The French Championships were opened to foreign entries in 1925 and became one of tennis's four Slam tournaments when that expression was later introduced. In 1968 Garros became the first Slam to admit professional players. (Veteran pros Rosewall and Laver met in the final, Rosewall winning.)
Garros has always been played on clay and is universally regarded the world's championship event on that surface. Bjorn Borg leads in having won the men's singles crown six times, four times consecutively. If the odds-on favorite, Rafael Nadal, becomes the 2008 champion, it will be his fourth triumph, all consecutive. The facility sits amid magnificent woodland and gardens.
The recent news of Justine Henin's retirement from pro tennis bewildered the sporting world. Had she won Garros 08, she would have become the first female player to win four times consecutively. Her departure considerably affects the outlook for the tournament.
When the European clay season began several weeks ago, six women stood out as the leading candidates for high honors. But only one of the six primes would achieve significant success at the ensuing Tier One tournaments in Berlin and Rome. Henin lost her second match at Berlin before announcing her retirement. Withdrawing during Rome were Serena Williams with back trouble and Maria Sharapova with a leg injury. Both Ana Ivanovic and Svetlana Kuznetsova failed to attain their seeded level at either event. The only achiever of our prime group was Jelena Jankovic, who won the tournament in Rome although without without having to face any of our other primes. Several other players entered our group of elite contenders for Garros.
Enroute to their Sunday showdown, both unexpected finalists in Berlin scored victories over two members of our prime six. We therefore add both Elena Dementieva and Dinara Safina to our top group.
Athletic Elena Dementieva always provides interesting matches as she struggles to overcome her chronic serving weakness. At Berlin her excellent mobility and power stroking carried her past Jankovic and through a semi-final meeting with Ivanovic. On the latter occasion Ivanovic was clearly the stronger-serving and probably the stronger-stroking player, but Elena too played with good aggressiveness meanwhile proving superior in holding down unforced errors. Dementieva won in straight sets.
Unexpected results were also happening in the other half of the draw, where Dinara Safina, 22, in turn defeated Justine Henin, Serena Williams, and power-hitting, teen-aged Viktoria Azarenka. Throughout her unexpected run, Safina showed potent and well-controlled ground strokes, delivered with excellent topspin and good avoidance of error. She looked slimmed down from past years, and there seemed no indication of weakness in her court coverage.
In their final-round meeting, May 11, Dementieva took the first set, showing remarkable ability to answer Dinara's heavy rocketry with ferocious replies of her own, especially from her own backhand side. Elena's solid play appeared to cause Dinara to strike too aggressively, producing errors. But after the first set, Dinara gradually reduced her mistakes, meanwhile maintaining her firm stroking and adding a dose of amazingly accurate drop shots. Safina's edge steadily increased in the late stages. Safina d. Dementieva 36 62 62.
Neither Safina nor Dementieva competed the following week at Rome, but our other five primes (without newly retired Henin) were on hand. Also present was Venus Williams.
Venus faced Jelena Jankovic in an attractive quarter-final. Venus as expected showed her superior power serving and stroking, but Jelena's strong defensive skills and the clay surface removed some of the sting from Venus's rocketry. Too often a rally ended with an error by Venus, as the American refused to temporize, realizing that Jelena would usually prevail if a point lasted very long. Answering with variety in placement and pace, Jelena kept matters close, and after losing the first set Jelena's steadiness and control turned matters in her favor. Venus's continuing errors spoiled her persisting attacks.
The women's final on May 18 pitted Jankovic, the defending champion, against 18-year-old Alize Cornet. Jankovic early-on showed that her own defensive strengths were superior to the offensive weaponry of the French youth. Meanwhile Alize's errors allowed Jelena a comfortable pattern, playing with consistency while applying only enough pressure to hinder Alize's attacking. Early in the second set Alize raised her game behind some error-free aggressiveness. But whereas the day before Alize had come from far behind to defeat Chakvetadze, now Jelena refused to contribute the many errors that had helped Cornet the previous day. Alize is smallish, moves well, and strikes the backhand two-hander cleanly and with good disguise, though she appeared more easily winded than Jelena. Jankovic d. Cornet 62 62.
We add to our elite list Venus Williams, who at Rome was the only player to win a set from Jankovic and also defeated a recently on-form Zvonareva.
PREDICTING GARROS 08
Here are what seem appropriate odds for the winning of Garros by each of our primes.
Serena Williams, 2.5-1 (i.e., 5-2)
Dinara Safina, 5-1
Maria Sharapova, 5-1
Jelena Jankovic, 8-1
Anna Ivanovic, 8-1
Elena Dementieva, 40-1
Venus Williams, 40-1
Svetlana Kuznetsova, 40-1
All members of our second tier, which includes starlets Cornet, Azarenka, and Pironkova, show odds of 60-1 or longer.
The leading members of this quarter are listed here in order of official seed: Sharapova, Dementieva, Zvonareva, Safina, Kirilenko.
Of the seven members of our final prime list, three are in this Russkaya-dominated quarter. Maria Sharapova, in the tournament's top-seeded position, and Berlin-winner Dinara Safina are both in the upper half of the quarter, slated to meet in a delicious third-rounder. In head-to-head play between the two, Maria has the narrow edge, but Dinara won their last encounter on clay-- their three-setter at Garros two years ago. Maria's early performance and then withdrawal at Rome weaken her credentials here such that, in my opinion, the probable winner is Safina.
The lower half of the quarter is led by Elena Dementieva, who should survive an interesting third-round meeting with resurgent Vera Zvonareva, yet another Russian. If Dementieva and Safina indeed meet in the tournament quarter-finals, the match-up will repeat the final round at Berlin, where Safina won in three sets. Safina.
Kuznetsova, Chakvetadze, Szavey, Azarenka, Peer, Schiavone, Petrova.
Svetlana Kuznetsova could scarcely have asked for a better draw, where her path to the quarters is threatened mainly by young Azarenka, whose upward advance includes a win over Chakvetadze in Berlin but who has lost twice to Svetlana in the last year. Meanwhile between Chakvetadze and a berth in the quarters is unseeded Pironkova, who defeated Ivanovic at Rome and is probably more dangerous than slumping Peer.
Kuznetsova has shown consistent success through the middle rounds at Garros and was a finalist two years ago. Her strong game seems likely to dominate against either Chakvetadze or Pironkova. Kuznetsova.
Jankovic, V. Williams, Bartoli, Radwanska, Cornet, Mauresmo.
Jelena Jankovic mastered Alize Cornet in the final at Rome and should do so here enroute to the fourth round. In the opposite half, Venus Williams will have three early matches wherein to improve her patience before facing the survivor of French players Bartoli, Mauresmo, Dechy, and Parmentier. When Venus and Jankovic meet in the final round of this quarter, it should be even closer than in Jelena's three-set win at Rome. Jankovic.
Ivanovic, S. Williams, Schnyder, Vaidisova.
Despite her indifferent spring record, Ivanovic is too talented to slip in her half of this quarter, including against a fading Vaidisova in the fourth round. In the opposite half, there is little danger for Serena even if moderate physical problems arise. In the expected final round of this quarter, even though Serena and Ivanovic have never met on clay, if both are equally healthy a Serena win over Ivanovic is highly likely. Serena Williams.
SEMIS AND FINAL
Kuznetsova has the slight career edge over Safina and won their last two meetings on clay. But in her performance at Berlin, Dinara showed that she is now stronger than ever before. Convinced by the latter evidence, my choice here is Safina. In the other semi, the outcome between Jankovic and Serena depends largely on Williams. If she is close to her best, Serena's athleticism should dominate and prevail. Then in the final round Serena, who is a former Garros champion, having battled her way to this point, should assuredly find a way to triumph. Serena Williams.
Here are our top male candidates for Garros 08, identified and rated by our calculations. The calculated raw scores Sc are from each player's results over the last fourteen months, weighted in accord with historical evidence. (See Footnote 1.)
1. Nadal, Sc 5.66, odds 2-3 (odds-on)
2. Federer, 5.09, odds 5-2 (i.e., 2.5-1)
3. Djokovic, 4.36, odds 9-1
(odds for each player outside the Big Three are longer than 100-1)
4. Davydenko, 2.94
5. David Ferrer, 2.27
6. Nalbandian, 2.06
7. Robredo, 1.98
8. Ferrero, 1.86
9. Andreev, 1.81
The preeminence of our Big Three and also their rank order were strongly substantiated at the recent clay events in Barcelona, Rome, and Hamburg, seen on Tennis Channel.
Following his convincing victory over Federer at Monte Carlo the previous week, Rafael Nadal at Barcelona reaffirmed his credentials as world's best on clay. In a Saturday semi-final Rafa defeated Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, who had beaten Nalbandian earlier in the week. Wawrinka most of the way showed a consistent and powerful backhand one-hander. But Rafa's heavy, overspinning ground strokes ultimately took their toll amid a spell of forehand errors by Wawrinka.
In the final on May 4, David Ferrer was for one set helpless against Nadal's weaponry at its very best. But Ferrer answered well in their sizzling second set, stepping up his own forcefulness, playing extremely well in his occasional net forays and capturing the set behind a stretch of inside-out forehands to the sideline. But the glory ended in the third set for David, whose resistance faded against renewed forcefulness by the champ. Nadal d. Ferrer 61 46 61.
The scene shifted to the historic site at Foro Italico, the recent cast now joined by Federer, Roddick, and Djokovic. Federer won two matches but was then beaten in two tiebreak sets by Radek Stepanek, age 29, behind strong serving and persistent net-attacking by the veteran from Czech Republic. Net-attacking tactics were also prominent in Andy Roddick's three-set win over Tommy Robredo. Contrary to his usual style Andy came forward regularly, winning 38 of 55 points when at net. An upper-back or shoulder problem, however, caused Roddick to retire from his next match and then withdraw from both Hamburg and Garros.
Rafael Nadal's long run of success ended early in the week on a day of clouds, cool temperatures, and occasional drizzle. The weather meant that bounces were slower than otherwise during the week, diminishing the energy from Rafa's usually penetrating topspin. Meanwhile Juan Carlos Ferrero was able to take the initiative regularly, often employing relatively flat forcing shots and pushing Rafa to the corners. Little by little it was Rafa's shot-making that weakened, while Juan Carlos kept up his pressure, sometimes devouring softish offerings by Rafa. The first set's only break of serve came in the twelfth game, and another break came early in the second. Time was taken for re-wrapping the badly worn Nadal feet, but thereafter Rafa played ineffectively. Ferrero d. Nadal, 75 61.
The survivors for the final on May 11 were Djokovic and Wawrinka. The improving Swiss player took the first set behind outstanding backhand stroking and excellent all-around play amid many errors by Djokovic. But the Serbian youth then found his customary rock-solid serving and stroking, pressing Wawrinka with every strike. As Djokovic's errors became fewer, the scoreboard began to register his inexorable edge. At the end, the Serb player's dominance was obvious. Djokovic d. Wawrinka, 46 63 63.
The success of Stepanek and Roddick at net suggested that the courts at Rome were faster than usual. Player comments agreed with this generalization, as did the unusually high number of tiebreak sets during the tournament. (See Footnote 2.)
The venerable tournament in Hamburg is being dropped from the list of Masters Series events--a regrettable development for the future of big-time tennis on clay. This year's version produced more than its share of drama. A major overachiever was Nicolas Kiefer, now 30, whose strong serving and overall play in defeating Davydenko and Wawrinka served warning for opponents ahead. Another surprise was Andreas Seppi, 24, who defeated Gasquet, Monaco, and, narrowly, Kiefer.
Our three main protagonists advanced through the early rounds, although both Nadal and Djokovic encountered troubles. Rafa's first opponent, Potito Starace, height 6-4, at mid-match found a winning formula of his own--firm and aggressive stroking, well-executed drop shots, occasional net sorties, and rigid avoidance of error. Starace held a set point in the second-set tiebreaker but wasted it with a double fault. Two points later, it was Nadal celebrating an uneasy victory. Meanwhile Djokovic faced Ivo Karlovic, height 6-10. The Karlovic serve is the best in the men's game today, but the backhand of the soft-speaking Croatian is just as surely the worst. Still, Ivo has improved enough to threaten any opponent, even on clay where his serving, forehand, and net strengths would seem minimized. Ivo led by an early minibreak in the first-set-ending tiebreaker, but Djokovic managed to turn matters around.
Roger meanwhile advanced to the final over two fine warriors, Spain's Verdasco and Italy's Seppi, both of whom competed well. Verdasco's lefty serving and stroking proved slightly the more troublesome for Federer, who showed off his full clay-court arsenal.
The Djokovic-Nadal semi-final displayed ferocious, power-hitting tennis at its highest level of brilliance. Djokovic steadily pounded with full energy, taking the initiative at slightest opportunity. For long stretches there were no unforced errors by either player save for an occasional narrow miss in attacking. Both men were expert in delivering drop shots, and these often led to athletic, close-in exchanges. Djokovic's aggressive play yielded a remarkable total of 19 break-point opportunities against Nadal's serve. Many of these points were well contested by Djokovic, but the Serbian rising star won only four of them. The final difference was the Spanish player's spectacular court coverage, both in answering his opponent's excellent artillery and also in many cat-and-mouse exchanges close-in. Both men had the same number of winners, 31, but Djokovic counted many more unforced errors, mainly in attacking. Nadal d. Djokovic 75 26 62.
SHOWDOWN AT HAMBURG
In a reprise of the last two finals at Garros and perhaps also a preview of this year's, Federer and Nadal met in the final at Hamburg, May 18. The first two sets were bizarre in their flow. Federer started at his best, painting the lines frequently, finishing points at net with authority. Meanhile Nadal, as often happens, started out playing conservatively. Roger attacked with more determination than usual, winning five of the first six games, indeed reaching set point in game seven. Rafa survived that crisis but a few minutes later took a time-out because of upper-leg difficulties. When play resumed, Roger began playing conservatively, perhaps distracted by Rafa's leg problems. Now it was Rafa who was hitting more aggressively while Roger contributed a hard-to-believe run of errors. Rafa won six consective games and the set.
Rafa broke serve to start set two, but after that Roger rediscovered his early domination, again behind forceful play. But with Roger ahead in games, 5-2, Rafa again reawakened, reaching tiebreak game and achieving an early minibreak therein. With Roger's demise seemingly imminent, the pendulum again turned. Roger's forehand took command, sweeping aside Rafa's resistance amid blazing winners and precision drop shots.
The third set was less strange in its scripting, but the quality of tennis from both men was now at peak. Rafa broke ahead early and, amid countless intensely fought points, maintained his service-break advantage to the end. Roger held several break points in game seven but failed to convert. It was Rafa's eighth victory in nine clay-court meetings with Roger. Nadal d. Federer 75 67 63.
GARROS TOP QUARTER
Here are the leaders in this quarter, ranked by their raw scores in our prediction. Federer 5.09, Andreev 1.81, Gasquet 1.62, Monaco 1.51, Wawrinka 1.48, Gonzalez 1.31.
This quarter includes several very dangerous clay-courters. Our computations lift Andreev ahead of several players higher seeded here. But there is no-one having a serious chance of overcoming Sir Roger in this quarter.
Davydenko 2.95, Ferrer 2.27, Robredo 1.89, Ferrero 1.86, Hewitt 1.50, Stepanek 1.25, Ljubicic 1.13, Tsonga 1.02.
In losing his first match at Rome, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gave glimpse of the superb skills seen in Australia in January, including some precision drop-shot work. But there are too many clay-court veterans in the way for J-Wilfried here. Davydenko remains a narrow favorite over the others listed above, although any of them could challenge Nikolay severely.
Djokovic 4.36, Blake 1.69, Berdych 1.61, Moya 1.56, Baghdatis 1.30, Tipsarevic 1.23, Canas 1.17.
Novak Djokovic is strongly favored against any possible opponent here. Blake is miscast as a first-eight-seeded player on clay here, further enhancing Djokovic's dominance in this quarter.
Nadal 5.66, Nalbandian 2.06, Youzhny 1.56, Almagro 1.50, Verdasco 1.42, Murray 1.25.
Rafa is simply heads above the others listed here, especially in best-of-five-set competition, although any of them would be extremely dangerous to any opponent other than Nadal.
SEMIS AND FINAL
Federer, who seems to have overcome early-year weakness from illness, is the strong favorite against Davydenko in the semis. Nadal and Djokovic will reprise their Hamburg meeting, where the Serb star captured a set but weakened at the finish. Then in yet another final-round rendition of the Federer-Nadal series, the weight of Rafa's wondrous clay-court game must ultimately prevail. In four sets, most of them close, Nadal over Federer.
Every Slam is magnificent, a renewal of the timeless greatness of our sport. Garros 08 will be no exception. Good will to all.
Here are the weightings used for our Garros 08 prediction. The weights are drawn from the last eight years of correlations data linking results at Garros with preceding results at predictor events.
Monte Carlo, Rome, Hamburg 07, each 6.1%
Garros 07, 9.0%
Wimbledon 07, 1.3%
Canada, Cincinnati 07, each 3.3%
U.S. Open 07, 3.5%
Paris indoors, Madrid indoors, each 4.4%
Masters Cup 07, 6.0%
Australian Open 08, 4.3%
Indian Wells, Miami 08, each 5.4%
Monte Carlo, Rome, Hamburg 08, each 10.5%
Fast conditions are usually accompanied by a high frequency of sets ending in tiebreakers. At Rome 08, the percentage of tiebreak sets, 18.8%, was higher than seen at any other clay-court Masters Series or Slam tournament of the current century. See comparison below.
Rome 08, 18.8%
Rome 01-07, avg. 11.2%
Hamburg 01-08, avg. 10.8%
Monte Carlo 01-08, avg. 12.3%
Garros 01-07, avg. 13.0%
U.S. Open 01-07, avg. 16.0%
Wimbledon 01-07, avg. 19.9%