For most of the last decade, the Roland Garros men’s tournament has culminated in a coronation of either Nadal or Federer. Towering over the draw again are those two legends and their Serbian rival, but one should not forget that the ferocious blows of Soderling not once but twice derailed the Spaniard or the Swiss. Together with the top three men in our gallery of contenders, then, are two heavy hitters who could follow in the Swede’s footsteps.
1. Nadal: With a second straight victory over his 2011 nemesis in a red-clay final, the defending champion established himself as the favorite at the tournament where he has lost only once in seven appearances. Rarely thwarted by anyone other than Djokovic over the past year, Nadal will have soared in confidence now that he has halted that seemingly implacable obstacle. Near his vintage best in the Monte Carlo final, he managed to win the Rome final while looking more mortal. With all of the pressure on his archrival, Nadal can settle into his comfort zone and find the inner calm that makes him so lethal. Largely free from fears about his health, he has moved seamlessly and even served more effectively on clay than he ever has, turning a weakness into something approaching a strength. On the other hand, Rafa probably won’t feel that he has reversed the momentum against Nole completely until he defeats him at a major, and grim memories may linger from those three consecutive losses in the last three major finals.
2. Djokovic: As victory builds upon victory during the fortnight ahead, the anticipation and the scrutiny will mount to an unprecedented pitch. While the pre-2011 version of Djokovic would have crumbled under that pressure, the player who reached the #1 ranking in such spectacular style surely will rise to the occasion once more. Despite the emotional travails of the past month, the Serb reached finals at both of the red-clay Masters 1000 tournaments and regrouped from an acrimonious week in Madrid. Especially impressive was his comfortable victory over Federer in Rome, arguably his best performance since winning the Australian Open and a satisfying bit of revenge for his loss to the Swiss in a Roland Garros semifinal a year ago. But Djokovic never has reached a final at Roland Garros, and he has looked a little more susceptible to negativity in 2012 than he did in 2011. The terre battue unlocks that negativity more easily than other surfaces, so he will need to channel his emotions more effectively than he did in an erratic Rome loss.
3. Federer: When he dominated Nadal at Indian Wells, on a relatively slow court, eyebrows raised at a potential shift in a rivalry that had seemed overwhelmingly tilted towards Rafa. Not since 2009, though, has Federer defeated Nadal on clay, and he has won no more than one set in any of their five Roland Garros encounters. The Rafa who staggered through their semifinal in the desert resembled a mere shadow of the Monte Carlo and Rome champion, whose defense withstood Djokovic and should withstand the less consistent Federer even more comfortably. Unless he serves exceptionally well, Federer will struggle against either of his higher-ranked rivals, for his one-handed backhand cannot compete with either the Spaniard’s lefty forehand or the Serb’s equally ferocious two-hander. The Swiss did serve exceptionally well against Djokovic in his best match of 2011, winning both of the tiebreaks that they contested on Philippe Chatrier. Unable to sustain the magic against Nadal two days later, he will find the task of defeating these two consecutively a Matterhorn indeed.
4. Berdych: Like Federer, the massive Czech will hope to prove that brilliance in blue can translate to a rhapsody in red. Just a few key points from toppling the Swiss in Madrid, Berdych also won a set from Djokovic in their Monte Carlo semifinal before competing sturdily through most of his loss to Nadal in Rome. Undefeated on clay against all outside the top three, he mastered his nerves to outlast Murray in a three-hour epic and snatch two tiebreaks from Del Potro. Although the gritty surface somewhat blunts his first strikes, Berdych profits from the additional time to set his feet for his groundstrokes. A set away from reaching the final in Paris two years ago, he remains vulnerable to upsets such as his first-round debacle against the unknown Stephane Robert last year. And the Czech continues to fall excruciatingly short when opportunity knocks for a major blow to a leading rival. He has won a first set from each of the top three this year, only to lose all three of those battles.
5. Del Potro: Unfortunate not to have landed a top-eight seed, the Argentine shares not only Berdych’s playing style but his accomplishment of surging within a set of the Roland Garros final. That feat occurred in 2009, the year of his only major title to date and the year before the wrist surgery that stunted his progress. Since his return, Del Potro has received no mercy from a Federer determined to erase the embarrassment at the US Open. Losing all nine of his sets against the Swiss this year, the Tower of Tandil otherwise has delivered a series of encouraging efforts. A consistent presence in later rounds of the most significant tournaments, he measured his forehand precisely and constructed points patiently when defending his Estoril title. Again like Berdych, Del Potro continues to threaten those above him, winning a set from Djokovic at Roland Garros and another from Nadal at Wimbledon last year—but never quite breaks through. This trend suggests a decline from contender to a spoiler whom nobody will want to face in the fourth round.
Absent from this list, readers may note, is world #4 and 2011 Roland Garros semifinalist Murray. After an outstanding clay season last year, the Scot receded dramatically on the surface as he won just three matches at clay Masters 1000 tournaments. Not a natural mover on the terre battue, he lacks the power to finish points on the slow court without relying on sheer stamina to outlast his opponents. As Murray learned the hard way last year, that strategy will not succeed against the top two.
Although he excelled in reaching the Barcelona final and a Rome semifinal, severely testing Nadal on both occasions, David Ferrer rarely brings his best tennis to Roland Garros. His recent appearances there have ended with defeats to foes like Melzer and Monfils, talented shot-makers who found their groove just long enough and often enough in the best-of-five format to penetrate his defenses. Unconvinced of his ability to challenge the elite, Ferrer seems acutely conscious of his position in the tennis hierarchy, by no means lowly but not quite exalted either. Never has he defeated Federer, and never has he defeated Nadal on this surface since their very first meeting. He has compiled a much more impressive clay record against both Djokovic and Murray, however, so his fans can hope for a bit of intrigue should he draw the Serb or the Scot in a quarterfinal.
We will return shortly to discuss the leading ladies of the fortnight in Paris!