It's French Open time. Strangely enough, it's also allergy season. Amazing coincidence.
Especially for Americans. Lindsay Davenport? Felled by "personal reasons". Andy Roddick? Shoulder issues and not too interested in wasting his time. Others will show up, such as the Williams sisters and James Blake. Will there be something in the air for them? Well, besides allergens?
1. Roger Federer: The tennis world's been tough on Fed lately. Essentially, he's set such a high standard for himself that he's not allowed to lose. Some of the trash talking's a little ridiculous, although he did lose to Mardy Fish. (??) Here's where he tends to dazzle most -- a Grand Slam, that is. Not necessarily this particular Grand Slam. Armed with a new coach, he's hoping for better results at Roland Garros this year. The bad news is, I don't think it's going to happen. The game is catching up to Roger, and on clay, they'll have more time.
2. Rafael Nadal: Is hard to bet against Nadal on clay, no? Yes. I mean no. Wait.
This is a draw Nadal can work with. Few no names early on, a possible tussle against Nalbandian or Murray on his surface, then a duel with Djokovic in the semifinals. Nadal played some ridiculously brilliant tennis against Djokovic and Federer in Hamburg. Those matches show that the field is catching up to Nadal on clay, too.
3. Novak Djokovic: Is it me, or does he get better every time he plays? If Djokovic can keep his injury withdrawals down, he's got a heckuva chance to pick up his second major this year. His progress on clay has been lightning quick, and he's got a cupcake draw. Opponents sure to give him a sugar buzz are Carlos Moya, Guillermo Canas and James Blake. I think you can pencil in that semifinal showdown with Nadal. I'll bring the popcorn.
4. Nikolay Davydenko: I believe I owe Davydenko a bit of an apology. For a long time, I though his high ranking was due to the fact that he plays at least two tournaments a week. That's true, but he does have game. That backboard-like game that those foreign to clay just are going to love. He also happens to have a "Way Back Machine" this tournament. As in, remember Thomas Johansson, Grand Slam winner? First round. And who can forget Marat Safin (who really should have won the Grand Slam Johannson won)? Well, he has two other majors anyway. He's looming in Davydenko's round two. How about that Ivan Ljubicic, who faded from existence about this time two years ago? Round three possibility. Oh, and the hits don't stop there. Juan Carlos Ferrero, also a Grand Slam winner, and the last person to beat Rafa Nadal on clay? Round of sixteen. Yeah, that just to get to the second week. And he thought his hair was falling out now.
5. David Ferrer: If that forehand's not flying, neither is his game. It's great to watch when it works. Pretty horrible to watch when it doesn't. He's in Davydenko's half of the draw, and will have his hands full with Fabrice Santoro in the second round. But I look forward to his match against Lleyton Hewitt in the third round, if it happens.
6. David Nalbandian: Very dangerous player. Also very flaky. If the game -- and the head -- hold up, he's got a chance to try his luck against Nadal in the quarters. If not, he'll be flaming out against Andy Murray in the fourth round.
7. James Blake: Say this for James Blake: He made the flight to Paris, as he does every year. Also say this: If Janko Tipsarevic doesn't get him in the third round, Marcos Baghdatis will in the fourth. Boy, by now, you've got to figure James knows how to say this in French: "Can I have first-class ticket to the States for tonight?"
8. Richard Gasquet: I thought Gasquet was a tennis player until he decided to dodge playing in the Davis Cup until there wasn't a match that didnt' count. That has nothing to do with the French Open, but dude is fragile. He certainly has the talent, variety and home court to be a factor at the French, but since tennis is 97. 2986371 percent mental, he will probably wilt under the pressure of taking on Fernando Gonzalez in round four, let alone Fed in the quarters.
9. Stanislas Wawrinka: Wawrinka: the other Swiss player. Yeah, coming up the ranks at the same time as Roger Federer must be a lot like being Jan Brady. Roger, Roger, Roger! Seriously, Wawrinka's got game. But I kind of like Phillipp Kohschrieber's game, too. Sorry, Jan.
10. Andy Murray: So much talent, so little consistency. There is no one in the top 10 begging more for a coach that young Andy. If he had someone to help him keep his mind on real strategy and off the drop shot, he could do some major damage with this draw. Right now, though, he's reportedly worried about his rep, so he's hired a PR firm. Way to set those priorities. Anyway, a loss to Nalbandian in the round of sixteen.
Early-round matches to watch:
Wawrinka v. Kohschreiber
Federer v. Sam Querrey
Gustavo Kuerten v. Paul-Henri Mathieu: This will probably be Kuerten's last match at the French Open. This makes me very sad. Kuerten is one of the best clay-courters ever, and he has three French Opens to prove it. His personality was also good for the game, because he was a competitor with fire and with heart. Someone as talented as he is should be able to call it a career on his timetable, dammit, not because of a hip problem. I hope Kuerten can pull at least one match out. Even if he can't, it's been a great ride. I shall cheer for you, Gustavo.
They could (still) be contenders:
Lleyton Hewitt (25): The game is just getting too big and strong for Hewitt. But he can still take advantage of any openings in the draw, such as an early Ferrer elimination.
The way it'll go down:
Quarterfinals: Federer v. Gasquet, Davydenko v. Ferrer, Baghdatis v. Djokovic, Nalbandian v. Nadal
Semifinals: Fed v. Ferrer, Djokovic v. Nadal
Final: Fed v. Nadal
Winner: Nadal. He won't be able to do this again next year, though.
*1. Maria Sharapova: I don't think I need to explain what the asterick's for. But when you take Henin out of the mix, how many real No. 1 candidates are there? Sharapova's not a bad choice. She's also got a decent draw that could get complicated around the time she takes on Dinara Safina in the fourth round. (Or Safina could implode.) Dementieva or Zvonareva could be tough in the quarters because they can give her enough balls to misfire, especially Dementieva.
2. Ana Ivanovic: Last year's finalist hasn't done much in the interim to prove she can cope with nerves. I don't know who's happier about Henin's retirement, Ivanovic or her countrywoman Jankovic. Those nerves will be tested against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.
3. Jelena Jankovic: Like Ivanovic, Jankovic keeps approaching the edge of success on a big stage and ... backs down. She's had solid results this year, even with a very attackable serve. But, she's still got more variety right now than anyone else in the top 10, and if she doesn't go drop-shot crazy, she should go deep in this tournament. Very deep.
4. Svetlana Kuznetsova: Her results on clay have left something to be desired. Her performance in majors leave something to be desired. That something is consistency. How many times has Kuznetsova been playing unbelievably, then tosses an entire set away on unforced errors? Unfortunately, clay is going to give her just enough rallies to screw things up.
5. Serena Williams: Serena pulled out of her last tournament with a bad back. No comment about how much weight she puts on her back. None at all. If her back holds up, I think she's got the green light to win this baby. One thing, though. Lately, she seems to have some real problems putting matches away. Jankovic in Miami, Safina in Berlin come to mind. Now that she's fit, she needs to get mentally sharp.
6. Anna Chakvetadze: She's been spotty all season, and although this is a draw for her that she could take advantage of, I don't see it. It's hard to see Chakvetadze or Kuznetsova taking advantage of their quarter of the draw.
7. Elena Dementieva: Huge opportunity for Dementieva with this draw. Marta Domachowska will be a test in the second round, but otherwise, she's got a clear view to the quarterfinals. There, she'd meet Sharapova, who can be taken down on clay. If she can get past Maria, she'd be the most solid player left in that half of the draw.
8. Venus Williams: Whatever is going on with Venus will make it tough for her to make it through this tournament. In her last match against Jankovic in Rome, she looked winded in the middle of the second set. If she can't play a three-set match, there is no way she's going to get past Jankovic again in a potential quarterfinal matchup. In fact, Amelie Mauresmo might be a problem in the fourth round.
9. Marion Bartoli: After Wimbledon, she won't be anywhere near the top twenty. Believe it. I guess what I'm trying to say is: Next!
10. Patty Schnyder: Here's one player the other ones don't want to see on a bad day. That lefty slicey-dicey stuff is enough to make someone like Serena Williams, for example, go for way too much over and over again. That said, Schnyder is sort of like Fabrice Santoro. Very good entertainment value, but not a major threat. As wide open as this year's draw is, I feel comfortable saying that.
Early-round matches to see:
Samantha Stosur v. Shahar Peer (round one): I smell an upset for the 17th seed Peer.
Marion Bartoli v. Casey Dellacqua: Battle of the Grand Slam party crashers. I'm going with Dellacqua. Marion Bartoli is so overrated.
Ana Ivanovic v. Lucie Safarova (potential round two): Whoa, there'a a blast from the past. Whatever happened to Safarova. I guess we'll find out when Ivanovic applies the beat-down.
They could (still) be contenders:
Agnieszka Radwanska (14): Boy, she'd better really be a contender for me to have to type that name. She just beat Dementieva in the final in a warmup. So she has confidence, and is nicely assembling a very Hingis-like game. She's got a real shot at the quarters.
Amelie Mauresmo (22): Just because she has a weak-looking Venus in the fourth round. Her game hasn't necessarily declined, but her confidence has. A few wins at home might change that.
Francesca Schiavone (18): Tough on most surfaces, but a bear on clay. If Kuznetsova or Chakvetadze don't step up in that section of the draw, she just might.
Alize Cornet (19): She's a hometown hope for France, and although she's been hot lately, she won't likely do much at this tournament.
The way it'll go down:Quarterfinals: Sharapova v. Dementieva, Schiavone v. Chakvetadze, Venus v. Jankovic, Serena v. Ivanovic.
Semifinals: Sharapova v. Schiavone, Jankovic v. Serena
Final: Sharapova v. Serena