Saturday, May 23, 2009

RG Men's Preview: Intrigue in Paris, or an Elaborate Fake-Out?

The general rule for quite a few years now has been that Rafa Nadal rules Roland Garros. It's probably still the case as he's set to begin to attempt to claim his fifth straight French title.

But is it really?

While he once again dominated the European clay season this year, his results against his two biggest challengers -- Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic -- at least leave the door open a tiny crack when it comes to ruminating on whether or not the Spaniard winning another slam title, and getting half-way to a Grand Slam, truly is a fait accompli.

Djokovic played Nadal as close as anyone could in their three clay meetings this spring. Or at least as close as a player could get without actually winning one of the matches. Djokovic went 0-3, but showed no fear and even held match points against Rafa in Madrid in that instantly classic semifinal. The day after that match, Federer took down Nadal in straight sets in the final, ending his 33-match clay winning streak and finally shutting down Nadal's personal five-match dominance over the newly-married/new-father Swiss Mister.

But did Federer's triumph in a match in which he played as perfectly as he USED to play have as much to do with Djokovic wearing down Nadal as it did with Federer himself? On the heels of the great Sports Illustrated article that detailed how Nadal overtook Federer not just mentally and emotionally, but also physically and technically, the win in Madrid had to feel like a full dinner plate to a starving man when it comes to Federer's psyche.

How much of his old swagger has been restored? Did his "ruining of the party" in Madrid serve to return the luster to his lost aura, at least in his OWN head...which might be the most important aspect of the victory as this rivalry marches forward?

In Paris, Nadal faces the possibility of facing the likes of David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Andy Murray en route to the final. But not Djokovic again. Would those men be enough to wear Nadal down enough again for Federer to have a shot at another clay victory? Will Federer, who might face Djokovic himself in the semis, even make it to the final?

A couple of weeks ago, the answers to those questions might have been simple. After Madrid, maybe not. There's at least a tiny SEED of doubt that Nadal's Paris mastery is destined to continue. And with Rafa riding a 28-0 career mark at Roland Garros, and a 43-0 one in best-of-five clay matches that's about all that the rest of the field can hope for.

**ROUND OF 16**
#1 Nadal d. #14 Ferrer
#8 Verdasco d. #17 Wawrinka
#3 Murray d. #18 Stepanek
#7 Simon d. #12 Gonzalez
#5 Del Potro d. #9 Tsonga
#4 Djokovic d. #16 Robredo
#11 Monfils d. #6 Roddick
#2 Federer d. #19 Berdych

... Roddick actually has a decent draw up until this point, and who knows if Monfils will be consistent enough to get this far. The American hasn't won a match in Paris since 2005, and has never reached the Round of 16... so it's a real reach to see him lasting even this long.

#1 Nadal d. #8 Verdasco
#3 Murray d. #7 Simon
#4 Djokovic d. #5 Del Potro
#2 Federer d. #11 Monfils

...of the Big Four, Murray's the most likely to be tripped up (maybe by Stepanek in the 4th Round?) on the red clay before reaching the semis. Hmmm, but there is the possibliy of Djokovic's fitness coming into question in a long match against someone like Del Potro.

#1 Nadal d. #3 Murray
#2 Federer d. #4 Djokovic's be easy to take Djokovic here, but if Madrid meant anything at all for Federer he'll find a way past the Serb and get another crack at Rafa.

#1 Nadal d. #2 Federer

...but that second crack probably won't matter. Beating Nadal in Madrid at the end of the regular ATP clay season before Roland Garros is one thing, doing it in Paris is another. Seven matches over two weeks shouldn't leave Nadal winded, let alone ready to be dethroned. Still, at least the result in Spain would make this matchup an intriguing one going in. Just hanging close might be enough to allow Federer's Madrid momentum/confidence to continue and carry him through London and into NYC with a shot at making history.

All for now.


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