French Open Preview

There are a couple big events happening this weekend. We’ll take a look at the Indy 500 tomorrow, and look at the French Open today:

Men’s Draw

I don’t see this half of the tournament being particularly competitive. There is always the chance that someone could break through – Nikolay Davydenko, for example. It seems by far more likely, though, that one of these three men will win it. If I were forced to pick, I would predict that for the third straight year Nadal would beat Federer in the final. Not original, but fairly safe:

Rafael Nadal – You can certainly pick against the Spaniard if you want to, but you had better have a good reason for doing so. He’s won the last three French Opens, and he has given us little reason to believe that he won’t win a fourth. It looked questionable a couple of weeks ago when he got knocked out of the Rome Masters on clay in the second round. He rebounded very nicely by winning Hamburg the next week, though, and he beat both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to do so. Nadal has won 108 of his last 110 on clay. When he is at his best he is unbeatable, and he can be a long way from his best and still be just fine. His dominance is obvious in the odds – Bodog has him as a -150 favorite to win it all. Even if you don’t think he can win four in a row like only Bjorn Borg has done before him, you can still play him in the early rounds with full confidence. The payoffs will be tiny for those games, but they can be handy when played in a parlay.

Roger Federer – He may be the best tennis player in the world, but his dominance doesn’t extend to this surface. It’s not like he’s terrible – he has made the last two finals, and has only lost to Nadal in the last three years. It’s just that he doesn’t have the game to beat Nadal if the Spaniard is anywhere near his best. There’s no need to feel sorry for Federer, of course – he has won the last five at Wimbledon and has been the U.S. Open champ the last four years. Federer is tougher to deal with than in recent years because he hasn’t been playing particularly well this year. He has been struggling with illness and generally lethargic, unfocused play. He seems to have sorted things out recently, though – he looked like his usual ferocious self en route to the Hamburg final. I feel nervous about Federer in later rounds, but he can again be used with full comfort early on.

Novak Djokovic – Djokovic reminds me in at least one way of Andre Agassi – he would have been the best player in the world if it weren’t for Pete Sampras. Djokovic is similarly stuck behind Nadal and Federer, but he is closing the gap nicely. He has made at least the semis in each of the last four grand slam tournaments, and he is coming off his first major at the Australian. His problem is that he is on the same side of the draw as Nadal, so he will face a very tough semifinal. He lost to Nadal at Hamburg, and I suspect that that will happen again here. My confidence is equally high, though, that he will make that semifinal. His clay form is excellent – he won Rome and lost in the semis at Hamburg.

Women’s Draw

Unlike the men’s side, the women are a perplexing mess. That’s because Justine Henin has won the last three versions of the tournament with relative ease, but she returned earlier this month. That throws the door wide open.

Maria Sharapova – She’s the closest thing to a favorite in the field. She won the Australian Open this year, and she has only lost twice all year. She made it as far as the semifinals last year, and she has a relatively kind path to the final this year since she became the number one seed when Henin retired. There are a couple of reasons I am not more excited about her prospects, though. She hasn’t played nearly as well at this tournament historically than in the other three majors. More significantly, she pulled out of Rome with a calf injury, so there are questions both about her health and her preparedness for this surface.

Ana Ivanovic – The second seed is virtually anonymous, but she looks pretty darned good here. She made the finals in the French last year, and in the Australian earlier this year. She’s playing fairly well this year, and she has a game well suited to this situation. There are literally ten or a dozen women who could win this tournament without being a surprise, but I like this Serbian as much as anyone.

Jelena Jankovic – Her seasoning is questionable as she has never reached a grand slam final. What can’t be questioned, though, is her current form. She won in Rome – the most significant French Open prep – and she beat Serena Williams pretty convincingly on the way. She made the semifinal here last year, and she had also won Rome last year,too, so she likes the surface. She’s not the most consistent player in the world, though, so I hesitate to trust her here.

Serena Williams – She is absolutely an enigma, but you can never disregard her if she is entered in a tournament. We can’t be sure how her health is because she withdrew from the quarterfinals at Rome with a back problem. She says she is fine, though. At the French last year she won her first four matches with ridiculous ease, and then played one of the worst matches I have ever seen to Justine Henin. This isn’t her best major, but she can certainly win it if she decides she wants to. That’s abig if. She is almost always a pass for me these days – it’s too hard to figure out if she will care enough to show up.

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