Looking ahead to the 2010 French Open which starts tomorrow, the view here is that Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin are both going to win their fifth titles on the Roland Garros clay in Paris. Nadal is an overwhelming favorite. And while Henin is the woman to beat she is not as prohibitive a favorite.
Let’s examine the draws, starting with the men. Defending champion Roger Federer should navigate his way through the first three rounds relatively easily. He could be tested significantly in the round of 16 by either his countryman Stanislas Wawrinka or the highly charged Frenchman Gael Monfils. Wawrinka has beaten Federer once, and that was on clay in Monte Carlo a year ago. Though he is a former Italian Open finalist and a formidable player on clay, Federer cast aside Wawrinka easily in their most recent meeting in Madrid. If he meets Wawrinka, Federer is a straight set victor; should he take on Monfils (who nearly pushed Federer into a fifth set in the 2008 Roland Garros semifinals) Federer comes through in four sets.
In the quarterfinals, Federer could meet 2009 finalist Robin Soderling, Albert Montanes of Spain (who recently surprised Federer in the semifinals of Estoril, Marin Cilic or Ernests Gulbis, the gifted Latvian. Gulbis beat Federer on clay in Rome this spring and pushed the world No. 1 to three sets in Madrid. The guess here is that Gulbis will earn another showdown with Federer, and it will be a beauty. Gulbis will give Federer cause for consternation throughout a riveting five set skirmish, which Federer ultimately takes 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.
Andy Murray is seeded fourth and that would suggest he will play Federer in the semifinals. I don’t see that happening. Murray’s draw is not bad. He opens against the flamboyant Richard Gasquet of France, and will need to keep his composure if Gasquet starts sprinkling the court with his usual number of one-handed backhand winners. Gasquet is a great shot maker, but Murray will get through that match in four sets. Murray could take on the dangerous Marcos Baghdatis in the third round but he will use his defensive skills to overcome the Cypriot in another four set encounter.
Murray would potentially meet either Tomas Berdych or John Isner in the round of 16. I believe he will play Berdych, and Berdych is in many ways more comfortable on the clay. Berdych wins in five sets, and then combats the charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters. Tsonga gets the vociferous French crown fervently behind him, and is victorious in five tumultuous sets. So Tsonga sets up an appointment in the penultimate round with Federer. Tsonga will be fired up for this meeting and will feed off the energy of the crowd. He will make Federer work hard for a couple of sets, but Federer is too cagey and seasoned. He wins the match in four sets for a place in the final.
Nadal— as long as his knees don’t act up— is going to sweep into the quarterfinals, perhaps without the loss of a set. He could play Lleyton Hewitt in the third round and Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth round, but he will be dominant in those contests. In the quarters, Nadal figures to meet either 2009 semifinalist Fernando Gonzalez, countryman Nicolas Almagro, Philipp Kohlschreiber or Fernando Verdasco. Nadal crushed Verdasco in the Monte Carlo final recently, handled Kohlschreiber with ease when they last clashed, came from behind to beat Almagro convincingly in three sets at Madrid, and he won’t lose to “Gonzo” on clay.
On goes Nadal to the semifinals. Expected to meet him there is the No. 3 seed, the enigmatic Novak Djokovic. Djokovic was not the same stalwart clay court player this season that he was a year ago. The Serbian— who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2007 and 2008 before losing to Nadal— might be well rested this year after skipping Madrid. He should advance to the quarterfinals comfortably enough, but in that round he would conceivably take on No. 9 seed David Ferrer. Ferrer had an excellent clay court campaign in 2010, and is playing perhaps the best tennis of his career. I see him toppling Djokovic in five sets.
But Nadal will not be daunted by yet another meeting with Ferrer. He stopped Ferrer in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and the final of Rome. Nadal will be hard pressed for a set or perhaps two, but he wins this battle of the Spaniards in four sets. And so we will have a matchup for the title between the defending champion Federer and the man who captured the crown the four previous years— the redoubtable Nadal. Nadal is the only man in the past five years to beat Federer at Roland Garros. Not only did he topple the Swiss in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 championship matches, but he also halted Federer in the 2005 semifinals.
Federer will be inspired. He will approach this contest as if he has nothing to lose, and will take calculated risks all through an absorbing contest. As was the case in 2006 when he took the first set of the final from the Spaniard 6-1, Federer will catch Nadal slightly off guard at the outset. He will win a hard fought first set 7-5, but Nadal will not be daunted by that development. He will raise his game decidedly at the start of the second, take control of the match with his inimitable brand of consistency and aggression from the back of the court, and Nadal will come away with the crown, triumphing over Federer 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Let’s shift to the women. The match of the tournament may well be Henin against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. Henin is seeded No. 22, but she will use this event to put herself back in the top ten. Henin will stop Maria Sharapova in an intriguing third round match. Serena will have a tough round of 16 meeting with Marion Bartoli, the former Wimbledon finalist. But for the third time at Roland Garros, Williams will face Henin. In a 2003 semifinal, when Serena was the defending champion, Henin won in three sets and went on to take her first title. Four years later, Henin stopped Serena in a straight set quarterfinal. The way I look at it, Henin will avenge her loss to Serena at the start of this year in the Australian Open final with a 7-5, 7-6 (5) triumph. The tennis will surpass anything we will see from the women in the entire tournament.
Henin will still have some tough tests thereafter. In the semifinals, she will play Jelena Jankovic. Henin owns a 10-0 record over Jankovic, but Jankovic tests her comprehensively every time they play. This one will be no exception. Jankovic will keep probing and extending the rallies, inviting Henin to miss some difficult shots, forcing the Belgian to go for some winners from outside her comfort zone. Jankovic will win the first set and go up a break in the second, but Henin’s big match class will show in the end. Henin wins 4-6, 7-5,6-4.
In the final, Henin will play No. 2 seed Venus Williams. I am not a big admirer of Venus’s clay court game. She did reach the final in 2002 before losing to her sister, but her results across the years have been largely disappointing. Venus starts with a tricky first round match against the wily left-hander Patty Schnyder. That is a match Venus could well lose, but I see her surviving on grit and gumption 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-5. In the round of 16, Venus should face Aravane Rezai of France. Rezai just ousted Venus in the finals of Madrid, and she will come close to toppling the American again. But experience and competitiveness will pull Venus through that battle, 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-4.
In the quarterfinals, Venus will have another arduous test before dismantling the woman who may have the most solid ground strokes in the women’s game. Elena Dementieva— the No. 5 seed— will give Venus a scare, but Venus will respond with a 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory. The Italian Flavia Penetta will make it through to meet Williams in the semifinals, and will threaten to repeat her 2008 victory over the American at Roland Garros. But Venus will turn the tables this time around with a 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory.
In the final, Henin will masterfully pick apart her worn out rival. All of the tough matches along the way will strengthen Henin’s resolve. She will break down the Williams forehand. She will return too well on the clay. She will know what she wants and realize how to go about her business. Justine Henin will be the 2010 French Open champion, defeating Venus Williams convincingly. The Belgian wins 6-4, 6-3.