Two days from the start of the season’s second major, we analyze each quarter of the men’s draw and project the semifinalists as well as the most dangerous spoilers.
First quarter: Towering above this entire tournament like no other narrative is Djokovic’s pursuit of a Nole Slam, which would leave him the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four major titles simultaneously. Fortunately for the Serb’s stamina, few substantial tests should appear in the first week. Possibly aligned to face two fading foes in Starace and Hewitt, he could seek revenge for his loss to Melzer at Roland Garros two years ago. Although the Austrian displayed commendable courage in rallying from a two-set deficit in that quarterfinal, he has accomplished nothing of note on clay since then and will face a much more resilient Serb in 2012. At the start of the second week might await another figure with past success against Djokovic on clay. Verdasco defeated him at Monte Carlo and Rome in the same year as the Melzer defeat and has troubled him occasionally on hard courts as well. Buoyed by his stunning victory over Nadal in Madrid, he may arrive with the competitive determination necessary to turn this encounter into an entertaining battle of shot-making.
If Verdasco struggles to maintain his precision and focus throughout a best-of-five match, so does the fifth seed and top-ranked Frenchman Tsonga. Announcing before the tournament that no home hope could win this year, he troubled Djokovic for a set in Rome before disappearing—not surprisingly—in the second. Local audiences might place more expectations on the shoulders of Gilles Simon, a clay titlist this year who also excelled on French soil in Monte Carlo and Nice. Having defeated Tsonga in Monte Carlo, he should bring confidence into a fourth-round clash against his compatriot with a quarterfinal against Djokovic at stake. But Simon lacks the weapons to penetrate the Serb’s defenses or take him outside his comfort zone. Elsewhere in this generally mild section are Swiss #2 Wawrinka and Serbian #3 Troicki, neither psychologically capable of toppling a contender.
Second quarter: Contrary to usual form, Federer enjoyed his best performance at a major last year in Paris, including his only victory over Djokovic since 2010. While his early draw looks challenging on paper, it might prove more accommodating in reality. Nalbandian has troubled Federer more than most players from his generation, and Roddick won their last meeting in Miami, the second time that he defeated the Swiss at that tournament. Nevertheless, neither of those opponents has shone on clay lately or perhaps even takes it seriously, as Roddick’s dismal week in Dusseldorf suggested. In the fourth round looms the erratic lefty serve of Feliciano Lopez, who extended Federer to a final-set tiebreak in Madrid last year. As the 16-time major champion has aged, his dulling reflexes have left him more vulnerable to overpowering servers than during his prime. Lopez also won a set from him at the 2007 US Open, a tournament where Federer eventually claimed the title, but he remains winless through ten meetings and lost to him here a year ago in straight sets.
Far from clear is the question of who might face Federer in the quarterfinals, for promising dark horses Del Potro and Berdych stand poised to collide in the draw’s most intriguing fourth-round encounter. Arguably the best player of the clay season outside the top three, the Czech has recorded a series of impressively consistent results starting with the Australian Open. And yet he remains vulnerable to upsets at the worst possible moments and just when observers begin to expect more from him. Nearly a finalist in Paris two years ago, he suffered a disastrous setback against the unknown local hope Stephane Robert in the first round last year. While chronic unpredictability may cloud Berdych’s fortunes, the injury to Del Potro’s knee in Rome may cause concern. Also a near-former finalist at Roland Garros, he extended Federer into a fifth set two days before the Swiss star completed the career Slam. Should they meet again, though, the veteran’s recent stranglehold over their rivalry hints at a less thrilling duel. Slightly more likely to reach the quarterfinals, considering his two-tiebreak victory over Del Potro in Madrid, Berdych could arrive with more conviction after nearly edging past Federer in a memorable final on blue clay. Or he may struggle to find optimism in the wake of that painful loss.
Third quarter: In each of the draws simmers a quarter where no clear favorite dominates the surroundings. Far less impressive on clay than the three men ranked above him, world #4 Murray limped to pre-semifinal defeats at every tournament on the surface that he played this year while nursing an injured back. Although he reached the Roland Garros semifinals last year, he might have seemed first-week upset fodder had he not drawn such an unremarkable group of early opponents. Perhaps the most dangerous among them, Bernard Tomic continues to mature gradually and still has not quite found his footing on clay, always a challenge for a player of his height. Much more intriguing is the possible encounter a round later with Gasquet, who twice has squandered two-set leads against Murray at majors in ignominious illustrations of his mental fragility. On the other hand, his three-set, nearly three-hour victory over the Scot in Rome showed a less familiar version of Gasquet, still a brilliant shot-maker but also a reasonably sturdy competitor. Before he would reach Murray, the Frenchman might need to defuse his descendant in the role of baby Federer, an appellation that seems to doom all that inherit it. Likely to win that battle of one-handed backhands over Dimitrov, Gasquet then would face a fascinating test of focus and rhythm in the eccentric Dolgopolov, a player who should relish the stage provided by a marquee court.
A study in contrasts awaits on the other side, where top-ranked American Isner may await a fourth-round meeting with an opponent twelve inches shorter in second-ranked Spaniard Ferrer. Between them stand barely any figures of note, for neither Youzhny, Granollers, nor the perennially frustrating Robin Haase has proven themselves at majors. All the same, Isner has won just two matches on clay this year while falling to Seppi, Cilic, and Davydenko in desultory performances that scarcely recall his valiant five-setter against Nadal here last year. Brilliant at most other clay tournaments, meanwhile, Ferrer has not reached a Roland Garros quarterfinal since 2008, losing since then to inferior surface stylists like Melzer and Monfils. Judging from his clay history against Murray, he not only should snap that strange skid but move a round further.
Fourth quarter: Tasked with Isner in the first round a year ago, Nadal might find a similarly nerve-jangling challenge in the fourth round this year against the massive serve of Milos Raonic. Always at his least comfortable against such players, the defending champion also might need to defuse the tallest player in the draw, Ivo Karlovic, in the third round. Unlikely to make that prospect a reality, the Croat rarely has enjoyed his visits to Roland Garros and probably could succumb to Florian Mayer, whose curious game adapts effectively to all surfaces. The German defeated Nadal at the Masters 1000 event in Shanghai last fall, an upset avenged just two weeks ago in Rome as the underdog’s unorthodox backhand and streaky serve failed to disrupt the Spaniard’s rhythm. For his part, Raonic should beware of the deceptively unassuming Juan Monaco, a surprise semifinalist in Miami. Following an ankle injury in Monte Carlo, this Argentine clay specialist recovered to win a set from Djokovic in Rome and will fancy his chances of grinding down the Canadian in a best-of-five format if he can survive the latter’s first strikes.
Of the top eight seeds, Tipsarevic ranks as by far the least threatening on this surface, a semifinal in Madrid’s blue clay notwithstanding. Surrendering meekly in his previous clay meetings with Nadal, the entertainingly idiosyncratic Serb has not progressed as far into most tournaments this year as his elevated ranking would augur. A more plausible obstacle to the defending champion, Almagro has played two drastically different Roland Garros quarterfinals against his compatriot before. Crushed under a triple-breadstick on the first occasion in 2008, he competed impressively two years in extending the first two sets to tiebreaks. Although his record against Nadal stands at a dismal 0-7, Almagro’s heavy serving and penetrating backhand down the line has allowed him to outplay Rafa for significant stretches—just not when it matters most. The similarly volatile Kohlschreiber should collaborate with the lesser Spaniard in a decadent display of shot-making in the third round, something not often witnessed on this surface.
Final: Djokovic vs. Nadal
Champion: Rafael Nadal