, there's no reason he can't make a good run here.

5. A phoenix rises

While some players are looking to parlay recent success into big things at the French Open, a couple others are looking to recapture long-ago glory that they haven't tasted in quite some time.

Most urgently in this camp is former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki who, with just a Luxembourg title in 2013, is coming off the least prolific year of her career since she started winning titles in 2008. She's done okay this season, reaching the semis in Monterrey and Dubai and the quarters in Miami, where she admittedly put up a nice fight against Na Li. But for a woman who used to win one tournament after another, even results that keep her at a more-than-respectable ranking of #14 seem a little lackluster. It seems, then, it's time she put up some real results -- it's been nearly five years since she made the final at a Major and while her one quarterfinal showing in Paris -- here least successful Slam by far -- may suggest she's less of a threat here, it could also mean she'll be underestimated here. And on a surface which can play so many tricks on the favorites, it could be the perfect opportunity to turn her luck around.

Jelena Jankovic has had a little more success on clay, reaching the semis in Paris three times before, and winning almost half of her thirteen titles have come on the surface. But it's been even longer since she held the runner's-up trophy in New York, so she might be even a bit hungrier. Also to her advantage is a relatively strong season so far -- she failed to defend the last title she's won in Bogota, but she did make solid runs to the semis in Stuttgart and Madrid, and while she's flown under the radar for most of the year, she's been consistent enough to hold onto a top ten ranking. All she has to do now is make good on it on the big stage.

Compatriot Ana Ivanovic might have an even better chance to do that. The world #12 made a breakthrough here in 2008 when she rocked through the Roland Garros draw to claim her one and only Grand Slam title. In the six years since then, however, she's never made it back to even a semifinal at a Major. She struggled with injury, on and off, fell out of the top fifty for a while, and lost in the first round of four of the big events between 2009 and 2011. She seems to have gotten squarely back on her feet this year, though -- after starting the season with a trophy in Auckland, she scored her first ever win over Serena Williams at the Australian Open. Just last week in Rome she earned a win over Maria Sharapova, her first in almost seven years, and pushed Serena again in the semis, forcing the eventual champion to go three sets. She may still be off her best ranking, but her results suggest 2014 could really be her year -- and she has a real shot at making another run to the final in Paris. Maybe -- dare I say it? -- even to take the title.

4. A runner-up repeats (or goes one better...)

Since we're on the subject of making finals, let's talk about a couple guys and gals who've done so recently, but maybe didn't put up the fight they're capable of when it came down to the wire. For them -- many of whom have only had one shot at a Major so far -- this could be the perfect time to prove their previous runs were no fluke. And perhaps it's an opportunity make up for their prior paltry performances.

Dominika Cibulkova had the most recent breakthrough of the bunch, cracking the top ten for the first time in her decade-long career shortly after making the final in Melbourne this past January. She's ridden a bit of a roller coaster since then, though, losing three straight matches after leaving Australia, but winning a title in Acapulco and beating Petra Kvitova and Aga Radwanska in during the American hardcourt season. She hasn't won on clay yet this year, but the French Open was the site of her only other Major semifinal back in 2009 and she's beaten players like Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka here in the past. She still has the ability to be spotty, but if there's any place where she could keep her groove going, this is it.

Sara Errani certainly seemed to get her mojo back this past week. The tiny Italian won three titles on clay heading to the 2012 French Open, and even followed up her shocking run to that final by making the semis in New York at the end of the summer and, impressively, Paris again a full year later. She'd struggled a bit this year, though, and by March she'd fallen out of the top ten. But a run to the Rome final, which included wins over former world #1 Jelena Jankovic and two-time Major winner Na Li, a woman she'd never beaten before, proves she's still a contender at the big events. She was hampered by injury, yes, and had to retire from the doubles final later in the day, but hopefully she'll recover in time to perform for the early rounds.

But perhaps one of the darkest horses with a real shot here is last year's runner-up, David Ferrer. The fifth seed was blessed with a fairly easy draw last year and only faced one top ten player on the way to his first Major final, but the underrated Spaniard has been more consistent than many of the favorites in the field and has reached at least the quarters of the last nine Slams he's played. He only has one title so far this year -- a smallish trophy he claimed in Buenos Aires -- but he did surprise Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo and take a set off eventual champion Novak Djokovic in Rome. Ferrer may lay claim to the dubious honor of being the best player without a Major title -- but, far from done with his career, there's no reason he can't change that now.

3. A first-time Major winner is crowned

Ferrer isn't the only one with a real shot at taking home the big prize once this fortnight is through. The lead-up tournaments to Roland Garros, as they are wont to do, gave us plenty of fodder for the always-entertaining discussion: "If someone's gonna win their first Slam, who's most likely to do it?" Well here are a couple thoughts.

Carla Suarez Navarro is certainly a long shot for a title, but weirder things have happened before. The top-ranked Spaniard in the women's game -- wow, isn't that weird? -- qualified for her very first Slam here in 2008 and, not one to make a quiet debut, ousted Amelie Mauresmo and Flavia Pennetta on her way to the quarterfinals. She had other impressive showings over the years too, but in her first five final appearances, she came up empty each time. Her luck finally turned around in 2014, though, when she finally broke the seal in Oeiras, beating a quality player -- and a former French Open titleist, by the way -- in the championship match. She comes to Paris at #15 in the world, a shade off her career high ranking, so she's gonna have a lot of work to do. But she's established herself as a real threat to the favorites, and if the chips fall in her favor, she might be able to pull it off.

Kei Nishikori also lays claim to some of the biggest wins in the sport over the past year. The newest initiate to the ATP top ten has scored four wins over the elite in 2014, including two take-downs of David Ferrer and his second straight win over Roger Federer. He won his fifth career title in Barcelona and even took the first set from Rafael Nadal in the Madrid final before ultimately retiring with a hip injury. His ailment forced him to pull out of Rome, too, but hopefully the rest will do him good ahead of his fourth trip to the French Open. His best performance was a fourth round appearance last year, but he has the potential to do much better than that, and it would be a shame for that opportunity to be scuttled when he's otherwise at his prime.

But given how wide the door has swung open at Roland Garros, perhaps it's most fitting if the first time winner is someone who hasn't registered high on the radar yet this year. Tomas Berdych may be sitting at a #6 ranking, but he's grabbed more headlines this year for early losses in Indian Wells and questionable fashion choices at the Australian Open. But he's also quietly picked up a title in Rotterdam and bagged a couple runner's-up trophies to boot. His record at the clay court Masters isn't bad, either -- he took out two top twenty players before losing to Rafael Nadal in Madrid and lost to more-than-solid Grigor Dimitrov in Rome. He's even made the semifinals here once before, and though he lost the only Major final he's played so far, something tells me he has the potential to do something big this time around.

2. MaSha doubles up

Now I hate to say this, but when Maria Sharapova made her way back to the Wimbledon final a few years back, I found myself thinking, "I never thought this girl would win two of the same Major." It's strange, I know -- she'd already amassed twenty-three titles at the time, laid claim to trophies in Australia and New York, and went on, somewhat surprisingly, to round out the career Grand Slam just a year later. But she'd been up and down so much, come back from several injuries, and despite eventually climbing back to #1 in the world, couldn't repeat her breakthrough win over Serena Williams after 2004.

I've changed my tune on her abilities a little, but it's still somewhat shocking, even to myself, that I'd call for her to win a second crown on the surface she's said makes her feel like a cow on ice. But ever since her title here two years ago, Sharapova's proven herself to be something of a force on clay. This season already she's won her third straight trophy in Stuttgart and beat the second, third and fourth seeds during her Madrid run -- a feat made more impressive since she was seeded just eighth at the event.

Her biggest threat, though, remains Serena Williams who has won their last fifteen meetings, dating all the way back to 2005, and she's only taken one set of the world #1 in the last five years. And while there is some question over Serena's strength after a thigh injury forced her out of Madrid, she's coming strongly off a drama-free run to the Rome title, a trophy she's also won the two times she's gone home with Roland Garros gold.

So it'll be a tough task MaSha's faced with, but certainly not an insurmountable one. The Russian will still be at her lowest seeding at a Slam in three years, and there's no telling how tough her draw will be. But her performance over the last few weeks makes me think she could overcome those obstacles, and there's no reason she won't add Major #5 to her mantle.

1. Rafa takes home #9

Speaking of lots of hardware...usually this one is practically a given but, man, have things gotten out of whack this year.

The eight-time champion at Roland Garros and long-heralded King of Clay Rafael Nadal has come down to earth a bit in 2014, losing his stranglehold in Barcelona and Monte Carlo -- not to the man who proved his foil in finals past, but in the quarters to players whose numbers he's had throughout their careers. He's gone entire seasons without a loss on this surface, but suddenly the Great One seems almost human again.

Rafa is still the favorite of course -- ranked and seeded #1 in Paris for the third time in his career, he's one of only two men in the field who's claimed the title here. But top billing hasn't always worked out well for him -- his one and only loss at the French Open came after his rise to the top in 2009, and with a slew of early exits already this season, other top stars could find an opening for themselves. Roger Federer, of course, the only other man to win the title here since 2004, has the most experience, but Stan Wawrinka, who notched a stellar win over the Spaniard in Melbourne, and David Ferrer, the 2013 runner, up also have a shot.

But of course Novak Djokovic might be hungriest for this title. One of the few opponents who's consistently bested Nadal on clay over the past four years, his most recent victory came in the Rome final just this past weekend. He got oh-so-close to beating him in the semis last year, too, but this remains the only Major at which the Serb has never scored a victory over his rival. As added incentive, he's got a return to the #1 ranking and the prospect of a career Grand Slam in his sights. And if anything's gonna serve as motivation, those points certainly rank high up there.

Now I'm not saying it wouldn't be nice to get some new blood in the mix in Paris. Still, I can't help but feel the need for a little comfort in the familiar here. Of course some day, maybe soon, Nadal will have to cede his claim to Roland Garros for good, but I really would like to see that he has one more big win in him.

Sure plenty of the things I'm hoping to see at Roland Garros seem a little far-fetched now, but while we've become accustomed to a certain way of life, it seems this might be the year we see something different -- and even something a little unexpected.

Of course, there's a lot of stuff I haven't covered here, so be sure to check back later this week for a full preview of what to expect in Paris this fortnight. And in the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see at this year's French Open.

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