The 2014 iteration of Roland Garros (the name of the site and event to the Parisians for the French Open), the second major of the year, will begin on May 25. This season has been one filled with a portent of potential change, as the Big 4 have loosened their grip on the tour, including at the majors. This clay court season, which serves as the buildup for the French Open, has given us some trends as to which players we should be watching for the second major of the year. Here, I’ll be giving you ten contenders who have a chance to make a potential big run this year, ten players whose name you’ll be hearing but their game won’t produce a favorable French Open, five darkhorses, and five “popcorn” players or men that you might want to watch if you can get a chance because of their potential for excitement.
Rafael Nadal (rank: 1)—He’s an eight-time champion at Roland Garros, but has he ever come in with more question marks as to whether he could win? Nadal has won only one clay court title—Madrid earlier this month—and even then he fell behind by a set and a break before coming back and having his opponent retire due to an injury. His losses are concerning but, because he’s only lost once in Paris on clay, he should still be considered a slight favorite to win his ninth.
Novak Djokovic (rank: 2)—His rally from a set down to beat Nadal in the final of the Italian Open was just the third time in a final that a player had come back to beat the Spaniard in a clay final. Djokovic has had a solid clay court season, interrupted only by an injury that required a precautionary withdrawal from Madrid. He should be considered the second favorite by just a slight margin.
Stanislas Wawrinka (rank: 3)—After unexpectedly winning the Australian Open, it would be difficult to leave him off the list of contenders. He took home the title at the Masters event in Monte Carlo (still the most beautiful locale of any tennis tournament), but his results in the other Masters warm-ups have left much to be desired with early exits in Madrid and Rome. Still, there’s a chance he can surprise everyone again to take the second major of the year.
Roger Federer (rank: 4)—He’s a former champion at Roland Garros, so there is a chance he could repeat his success from a few years back, and his game has improved after a disappointing 2013 campaign. I dismiss the second round upset in Rome due to his wife giving birth just the week before; rather, I’d point to his run to the finals of Monte Carlo as proof that he’s got a serious chance to take his second French Open title—if Rafael Nadal doesn’t stand in his way.
David Ferrer (rank: 5)—Ferrer had his major breakthrough last year by reaching his first major final at Roland Garros, and his clay results have indicated that the workhorse might be capable of replicating that result. He collected a notable win over Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo (one of Nadal’s usual stomping grounds), just one of several notable scalps he’s collected in a handful of events. If things fall the right way, he could hoist the trophy.
Andy Murray (rank: 8)—Murray has no coach and may still be dealing with the after effects of an injury that knocked him out last fall. There should be little reason to think the Brit will be enjoying any real success at the French Open this year. But he’s in the field, and he’s won majors before, including getting the proverbial monkey off his back with a Wimbledon title. His run to the quarterfinals at the Italian Open, where he fell to to Rafael Nadal after holding a break lead in the third set, could give him some room for confidence. Still, expectations should (and may rightly) be tempered.
Milos Raonic (rank: 9)—The hard-serving Canadian has played extremely well on the surface this season, compiling a solid 7-4 record on the red stuff. What may be even more surprising is to whom he’s lost; in three of the four events, Raonic has lost to Stanislas Wawrinka (Monte Carlo), Carlos Berlocq (Oeiras, Portugal), and Novak Djokovic (Rome). All three of those players just so happened to win the title at that event. And the fourth? Kei Nishikori in Madrid, an event where Nishikori reached the final.
Kei Nishikori (rank: 10)—Nishikori has shown he can win on clay, as he’s collected a trophy in Barcelona and was up a set and a break in the finals of the Madrid Masters event. The problem for him, as it has been for years, is his health. Nishikori comes down with a variety of ailments, many of them fatigue-related. However, that’s part of his game. Can he avoid an injury and make a deep run?
John Isner (rank: 11)—With Isner’s booming serve and propensity to end points as quickly as possible, you wouldn’t think that Isner’s game would translate well to the crushed brick. That would be an incorrect assumption, as the high bounce and slowing effects on the ball of clay means John ends up with the tennis ball in his strike zone with time to set up his forehand. He’s pushed—and sometimes beaten—the tennis elite on clay before, but as with all John Isner runs at majors, he’s got to win the early rounds quickly.
Grigor Dimitrov (rank: 12)—Maybe Maria Sharapova’s clay court prowess is rubbing off on her boyfriend. Dimitrov has had a great spring, including a title in Bucharest and a run to the semifinals in Rome. In all of three of his losses, he’s fallen to a player inside the top ten: David Ferrer in Monte Carlo, Tomas Berdych in Madrid, and Rafael Nadal in Rome.
Name Before Game
Tomas Berdych (rank: 6)—Berdych has—for lack of a better term—gotten fat and happy with his position in the Top 10. He seems fine being a fourth round or quarterfinalist at majors, sometimes reaching the semifinals (or crashing out early), but he doesn’t seem to display that fire needed to get over the hump and win his first major. What may even be more detrimental is the fact that he’s not very good at Roland Garros, usually crashing out in the first two rounds.
Juan Martin Del Potro (rank: 7)—Del Potro is recovering from wrist surgery, which unfortunately means he will not be competing at the French Open. It’s a shame, because Juan Martin is a rare breed: he has the height and power to generate booming, difficult-to-return serves and a punishing forehand, but he’s comfortable enough to move around on the clay to have a legitimate chance at a deep run.
Richard Gasquet (rank: 13)—A warning sign should be attached to any Frenchman playing at their home major “Pick at your own risk”. Gasquet is no exception, as he routinely falters under the pressure of the Parisian crowd. To make matters worse, he comes in nursing a back injury. If he doesn’t withdraw, look for him to be a potentially easy pick for an early upset.
Jo-Wilfred Tsonga (rank: 14)—Tsonga’s actually had success at Roland Garros, reaching the semifinals last year in a run that included an upset of Roger Federer. That being said, he’s trending in the wrong direction and has been for a while. His lack of a coach is starting to be a real cause for concern, and his results are looking more and more disappointing.
Fabio Fognini (rank: 15)—Were this the summer of 2013 when he went on a crazy claycourt run to reach three consecutive finals with two titles, Fognini would probably be a very good pick to be a potential second week player with a chance to make noise at the 2014 French Open. Even during the Latin American swing, Fabio still played extremely well, looking at times to be unbeatable on the red dirt. However, the wheels have fallen off in Europe, as he’s compiled a pedestrian 5-5 record on clay.
Kevin Anderson (rank: 20)—The big South African always must have angered the draw gods early on in his career, as he always manages to get paired up with players that he simply can’t beat, usually having to tussle (and lose) to Novak Djokovic or Tomas Berdych. He isn’t clay-averse, but Anderson has developed into the kind of player who will simply live up to his seeding, then go away.
Jerzy Janowicz (rank: 23)—The Pole, who burst onto the scene in 2012 with a shock run to the finals of the last Masters event of the year in Bercy, might be able to draw on the good vibes from that suburb of Paris, but if his results this year are any indication, he’s more likely to crash out screaming at everyone but himself for his poor play. Jerzy is only 8-12 on the year, and during the European claycourt season, he’s a goose-egg: zero wins, four losses.
Vasek Pospisil (rank: 31)—If you’re looking for a player mired in a bad, bad slump, look no further than the other Canadian. Pospisil made a name for himself with a run to the Canada Masters last year, edging most of his opponents in exciting three set matches. This year has not been kind to him; he’s a poor 4-7 on the year and hasn’t won a match dating back to the Australian Open, a span of seven tournaments.
Lleyton Hewitt (rank: 44)—The two-time major champion (but never at Roland Garros) and former world number one will compete—we know that much about the Aussie after watching him for so long—but Hewitt is just not a threat on the red dirt. He did reach the quarterfinals twice of Roland Garros before, but the last time was a decade ago, when he was still near the height of his powers. And the average ranking of the three players he’s lost to on clay this year? 82.
Sam Querrey (rank: 64)—If tennis were a stock market, you probably should have sold your stock on Sam Querrey earlier this year (if not before then). He’s simply too relaxed on the court to dig in and win tight matches. His lapses of concentration and focus have gotten him off to a bad start this year, and he’s never really done particularly well on clay.
Tommy Haas (rank: 17)—Tommy Haas may be in his thirties, but due to his numerous injuries that have taken him out of the game, his body hasn’t taken the pounding of several decades of year-round tennis. He’s enjoyed a renaissance of sorts since his return from his latest long-term injury-induced layoff, including titles in recent years on clay. He’s proven time and again that he’s capable of deep runs at majors too.
Ernests Gulbis (rank: 19)—If you’re looking for a player who can entertain both on and off the court, Gulbis could be your man. He’s not exactly politically correct at times in his press conferences, but his game has come together nicely, particularly on clay where he’s accomplished a 8-4 record this spring. One thing Gulbis needs to do to make a big run though is to stay fighting: his average number of games won in those four straight-set losses is 6.5 per match.
Nicolas Almagro (rank: 22)—Almagro’s more of a hardcourter, but he knows how to play on clay, and he’s certainly been practicing on the stuff. He’s played nine tournaments this season, and eight of them have been on clay. Part of what Almagro needs in order to be successful is self-belief, and hopefully his come-from-behind win over Rafael Nadal in Barcelona (where he snapped Nadal’s 41-match win streak there) will provide him that confidence.
Gael Monfils (rank: 24)—It’s generally a good idea to dismiss a Frenchman of making a deep run at Roland Garros. Monfils would appear to be the exception to that rule. Despite knowing what exactly he’ll do (he could reach the semifinals or crash out in Round 1), one thing is definitely certain: he will find a way to entertain the Parisian crowds.
Marin Cilic (rank: 26)—In his return from a doping suspension, Marin Cilic wasted little time in reviving his ranking during late winter, reaching three straight finals (two titles). He’s cooled off quite a bit as the temperatures have warmed up, reaching just one quarterfinal in four clay court events. While it doesn’t bode well for his chances at Roland Garros this year, Cilic could still be a dangerous low seed at the event.
Alexandr Dolgopolov (rank: 21)—There is no one on the tour who has the same groundstrokes and shot selection like Dolgopolov. He has a quick-fire, low toss serve, a forehand commonly referred to as buggy-whipped, and employs a biting slice backhand with effectiveness. He’s also unpredictable as he can routinely pile up aces—and unforced errors. You never know what exactly you might get with the Ukrainian, and that’s what makes his matches entertaining.
Dominic Thiem (rank: 58)—As the youngest player in the Top 100, Dominic Thiem is quickly making a name for himself on the tour from talented prospect to dangerous opponent. Earlier this year he pushed then-world number six Andy Murray to a tight third set in Rotterdam, and on the clay courts, he’s collected victories over the likes of Stanislas Wawrinka, Marcel Granollers, and Radek Stepanek.
Benoit Paire (rank: 63)—Benoit Paire was making a strong ascension in 2013 before injuries derailed him. This year he’s not played well as he attempts to return to form that got him into the Top 30. It’s a shame, because Paire has the ability to hit spectacular shots from anywhere on the court. Plus, he’s one of just a few players who actively seeks to run around his forehand to hit a backhand. Perhaps his quirk to show he’s French?
Pablo Carrena Busta (rank: 70)—If you do not know this guy, it’s okay. A year ago his ranking was 166 and he was toiling away week after week in qualifying or challenger events. Now he’s firmly entrenched in the Top 100, but not many people know much about his game. With his ranking more than halved this year, it might be a wise idea to watch a match or two of his to see how he’s been so successful.
Dustin Brown (rank: 87)—When Dustin Brown’s name is in a draw, you have to catch a match of his. Even a description of the player, a 6’5” dreadlocked former player of Jamaica but born in Germany, should pique your interest, and that’s not even getting into his game. He’s a throwback to yesteryear in that he loves to serve and volley, crashing towards the net whenever possible. Sadly, that game isn’t conducive these days to clay wins, but hopefully he’ll replicate his success in a few weeks’ time on the grass.