With the French Open starting its two week stint on Sunday, the pinnacle event of the Clay Court season is upon us. Paris will be swarmed by tourists and tennis fanatics over the fortnight, combining French flair and fantastic tennis with the famous partisan crowds that the tournament provides.
The Men’s tournament is arguably one of the most eagerly anticipated Grand Slams in recent memory, with more than just prize money at stake for the winner. The favourite and ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal is chasing a record 7th title, while the world number one Novak Djokovic has the opportunity to claim his first French title, whilst even more impressively completing his Grand Slam set and holding all four majors at the same time.
As for Roger Federer, it is another opportunity to extend his record as the player with the most major titles in the history of the game, whilst simultaneously providing yet more evidence as to why he is respected as the greatest player ever in the sport. And as for Andy Murray; could this be his year, or will he experience deja vu yet again in the French capital?
In terms of form, barring the controversy in Madrid over the blue clay, Nadal’s has been spectacular, beating Djokovic twice in finals at the Monte Carlo and Rome Masters 1000 events, whilst also defeating fellow compatriot David Ferrer in Barcelona inbetween. Aside the blip in Madrid, in which Nadal was openly discontent at the treatment of the surface following his third round defeat, Nadal yet again appears to be the man to beat going into Roland Garros.
Nadal’s draw also favours him, as he is predicted to meet Murray in the semi finals if the tournament follows the form book, which only points to a Nadal win if recent history has anything to say about it. Last year, Nadal beat Murray in three Grand Slam semi finals in a row, further denting the Scot’s attempts to end his hoodoo at majors. Yet it might be before a possible encounter with Murray where Nadal is really challenged.
In the fourth round he may meet young Canadian sensation Milos Raonic, who has cemented his place in the World’s top 20 over the last 12 months through a series of impressive results and eye catching performances. This may not be his year, or even the next; but Raonic certainly has big potential.
As for genuine title challengers to the Spaniard, World Number 1 Djokovic will be more determined than ever to end his grand slam drought in France, but his draw is probably the trickiest out of the top 4 coming into the event. Possible matches against Lleyton Hewitt, Fernando Verdasco and the dangerous home favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarter-finals may test the Serbian’s fitness, which has a history of letting him down on the big occasions.
The gruelling rallies and higher bounces that define the French Open mean so called ‘easy’ opening rounds generally take longer than they would on the grass at Wimbledon or the Acrylic in New York or Brisbane. Moreover, if Djokovic does progress through to the semi-finals, which he is more than expected to, he should face the mercurial Federer in a repeat of last year’s last four encounter.
The 2011 match provided one of the moments of the season, with the Swiss maestro putting a stop to Djokovic’s remarkable 43 match unbeaten streak since the start of the year in one of the finest duels of recent times. This may play into Nadal’s hands as it did last year with Federer, as he is ruthless enough to capitalize on any tiredness or semi final hangover that his opponent might be experiencing.
With Andy Murray, I genuinely believe that if he was playing in any other generation he would have won 3 or 4 Grand Slams by now, but the fact that he has to compete with three of the finest competitors the game has ever seen, combined with the pressure of being the only British male hope, means he will have to play astoundingly from first round to final and hope that the others slack if he is to have even a small chance.
On the Women’s side of the draw, the tournament is more open than ever. Victoria Azarenka has the opportunity to prove to the world that her Australian Open victory was not a fluke, but any of the top 10 seeds could be in with a realistic chance. Both Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, who is unbeaten on clay this year, have timed their returns to form perfectly, with victories in Rome and Madrid in the last month respectively.
Both have been there and done that in terms of major finals, but they will have the animated French crowd to cope with too as both have a history of falling under the wrath of a loud and sometimes intimidating Phillipe Chatrier Court audience. If they can block them out and fully concentrate on the task ahead, I believe the winner of their possible quarter-final meeting will eventually go on to lift the trophy on 9th June.
As for British expectations, it is just nice to see multiple female representatives in the main draw, with young Heather Watson adding her name alongside Elena Baltacha and Anne Keothavong after coming through qualifying. Watson became the first British woman since 1994 to win a main draw singles match last year, so she will hope to go one better and give herself a chance of competing at the upcoming Olympics.
In terms of other names to look out for, China’s Li Na is the reigning champion and has looked impressive in recent months, Samantha Stosur has the potential to beat anyone on her day, particularly after dismantling Serena Williams at last year’s US Open, whilst Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro is an outsider who has the game and personality to compete well on the clay.
Ultimately the main question for any British tennis fan is how well Murray will deal with expectation, but I feel this year the pressure is somewhat lifted off his shoulders as he is not being considered a potential winner to the same extent as in previous years. Just competing with the top 3 on what is his least favourite surface can be marked as an achievement, but he must be starting to wonder if his time will ever come.
Unfortunately, the pressure won’t be off him for very long, with the grass Court season and Wimbledon just on the horizon and the British hopes once again relying solely on his performance. Yet again, if Murray can stop Nadal on clay, it can be viewed as the greatest achievement of his career even if he doesn’t go onto claim the title.