Let’s look at the draws. The key question was always this: would Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic end up on Nadal’s or Federer’s half of the draw? The answer was good news for the world’s top ranked player. Djokovic is in the same half with Nadal, so they figure to meet for the second year in a row in the semifinal round. Federer has an essentially kind draw. He opens against Sam Querrey, the big server from California. On the Centre Court of Wimbledon or in Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open, Querrey could give Federer some problems on a given day. But I don’t see him being able to stay with Federer in the rallies at Roland Garros, and he won’t do enough damage with his serve. Federer will win in straight sets.
Federer might have to deal with Mario Ancic in the third round. Ancic, of course, is the last man to beat Federer at Wimbledon. He stopped Federer in 2002 on the grass. But if they meet on the clay, Federer has a distinct advantage and would prevail in four sets. Juan Monaco or Ivo Karlovic are potential fourth round opponents for Federer. Monaco would be the tougher of the two and could make him work harder. Karlovic would push the world No. 1 into a tie-break or two. But, either way, Federer would advance in straight sets.
In the quarters, Federer might come up against his Davis Cup teammate Stanislas Wawrinka, but three other loom in that section: 2007 Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez, Igor Andreev, and No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet. I can’t see Gasquet getting that far. He has played abysmally as of late. Perhaps the French crowd could spur him on, but he would need to win four matches to earn the right to meet Federer. That is unlikely. Federer will probably play Gonzalez in the quarters, and that would be a legitimate clay court test. But Federer would get through it in four sets, setting up a semifinal meeting with Nikolay Davydenko (the No. 4 seed), Radek Stepanek (who just beat the Swiss maestro in Rome), or David Ferrer (the No. 5 seed from Spain).
If he takes on Davydenko, Federer wins in four sets. If he is up against Ferrer, Federer advances in straight sets. And if he has a chance to avenge his loss to Stepanek, he will do so in four sets. So I see Federer making the final without being stretched to his limits.
On the bottom half, Nadal should comfortably make his way through the first three rounds. His fourth round opponent should be either Mikhail Youzhny or countryman Fernando Verdasco. He could drop a set to either man, but no more. In the quarterfinals, the seedings tell us Nadal should take on No. 6 seed David Nalbandian. If that were the case, Nadal could have a relatively tough match on his hands against a man who beat him twice decisively last fall indoors. But I don’t see Nalbandian living up to expectations. I see Spaniard Nicolas Almagro— the No. 19 seed— defeating No. 10 Andy Murray in the third round and blazing along to a last eight meeting with Nadal. He would keep Nadal out there for quite a while, and really push him hard. But Nadal would prevail in four sets.
Then we would have the mouth-watering prospect of Nadal versus Djokovic in the semifinals. In my view, Djokovic will move comfortably through his section of the draw. The left-handed Denis Gremelmayr will be his first round opponent. Gremelmayr played well in Estoril (taking a set off Federer in the semifinals) and in Barcelona, where he also reached the penultimate round. But Djokovic has the solid foundation from the baseline to handle the German. He might play former champion Carlos Moya in the round of 16 and could take on either James Blake or Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters. If he faces Blake, Djokovic could be tested and might lose a set, but ultimately he would prevail.
The last Nadal-Djokovic clash was stupendously played by both men in Hamburg. Nadal won 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 but Djokovic led 3-0,15-40 in the opening set, which was the key to the outcome. If he can replicate that level this time around in Paris, it would be a riveting match. In the final analysis, though, I see Nadal coming through in four sets. He has the clear edge in a best of five set match. It was challenging enough for Djokovic to stay with Nadal for three hours on a best of three set skirmish in Hamburg; in a best of five showdown at Roland Garros, Djokovic would probably have to blitz the Spaniard in straight sets. I think that will beyond his capabilities.
So then Nadal would confront Federer for the fourth year in a row at Roland Garros. In 2005, Nadal toppled Federer in a four set semifinal. In 2006 and 2007, he stopped Federer in four set finals. And now he has defeated the Swiss in eight of nine career clay court head-to-head battles. This time around, I envision Nadal winning yet another four set clash over his rival. Nadal is the best clay court player in the world. There were stretches in both Monte Carlo and Hamburg when Federer briefly controlled the tempo of those contests and held the upper hand by shortening the exchanges from the back of the court, and charging forward to end points commandingly at the net.
In Monte Carlo, Federer lost 7-5, 7-5, but was serving for a 5-3 first set lead and was ahead 4-0 in the second. In Hamburg, Federer was serving at 5-1 with a set point before Nadal won seven games in a row. Then Federer led 5-2 in the second set. Nadal rallied to 5-5 and had Federer down 0-40 in the eleventh game before Federer admirably served his way out of a daunting corner. Federer managed to win that set in a tie-break, but Nadal was clearly the better player in the third set, winning 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-3. Federer said later that he felt fine physically throughout that contest, but he looked ragged at times in the final set from the baseline.
In any event, it is awfully difficult for Federer to dictate for long stretches against the indomitable Nadal. Nadal eventually starts dominating with his astonishing forehand, pounding away at Federer’s backhand, opening up opportunities to use his inside-out forehand as the finishing shot. When Nadal is controlling play in that fashion, Federer is decidedly at bay. So I am looking for another Nadal four set win in the final this year, with Federer winning the second set.
Maria Sharapova is the top seeded woman. She could have a mighty struggle on her hands in the round of 16 against Dinara Safina. Safina recently won Berlin, defeating Henin and Serena Williams in that event. She upended Sharapova in the round of 16 at Roland Garros in 2006. Sharapova will need to be at her best to avoid another loss to her countrywoman. I believe she will scrape through in three sets. In the quarters, Sharapova would conceivably take on Elena Dementieva. Dementieva has a win over Sharapova this year. She would be confident about her chances on the clay. But, in the crunch, I like Sharapova’s chances. Sharapova wins in three sets.
In the semifinals, Sharapova could meet Svetlana Kuznetsova, the No. 4 seed and the runner-up to Henin at Roland Garros two years ago. That would be a fascinating battle of wills and skills. Kuznetsova would not be daunted by the prospect of playing Sharapova in a major semifinal. If this was a final, I would go with Sharapova. But since it is a semifinal, and because I expect Sharapova to be drained by this stage after some tough tests along the way, I pick Kuznetsova to reach the final.
On the opposite half, No. 5 seed Serena Williams and No. 2 Ana Ivanovic figure to meet in a stirring quarterfinal. All in all, Serena has enjoyed a terrific season in 2008. Clay may well be her least favorite surface— as is the case with Sharapova— but Serena has a big psychological edge over Ivanovic, who has not played well as of late. Serena will win in straight sets to reach the penultimate round.
Meanwhile, No. 8 seed Venus Williams, who has never won the French Open, could well meet Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals. This is one of the most appealing match-ups in the women’s game. They have played their share of top notch contests against each other. At the U.S. Open last year, Venus won a stirring encounter in a third set tie-break over Jankovic in the quarterfinals. At Roland Garros a year ago, Jankovic beat Venus in a three set, third round appointment. This year, Jankovic should have the edge on the clay again. I believe she will prevail in another three set showdown.
At the Australian Open this year, a sub-par Serena was ushered out of the tournament by a composed and purposeful Jankovic. Serena retaliated with a victory over Jankovic in the final of Miami. Serena became strangely apprehensive in that contest after building a 6-1, 5-3 lead, limping home in three sets. She nearly beat herself that day by imploding with nerves. At Roland Garros, I expect her to be calmer and just as resolute. Serena should hold off Jankovic in a well played, three set encounter.
That would put Serena Williams up against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the championship match. Kuznetsova is fully capable of beating Williams at certain times in certain places. But this will not be the time or the place for the Russian to succeed. Kuznetsova did win the U.S. Open in 2004, but has lost two major finals since. She is not a very good big occasion player. Serena has won eight of ten major finals. Only Venus Williams (at the 2001 U.S. Open), and Sharapova (at the 2004 Wimbledon), have beaten Serena in major finals. She will come out firing from the outset of this final. Kuznetsova will try to fend her off, but to no avail. In the end, Serena Williams wins her ninth Grand Slam championship with a straight set triumph.