TENNIS: 2013 French Open preview

It was ‘G’day Australia!’ on January 14 and on May 26 it will be ‘Bonjour Paris!’

The 2013 French Open has the potential to ignite numerous compelling stories for the players and their careers. Can Rafael Nadal continue his unparalleled dominance on the French clay? Will Novak Djokovic get half way to an historic calendar year Grand Slam? Could Scotsman Andy Murray stop being a consistent bridesmaid and start being a consistent champion?

Roger Federer has been under the radar in some respects. After a demolition at the hands of Rafael Nadal at the Indian Wells Masters in March, he has been sidelined with a back injury which could be the reason for the Swiss Maestros absence at the first clay court Masters event of the year. Federer is expected to be back at the Madrid Masters as he has ranking points to defend, but will he be at his best?

Andy Murray, after winning his maiden Grand Slam at the US Open last year, has had a renewed confidence about him. Victory at the Miami Masters and a quarter-final appearance at Indian Wells saw him leapfrog Roger Federer and become the world number two. Unfortunately a disappointing result at the Monte Carlo Masters has seen him drop back to the number three ranking.

Murray on clay is not an inspiring combination. The 2012 US Open champion was a quarter-finalist at last year’s French Open and a semi-finalist the year before. With Ivan Lendl in his corner, who himself is a three time French Open winner, Murray’s game has gone to a new level. The Scotsman can and has easily accounted for lower ranked players but can falter as soon as he runs into Djokovic, Federer or Nadal. On any other surface it is simple to mount a case for Murray but the French clay may prove to be too much for the world number three.

Novak Djokovic is in red hot form and undoubtedly the favourite for the 2013 French Open. Djokovic has been able to win every other Grand Slam thanks to a few years of sheer dominance. He had the opportunity to hold all four Slams at the one time after making last year’s French Open final, but was denied by Nadal.

For Djokovic to win the French Open he must draw on his Monte Carlo victory and use it to motivate himself as Nadal would be seething. Murray is not comfortable on clay, Federer has a back injury that could reveal itself on the unpredictable surface and Nadal is coming off a long injury layoff. The world number one could set himself up for an historic year and will be hard to beat.

Rafael Nadal is a freak, in every sense of the word. His comeback is one the biggest stories in sport and in a month the entire tennis fraternity will see if Nadal can complete the fairytale return. Nadal’s recent results are astounding. He has made six finals in six tournaments and won four of them.

Nadal’s French Open chances has nothing to do with the surface as it is common knowledge that the Spaniard is the greatest clay court player in history. His chances come down to his match fitness and whether or not seven months on the sidelines will take a toll on the twenty-six year old. Nadal will also need a bit of luck to go his way. A David Ferrer, Thomas Berdych or Jo-Wilfred Tsonga could cause an upset on the opposite side of the draw and allow Nadal to pounce and take advantage. If the weather remains hot then Nadal will simply manipulate his opponent with his forehand. The hotter conditions enable Nadal to bounce the ball higher and thus making it increasingly difficult to rally.

The Swiss Maestro, Roger Federer, is coming off his own injury layoff. It is not as serious as Nadal’s but he has never really had a serious injury concern since his 2008 fight with mononucleosis. Federer is practicing less and spending more time with his young family which may be a positive factor in a sometimes stressful environment. Unfortunately as good as he is his incredible run of consecutive Grand Slam quarter-finals may in fact end at this year’s French Open. The reason is that fitness plays a vital role on unpredictable clay surface.

Federer will still go into the second Grand Slam of the year with an aura of invincibility that should carry him to the fourth round of the tournament. If he happens to run into a Tipsarevic, Seppi or Dimitrov do not be surprised if the Swiss ace is unable to match it with them.

Apart from the top four there are a host of challengers ready to ascend and disturb the current era of dominance. Grigor Dimitrov, the Bulgarian, has been touted as the next Roger Federer. An astonishing call to make about a talented, young individual. He recently lost a tough three set match against Nadal at the Monte Carlo Masters before leg cramps in the last couple of games cost him. In a couple of years Dimitrov will find himself at the business end of Grand Slams and possibly contesting finals.

Milos Raonic is one of the big improvers over the last few years. His impressive serving allows him to dominate matches as it puts perceived pressure on his opponent’s game. Although measured at six feet and five inches, the Canadian has remarkable court positioning for such a big man. Clay on the other hand is a different story and maybe the grass courts of Wimbledon would be a better fit.

Jo-Wilfred Tsonga always looks like he will blow a Grand Slam right open with his powerful groundstrokes and explosive athleticism. The Frenchman is not fazed but passionate about the concept of competing at his home Grand Slam. Ever since he defeated Federer at the 2010 Wimbledon championships, from two sets to love down, he has proven that he can match it with the top players when it matters. Could Tsonga prove to be the thorn in the foot of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Murray?

No matter who lifts the French Open crown this year it will be an intriguing encounter between an open field. Djokovic is the favourite and a fit Nadal is a very close second. The remaining lead up tournaments will prove to be an integral component for the upcoming Grand Slam and it cannot come fast enough. Based on current form, unless lady luck is on Nadal’s side, it seems this is Djokovic’s title to lose. Bonjour Paris!

Sean Munaweera is a Sport Journalism student at La Trobe University. Follow his in depth analysis on Tennis, AFL and other sports on Twitter: @sean_muna

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