Let’s look at the men’s and women’s draws as a barometer of what might unfold these next couple of weeks. World No. 1 Roger Federer— hoping to secure a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title and his first in Paris— has an excellent draw. He opens up against Michael Russell of the U.S. He could meet the daring Italian Potito Starace in the third round, and might be tested to some degree in that contest. But Federer is not going to lose that match. In the round of 16, Federer figures to take on either 2003 champion Juan Carlos Ferrero or No. 13 seed Mikhail Youzhny, and then the Swiss might play Marat Safin, Tommy Robredo or Ivan Ljubicic in the quarterfinals.
Any way you slice it, Federer should be in good shape, although Safin is the most dangerous player in that group. In the semifinals, the candidates to potentially clash with Federer include No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko, Spain’s Nicolas Almagro, David Nalbandian, No. 11 seed Richard Gasquet, and Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez. Meanwhile, No. 27 seed Guillermo Canas could cause some trouble for Federer if he comes out of his section, but to make it to the penultimate round he would need to conceivably defeat Gasquet, Gonzalez and Davydenko or Nalbandian. That is a tall task, but if somehow the industrious Canas manages to advance to the semis, he would be delighted about getting another chance to meet Federer because the Argentine toppled the world No. 1 at both Indian Wells and Miami on hard courts this year. If he could do that on hard courts, there is no reason why he could not at least threaten Federer again on the clay in Paris.
In any event, I look for Federer to survive any of these likely skirmishes and reach his second straight final. The draw has been kind to him and he will take advantage of it. On the opposite half, Nadal may be tested more than his arch rival. He opens up against Juan Martin Del Petro of Argentina— a capable clay court player— and should meet Sweden’s explosive Robin Soderling in the third round. Soderling might take a set if he gets hot but Nadal will force too many errors from his adversary in the end. In the round of 16, Nadal could face two-time former Grand Slam tournament winner Lleyton Hewitt, who just pushed the Spaniard to the hilt in a hard fought semifinal collision at Hamburg.
Hewitt may well be hard to bring down again, but Nadal will win in three or possibly four sets if they meet. Nadal’s quarterfinal opponent might be No. 8 seed James Blake (who opens with a tough encounter against 6’10” Ivo Karlovic) but I believe it is more likely that Blake will not have a great tournament and Nadal would then take on either Tomas Berdych or Carlos Moya in the last eight. In the semifinals, Nadal should have an appointment with the rapidly improving Novak Djokovic, the No. 6 seed.
Djokovic could have his hands full with No. 12 seed David Ferrer in the round of 16 but I still expect the gifted Serbian to reach the semifinals. Nadal and Djokovic split their two clashes on hard courts this spring in Indian Wells and Miami, but on clay in Monte Carlo Nadal took apart Djokovic in straight sets. At Roland Garros, I would expect a similar result.
Andy Roddick is seeded No. 3 but he could bow out in the first round against Igor Andreev, the Russian who knows what he is doing on clay courts. Andreev toppled Roddick on hard courts a year ago. Even if Roddick manages to stop Andreev, he would then be surrounded by top notch clay court players like Nicolas Massu, Luis Horna, Gilles Simon and Paul-Henri Mathieu. In a best case scenario, I don’t expect Roddick to last beyond the third round.
So— the way I see it— it should all come down to another Nadal-Federer showdown for the championship. Nadal had never lost a clay court clash with Federer coming into the recent final in Hamburg, winning all five of their previous confrontations including wins in the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2005 and in the final a year ago. Moreover, Nadal defeated Federer decisively 6-4, 6-4 in the Monte Carlo final. Federer finally ended that losing pattern in Hamburg, breaking a four tournament losing streak with a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 win over Nadal in the final.
Nadal, who had won 81 consecutive matches on clay including three tournaments in a row this year, ran out of emotional energy and faded physically in the final set as Federer opened up his wings and took control. A loss in that match would have been a severe setback for Federer, but how significant was the victory? We will find out. The guess here is that Nadal will bounce back with gusto and turn the tables on Federer if they meet in Paris. He is the better clay court player and he was due for a loss on clay after such a long, unblemished stretch. Nadal won his 2005 and 2006 Roland Garros meetings with Federer in four sets. He should repeat that feat this year.
The women’s draw is unfortunately imbalanced. Henin is seeded first with Maria Sharapova one place behind her. But Serena Williams— the victor at the two biggest tournaments this year at the Australian Open and Miami— is seeded too low at No. 8 and could play Henin in the quarters. Henin let Williams off the hook in the final of Miami, squandering a 6-0, 5-4, 40-15 lead in the final as the American staged one of her patented comebacks to win in three tumultuous sets. But that was on hard courts. On the clay, Henin, the French Open champion three of the past four years, will have the edge. If she takes on Williams, Henin will prevail this time.
On the same half of the draw is Jelena Jankovic, the game’s swiftest rising player. Seeded No. 4, she collected two important clay court titles this spring and on form she is the second best clay court player in the world. Ideally, she would have been in the opposite half of the draw and might have met either Henin or Williams in the final. Instead, she conceivably will play the winner of the Henin-Williams quarterfinal in the penultimate round. Jankovic has never beaten Henin but has taken the Belgian to three sets in all five of their head-to-head duels. At the U.S. Open last year, she blew a set and 4-0 lead against Henin in the semifinals, losing ten games in a row. In their most recent battle in Berlin, Jankovic was ahead 4-0 in the final set but never won another game.
Jankovic will have some hard work to do if she wants to claim her first major crown in Paris. She could face a stern test with No. 26 seed and former finalist Venus Williams in the third round. Jankovic only narrowly escaped defeat against Venus in their most recent clash in the semifinals of Charleston, South Carolina. A possible round of 16 opponent for Jankovic is 2004 finalist Elena Dementieva. And in the quarterfinals, Jankovic might well find herself up against either 2006 semifinalist Nicole Vaidisova or No. 11 seed Nadia Petrova, a first rate clay court competitor.
I still expect Jankovic to make her way through to another skirmish with Henin, but the forecast here is for Henin to win in straight sets on the big occasion to reach the final. The opposite half of the draw is wide open. Sharapova is just getting healthy again after injury problems set her back in the early months of this year. In her section, Sharapova is due to meet No. 5 seed Amelie Mauresmo in the quarterfinals. I believe the Russian Anna Chakvetadze (the No. 9 seed) will beat Mauresmo in the round of 16 if someone else does not topple the Frenchwoman first, and she would then go on to beat Sharapova if Maria lasts that long.
That would put Chakvetadze into the semifinals, where she would play the winner of a potential quarterfinal between 2006 finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova and No. 7 seed Ana Ivanovic. That match could go either way. I think Ivanovic just might squeeze it out. So my view is that either Chakvetadze or Ivanovic will be in the final against Henin. Experience will make a substantial difference in that clash, and Henin will hold the trophy for the fourth time.