Friday, 20 May 2011

French Open Preview

With seven tournament victories out of seven, and 37 consecutive wins in the process, Novak Djokovic has not only utterly dominated tennis in 2011 so far, he has also won a great many admirers in the process. This supremacy has come in a generation many consider as the greatest of all time. Djokovic has improved his game to a level few considered possible: The Serb is now the game’s fiercest hitter and, added to that, he has become fitter and quicker even than Rafael Nadal. His relentless power, combined with his great energy, has been marvellous, and Nadal has been unable to cope over the last two tournaments. 

Perhaps the best part of the current generation of tennis stars, arguably the greatest the game has ever seen, is the humility of the current world’s best. On the court, they are machines. The spellbinding brilliance of Roger Federer during the 2000s raised the bar so high that, in order to compete, a player would have to reach super-human levels of quality, accuracy and consistency. Then the stunning year that Nadal had in 2010 left us wondering how the rest of the tennis world could possibly respond. In an era blessed with some great talent across the top ten, the reality was that when Nadal produced his best nobody could come close to him. But recent tennis history has taught us to expect another phenomenon just around the corner, and Novak Djokovic’s start to 2011, defying all expectation and reason, has delivered just that phenomenon. But, off the court, Djokovic is also extremely popular, demonstrating in his recent victories an admirable humility, humour and grounded passion for the game.

The Serb’s unyielding, machine-like brilliance, coupled with his good-spirited off-court demeanour, a combination of traits which has characterised this generation’s best, has ensured he is more than worthy company for Rafa and Roger as the biggest names in the sport. It is interesting, and refreshing, that Nole would be such a popular champion despite the worldwide fame and respect for Nadal and Federer, two former champions of the club to boot. 

Can he win the title, though? Beating Nadal at the French Open will be far tougher than Madrid or Rome. Winning against a fully-fit Rafa over five sets in a final would be anyone’s Everest; not only that, but Djokovic will also have to win six matches over the longest format just to reach the final, where he might just face a fresh Nadal, having eased through his own half of the draw. Nadal will rightly start the tournament as favourite. But the answer to the question, in my opinion, is yes. Given the way he is playing, there is nothing stopping Djokovic breezing through the rounds too, despite the potentially tricky obstacles of Richard Gasquet and Juan Martín Del Potro. And there is nothing stopping him from beating Nadal over five sets either. The Spaniard has simply been second best of late. 

These two have certainly left Roger Federer trailing in their wake, with the Swiss, these days, not only far more inconsistent to threaten these two tournament favourites, but will also be susceptible to an upset himself. As for Andy Murray, a similar situation applies with regard to Federer. Murray has a near-complete game, but his exploitable faults, however small they are, can be targeted on the big occasion, which is why he will not provide a serious challenge for the title. The Scot should be happy to reach the semi-finals, and be content with the quarters. 

Among the rest, two-time finalist Robin Soderling has had a difficult few months, which have included splitting from his coach and a string of disappointing results. Though certainly capable of reaching the business end of the tournament, the quarter-finals is probably the absolute best he can expect this year. Although if he does produce his best over the next two weeks, it would promise to be an interesting quarter final versus Nadal, who has struggled even on clay with the sheer power of Djokovic this season, something which might be of note if the Swede, who hits big himself, can find some form.

Del Potro has confirmed his entry into the tournament too. Again the quarter-finals is probably the best he can hope for this time round given his lack of fitness of late. One to look out for in the draw might be the 11th seed Nicolas Almagro (though I am usually terrible at these ‘outsider’ predictions). He has had a productive clay season to date, winning two titles and reaching the final in Acapulco, as well as the final in Nice to be played on Saturday, and might just prove a handful for Andy Murray if the two players reach the quarters. 

But although there are many talented players out there, who, on their day, are capable of upsetting even the very best in the world, I fully expect to see a final between the current top two, Nadal and Djokovic, the next chapter in a potentially thrilling rivalry. The French Open has been decidedly short on classic Championship matches of late, compared to the other three majors, with the last great final, for my money, between Agassi and Medvedev in 1999. Nadal’s victories over Federer in ’06 and ’07 were nervy affairs, and the ’04 final between Gaudio and Coria may have been an epic but it was certainly not a classic. Given the quality of tennis Nadal and Djokovic are capable of, the match in prospect could be not only one of the great French Open finals, but also one of the best matches the tennis world has ever seen.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review.

    With Federer being out of the spotlight, it may take the pressure out of him and he may play his best tennis on clay.

    Yet he will have to conquer Djokovic and then Nadal.

    Let's see how things go.

    Catch my thoughts at French Open 2011