The 2012 French Open begins tomorrow. A Seshan rates the chances of the favourites at this year’s second Grand Slam
“Novak is very, very good, that’s the problem. He has all the shots.” —Nadal after his defeat at Rome Masters in 2011
The spring clay season in tennis reaches its climax at Roland Garros in Paris where the French Open, the second of the Grand Slam tournaments in the year, commences on May 27. Since 2006, the championships have begun on a Sunday instead of a Monday, as in the other cases. Although called clay, courts are made of crushed shale, stone or brick. It is the slowest tennis surface with a bounce higher (above the shoulder) than on the others. Serve-and-volley players are not as effective on this surface as on grass and hard courts. It is basically a baseline game with long rallies calling for finesse in ground shots, drop shots and lobs providing entertainment to the spectators as against the brute force of aces and smashes on the faster surfaces. The current record for the number of shots in a rally at the French Open is reported to be 68 in a match between Mats Wilander and Guillermo Vilas in 1982. Sliding to take a ball is a unique feature.
The Europeans (other than the British) and Latin Americans enjoy the advantage of having been brought up on clay unlike the British trained on grass and the Americans and the Australians on hard courts. Since the commencement of the Open era in 1968, 18 Latin Americans and mainland Europeans have won the French Open in 38 years, the remaining shared by US (4) and Australia (2). It is a true measure of the international nature of Grand Slam events that rarely a local champion wins the title. The last time a Frenchman (Yannick Noah) won at Roland Garros was in 1983. The record of French women is relatively better. Mary Pierce, a Canadian citizen now, was the title holder in 2000. Of the 44 women’s championships since 1968, 13 were won by the US, five by Australia and one each by UK and China; the balance accounted for by mainland Europe and Latin America.
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Who will wear the crown at Roland Garros? Predicting a winner at a Grand Slam is as tricky as foretelling the outcome of a tie-break in tennis or a penalty shootout in football. The last four Grand Slam events saw the following four in the semi-finals: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. But there are many dark horses like Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic lurking around this time. Raonic won the 2012 title at Aircel Chennai Open. He took the first set off Roger Federer on the blue clay court of Madrid recently. Although he lost the match, his ability to give an answer to every hit of Federer was remarkable. Andy Murray, whom he defeated in Barcelona in straight sets, has admitted that he could be a threat on any surface.
Of the quartet, the one who should have the maximum motivation to win is Djokovic. He was a winner of the last three Grand Slam events. If he gets the title at Roland Garros, he will have the distinction of entering the elite group of Career Grand Slam. Even more importantly, it will mean his holding the four Grand Slam titles simultaneously — an instance of a non-calendar year Grand Slam champion. So far only Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Serena Williams have had this distinction. If he is able to defend his Wimbledon and US Open titles and get the Olympic Gold Medal too, it will be a Golden Slam for him as it was for Steffi Graf (1988).
Nadal considers Roland Garros as his backyard and would try his best to defend his title. He was successful six times at Roland Garros equalling the record of Bjorn Borg. For Nadal, a win this year would mean a consecutive fifth victory bettering the record of Borg. He is strong in all departments of tennis except for the backhand. He tries to convert a backhand into a forehand by going around the ball to the other side, which is easy on the slow clay court as the high bouncing ball gives him enough time to hit. (Sania Mirza does this too). He struggled with his backhand in the semi-final against David Ferrer at the recent Rome Masters, which he eventually won. Of Nadal’s 20 unforced errors in the first set, 15 were off his backhand. He is perhaps the physically strongest among the four. He has every chance of winning a five-setter and hence his opponents will do well to stop him earlier.
Federer is, of course, the master of all the shots in the tennis armoury. Depend on him to produce a series of aces when in trouble. His only weakness is his unforced errors running into double digits. He has not won a Grand Slam since the Australian Open 2010. Fortunately, he has gained his form after a patchy period of two years. He won the title at Madrid. His record of maximum Grand Slam championships at 16 is yet to be broken.
Andy Murray seems to be peaking in his career. He has now the advantage of Ivan Lendl, three-time French Open champion, as his coach. The only problem is his nerves at the crucial moment. Like his distinguished British predecessor, Tim Henman, he is the perennial best man, never the bridegroom. His performance in the current clay season has, however, been below par due to a back problem. I expect either Berdych or Raonic to break into the quartet, referred to earlier, replacing Murray. The result of Rome Masters, the last clay court event before Roland Garros, is a good predictor for the French Open. In eight instances, one of the finalists of the last 12 championships (2000-11) at Rome became the title holder at Roland Garros. So the probability of getting the trophy at Roland Garros favours either Nadal, the winner at Rome this year, or Djokovic, the runner-up. The odds are in favour of Djokovic for reasons of motivation. Nadal holds an 18-14 career edge over the Serb.
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On the women’s side, the competition is marked by depth. The last five Grand Slam events produced a different champion each. Victoria Azarenka, world Number 1, has had an injury. Kim Clijsters has announced that she won’t be present in Roland Garros. Li Na, the defending champion, has been in good form. However, she lost to Maria Sharapova at WTA Rome Masters final. One notable recent victory was that of Serena Williams in Madrid after returning from a long lay-off due to injuries. She, Li Na and Sharapova are leading contenders for the title.
One hopes that either Leander Paes or Mahesh Bhupathi will move into the finals in Men’s Doubles or Mixed Doubles with their new partners. It is unfortunate that India does not have any world-class player except for these ageing gentlemen. How many great champions has Serbia, a small country with a population of about seven million, produced in the recent years despite the absence of facilities for tennis development! Two out of the top 10 men, including the Number 1 Djokovic and the Number 8 Tipsarevic, are from Serbia. Once Ana Ivanovic, the 2008 French Open champion, said that she used to practise tennis on a dry swimming pool in Serbia!
The author is a Mumbai-based economic consultant and writes on sports, music and economics