PARIS—This year’s men’s event at Roland Garros feels like the culmination of seven clay-court seasons past. Not the culmination, perhaps, but a peak moment nonetheless. Since spring 2005, when Rafael Nadal emerged to challenge Roger Federer, what was once a relatively sleepy two-month stretch has been transformed into the most tension-filled part of the year. A former dirtballers' paradise, the clay swing is now the time when the tour’s top-ranked players—first Nadal and Federer, today Nadal and Novak Djokovic—chase each other around Europe jockeying for position in Paris. Maybe it’s the eight weeks of staring at blazing red clay that puts everyone on edge, or maybe it’s the suspense of seeing whether anyone can finally knock off the much-loved and much-hated Nadal, but everything comes to a head at Roland Garros. By comparison, Wimbledon feels like a green meadow of calm after the storm has passed.
The 2012 French Open, where two of the best players of this generation have a chance to make history, could be the most vicious yet. Nadal is after a men’s-record seventh title, which would break his tie with Bjorn Borg, while Djokovic is trying to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four majors at once. Beating Borg, matching Laver: That’s heady stuff.
The draw is out. Let’s see who has a better chance of making their history happen, and who might stand in the way.
Djokovic comes in as the No. 1 player in the world, but also something of a question mark. For the most part, he’s been winning. He beat Roger Federer in Rome and has reached the finals of two of the three clay events he’s entered. On the other hand, he’s lost to Nadal in both of those finals in straight sets. What may be more worrying is that the second of those matches, in Rome, looked a lot like the old, pre-2011 matches between Rafa and Nole. The Serb pounded and pounded but couldn't quite finish the job, and he lost his cool along the way. That’s exactly what he wasn’t doing last season.
Still, Djokovic claims that he’s just a few small adjustments away from being in top form for Paris, and when it comes to the majors, you have to believe him: He hasn’t lost at one since last year’s French Open, which only makes winning this one that much more of a priority for him. He may even get a chance to exact a little revenge along the way, because the man who beat him in ’11, Roger Federer, is in his half. Before that, though, Djokovic needs to win five matches. He’ll start with 30-year-old Italian clay specialist Potito Starace, and could get another aging grinder, Lleyton Hewitt, in the second round—they had a tussle in Melbourne, but Hewitt has been injured since and has never loved the dirt. Jurgen Melzer, who upset Djokovic here in 2010, could come after that.
The second-highest seed in this section is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who isn’t exactly brimming with confidence, for himself or his nation. He says that no Frenchman will win this event as long as it’s played on red clay. Tsonga has mostly backed up his pessimistic words, both at Roland Garros in the past and on dirt this spring. He lost to one player in his section, Gilles Simon, in Monte Carlo, and another, Stan Wawrinka, in Paris last year.
Sleeper: Fernando Verdasco. He beat Nadal in Madrid, can slug with anyone, and has five career wins over Djokovic
First-round match to watch: Simon vs. Ryan Harrison. They played an entertaining three-setter in Indian Wells this year
Good story worth beating into the ground: Brian Baker, America's comeback kid, plays Xavier Malisse in the first round
Minor upset alert: Thomaz Bellucci over No. 28 seed Viktor Troicki
Federer just lost to Djokovic in Rome, but he’ll likely be happier to see the Serb in his half than Nadal. It’s hard to know exactly what Federer’s form will be like—he won in Madrid on a faster clay court than he’ll see here, and he beat everyone he’s supposed to beat in Rome. But in his biggest test, against Djokovic, he was off. Federer said he was worn down after nine two-out-of-three-set matches in 11 days; how will a string of three-out-of-five setters affect him?
The draw gods could have been easier on him. He opens with Tobias Kamke, then could get the eternally not-as-good-as-advertised David Nalbandian after that. Andy Roddick, who beat Federer in Miami, is nearby, though he’s mostly looking for match practice for the rest of the year. It’s the other side of this section that’s scarier. Both Tomas Berdych, who has been playing some of the best tennis of his career, and Juan Martin del Potro, who has generally been very good this spring, are here. Berdych, who beat del Potro in two tiebreakers in Madrid, is the biggest and most dangerous question mark. He very nearly beat Federer in the final there, and gave Nadal all he could handle in Rome. Could Berdych be up to taking it a step farther in Paris? He has a quarterfinal win at a Slam over Federer, at Wimbledon two years ago.
Still with us: Arnaud Clement, Juan Carlos Ferrero
First-round match to watch: Del Potro vs. wily dirtball veteran Albert Montanes
Andy Murray, a loser before the semis in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, hasn’t exactly been on his game. He’s also been given a high hill to scale if he wants to make Roland Garros his first Slam win: David Ferrer is in his quarter, and Nadal, as he has been so many times in the past, is in his half.
Clay was kind to Murray last year; he made the semifinals here. In 2012, he’s struggled to be more aggressive while maintaining his consistency—mostly, he's been neither—and was beaten by big hitters Berdych and Raonic in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, respectively. More important for his immediate future, he lost a marathon to Richard Gasquet in Rome—he might find Gasquet waiting for him in the fourth round in Paris. Before that, Murray, who is coming off a back injury, could also get Bernard Tomic in the third. The young Aussie has done a fair amount of work on dirt over the last six weeks.
More menacing is the thought of Ferrer in the quarters. The Second Spaniard had beaten everyone but the First Spaniard, Nadal, in his last two events, and he’s been given a workable draw here. Ferrer opens with Lukas Lacko, and No. 27 Mikhail Youzhny is the nearest seed. This section also includes two highly unpredictable, and very different, potential draw busters: John Isner, who is on Ferrer’s side; and Alexandr Dolgopolov, who is on Murray’s. Neither has had a break-out spring, but they possess unique talents to frustrate opponents.
First-round match to watch: Dolgopolov vs. Stakhovsky
First-round match for Colombians to watch: Falla vs. Giraldo
First-round match to watch, and potentially cringe at: Donald Young vs. Grigor Dimitrov
Old school Nadal killers: Blake vs. Youzhny
Curious to see: Tomic
Federer has already come out and said that there’s no question Nadal is the favorite for this tournament, and he’s right. There’s no compelling reason to think that the six-time winner will lose to anyone; even the one man to beat him in a three-of-five-set match on clay in his career, Robin Soderling, has pulled out. Nadal, for the moment, has put his troubles behind him. Shaky knees, blue clay blues, Novak as Nemesis: They’ve all been conquered this spring. On top of that, his draw is highly tolerable. Nadal opens with Simone Bolelli, then gets the winner of Kunitsyn and Istomin—the latter did give Rafa a good run at the U.S. Open two years ago. After that, though, two big servers do loom: Raonic and Karlovic are both on Nadal’s side of this quarter. Rafa hates playing Dr. Ivo, the man he calls the Lottery.
The good news for Nadal is that the next highest seed in his quarter is Janko Tipsarevic. He’s never lost a set to Tipsy, and just beat him in Barcelona 2 and 2. The third-highest seed is Nicolas Almagro, who has also never beaten Nadal.
Nadal’s biggest challenge remains Djokovic. Despite his two wins over Novak this spring, Djokovic can still control the rallies against Rafa, and still put the match on his racquet. The upside for the Spaniard is psychological; he seems much calmer and more confident against Djokovic these days, as if the fear that gripped him in their matches has finally passed. As I wrote above, this tournament feels like a peak moment for this clay-court era, and it would only be fitting if Nadal ended it on top again.
First-round match to watch: Tipsarevic vs. Querrey
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Federer; Nadal d. Ferrer
Final: Nadal d. Djokovic