Is it time for a changing of the guard? That’s the big story currently dominating the men’s side of the draw. Unlike the women’s draw, all the big names will put their names on the line at Roland Garros, so there will be no asterisk for the man who emerges from the draw to take the championship.
We’ve watched the top dog become the third wheel, and a guy who was formerly the odd man out blaze a path through the winter and spring campaigns to arrive in Paris undefeated. If either of the top two seeds win, history will be made. And whoever might knock one or the other of the favorites out of the draw would be the giant-killer that claims his own little piece of history.
The world rankings have been waiting for a seismic shift, as the representative champion of one generation slides his way down the standings battling all the way. The first man who passed him suddenly finds himself being challenged for supremacy in a way nobody ever expected — on his favorite surface, at his favorite events, taking away every advantage painstakingly constructed over the years. The triumvirate at the top are in a three-way dogfight.
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But they live out their battle amongst the hopes and dreams of 125 other men who arrive in Paris all believing as professionals that, if everything breaks for them just right and the form holds, they too can walk away as a Grand Slam champion. Merely making it to those showdowns is half the battle, with every stop along the way a punji pit waiting to ensnare an unwitting soul.
The action begins in the signature clay-court tournament on Sunday, and the stakes couldn’t be any higher for the 128 men who will be in the main draw hoping to win seven straight and claim the Coupe de Mousquetaires. To give you my nickel’s worth on things and get you ready for the second Grand Slam of the 2011 tennis season, here are the five big stories I see on the men’s side:
1. Will Djokovic complete the quest to surpass Johnny Mac?
No story has generated more interest (or more question marks) as the newfound consistency of the surging Serbian, Novak Djokovic, who is now 37-0 in 2011 and has won 39 straight dating back to December’s Davis Cup final. With victories in each of the past eight tournaments in which he has appeared, beginning with that historic victory in the Davis Cup final over France that gave Serbia the nation’s first-ever victory in the 99-year-old tournament.
So many things are at stake for Djokovic in this tournament. By making it to the finals he would reach 43 wins without defeat in 2011, surpassing the 42-0 mark John McEnroe put up in 1984. And if he were to win the final, that championship performance would tie the Serb for the all-time winning streak record at 46 with Guillermo Vilas. And seven more victories would cement that seismic shift and allow him to supplant Nadal for his first-ever appearance at #1 in the world. He gets a strong challenger right away in Dutch hopeful Thiemo de Bakker, a likely battle with Victor Hanescu in the second round and quite possibly former U.S. Open winner Juan Martin del Potro (underranked thanks to his long layoff due to a lingering wrist injury) in the third round. It will only get harder from there, though, and Djokovic has staved off all challengers to this point of the season.
Can he survive the pressure and conquer his first Grand Slam title away from Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne? Can he outlast a field that goes way deeper in talent than just the two men whose shadow he has dwarfed so far this year? Djokovic has embraced a smarter nutrition and training program and the results have shown him in better form than ever before in his career. It has also opened the door for suspicions that this new baseline of excellence was due to the addition of something more illicit than the subtraction of gluten products from his diet.
We only have proof that his association with Dr. Četojević, a physician and nutritionist who with all due vigilance of digging appears to this reporter the polar opposite of guys like Fuentes or Galea or Ferrari who have been implicated in doping scandals. At 23 years old he is entering what should logically be his prime years, and he is no longer melting when things start to look bleak — as much a matter of mental maturity as it is better fitness and the alleviation of allergies. A victory would seal his position as the most dominant figure, male or female, in the sport or perhaps any sport at this crossroads of history.
2. Can Nadal stave off the attack?
For the first time in over half a decade, the biggest story coming into the French Open isn’t about the man who has won five of the past six editions. That’s what happens when you lose all four of your matches of the season against the hottest player on tour, including your last two on clay. For the first time in his career, he has lost twice on clay in the same season to the same player. Overall he is 220-18 on the surface in his professional career, and against anybody but Djokovic at this point he is still a dominating presence.
He gets John Isner in the first round, the American whose biggest claim to fame at this point is surviving his marathon match with Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon. Nikolay Davydenko should be right on time for their third-round showdown; the Russian is the one player currently on tour against whom Nadal has a losing record in their career series (4-6). A ticket to the final isn’t guaranteed, especially now that Djokovic has proven that there indeed is a recipe for taking down the king.
Everyone will be gunning for him, and he must be wary of anybody and everybody lest he fall into a Soderling trap like the one that ended his bid for a fifth consecutive title before it could even go deep into the second week back in 2009. After all, Soderling in all likelihood will be right there waiting for him in the quarterfinals. Surviving Roland Garros this year is the toughest proposition yet, but if he pulls off the feat it will tie him with Bjorn Borg for the most wins in Paris in the Open era. And a win would fend off the charge of the Djoker and allow Nadal to hold on to the #1 ranking for at least a little longer. So the motivation is there, even if the confidence and the attention have waned just a little.
3. Will Federer ever regain his mojo?
Every great career must eventually wind down, and it is increasingly looking to be the case for Roger Federer. The man who has won more Grand Slam titles than any other has largely proven himself to be a spectator this year. Unlike in 2008, this isn’t a matter where we are likely to find out that mononucleosis was the culprit that was keeping Federer from his full potential.
Rather, he is at that juncture in his career where his full potential simply isn’t what it used to be, and instead of facing just one player of equal stature at this point he now has two that have taken that quantum leap past him. In 2008 he would finish his season at 66-15 in match play, setting the stage for a slight decline in his play that saw him reaching nearly five fewer finals a year and winning six fewer tournaments. His match losses had duplicated.
And it is getting even worse this year as the decline accelerates. Considering that the French Open will roughly be the halfway point of his season, we see this year already projects as his worst since his ascent to the top of the tennis heap. After getting knocked out in the quarters last year, he should at least be able to return to the semifinals with the softest draw of the three contenders through the first week. Anything less and more people will awaken to the inevitable decline in production that is the hallmark of a waning career.
4. Can Soderling surprise to a finals three-peat?
For two years running no player has boasted more wins at Roland Garros than Robin Soderling. His 12-2 record saw his tournaments reach the finals both times, with 2009 bringing the monumental Nadal upset in the fourth round and a repeat performance in 2010 when he ousted Federer in the quarters. He has yet to win a Grand Slam in his career, but the 26-year-old Swede certainly is at ease at Roland Garros more than any other site.
2011 started out great for Soderling, with hardcourt tournament victories at Brisbane, Rotterdam and Marseille. But none of these ATP stops are the tournaments that write your name into legend. Struggling since hitting the clay-court stretch, he is just 3-3 on the surface this year. But just like in 2009 he comes in lightly regarded on the clay… and he proved that year to be quite the upset specialist. So we disregard this guy at our own peril.
Nobody in his pod of the first quadrant of the draw should offer any real threat to his return to the quarterfinals. And once he gets there, he knows he can beat Nadal on the clay. If these two both do what they should and return for another Roland Garros showdown, it could be one of the best matches of the tournament.
5.Who’s the darkhorse?
Not too many men beyond Nadal and Djokovic have tasted much success on the clay this season. But there have been a couple of breakthroughs this year that could give some darkhorses the impetus to shine in Paris.
Nicolas Almagro won both clay-court swings in February in Brazil and Argentina, and was a quarterfinalist here last year. As a #11 seed, he is well positioned to return at least to that point for a duel with likely opponent Andy Murray. I have him pegged to win that match and reach the semifinals against compatriot Nadal.
Nikolay Davydenko and Juan Martin del Potro both have tournament victories to their name this year on the clay. Both are crafty veterans who have plenty of winning experience to their names. And then there’s Ryan Sweeting, the best American hope after winning the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston.
But perhaps the best darkhorse candidate of them all is Pablo Andujar, who defeated Potito Starace in the finals of the Grand Prix Hassan II in Morocco for his first career ATP tour championship. The 25-year-old from Valencia would be the ultimate giant-killer and throw the biggest wrench possible into the proceedings if he could upset Nadal in the second round.
Nadal d. Soderling
Nadal d. Almagro
Almagro d. Murray
Djokovic d. Nadal
Djokovic d. Cilic
Djokovic d. Federer
Federer d. Monfils
Zach is a writer and editor who covers a wide array of sports both traditional and non-traditional. Formerly the managing editor of Informative Sports before joining Sports Nickel, Zach has been covering events international and domestic for various publications since 2006. Find him @zbigalke on Twitter.