There are a half dozen or so women having reasonable chances to win the singles crown at Garros 09. As usual several Russkayas are among the leading candidates, including Kuznetsova, Dementieva, and a Sharapova just returned from injury. Also present will be the sisters Williams, who are always powerful and always unpredictable. Serena won the last two Slams amid intermittent leg and knee troubles, and Venus has contended well in 2009 to date. The surges of Serbian stars Ivanovic and Jankovic have abated during recent months but both claim strong credentials from earlier, Ivanovic having won Garros 08 and Jankovic having finished 2008 as world #1, though Ivanovic is nursing knee trouble. Recent arrivals in the top group are talented teenagers Wozniacki of Denmark and Azarenka of Belarus.
But the prime favorite is surely the world's current #1, Dinara Safina, recent champion of the Premium clay-court events at Rome and Madrid. At age 23 and height just under six feet, Dinara delivers a potent serving and ground game that is excellent in its placement and in avoidance of error given its forcefulness. One year ago she rose from the world's second ten to win the German Open and then defeat Sharapova, Dementieva, and Kuznetsova in reaching the final at Garros. Amid her subsequent rise to #1, her on-court temperament has been controlled, and she has often been able to produce her best play when most needed.
The memory of Australia 09 is hard to erase, however. In the first set of the final at that most-recent Slam, an off-form Dinara was utterly dominated by Serena Williams, who was playing at her devastating best. Dinara recovered slightly against a relaxing Serena thereafter, but the verdict was the same. It was about as conclusive an outcome as can be imagined.
Since then Serena has been held back by her injuries. She reached the final in Miami but, badly hobbled, lost in the final to Azarenka. Then her bids on clay at Rome and Madrid produced first-round losses, including a second-set injury retirement at Madrid. Assuredly, in the past Serena has defied pre-event expectations, magnificently, but it is hard to imagine that she is ready to do so again. Although she won Garros in 2002, clay remains the surface least favorable to her strengths.
Here are estimated odds for winning Garros 09, giving close but scarcely exclusive consideration to performances in the recent clay events.
S. Williams, 6-1
V. Williams, 12-1
Azarenka, Wozniacki, each 25-1
Mauresmo, Schnyder, 60-1
all others, 100-1 or longer
THE PRIMES AT ROME AND MADRID
The readiness of the candidates to compete at Garros was on recent display at Rome and Madrid. One semi-final at Rome pitted Safina against Venus Williams in a battle of heavy hitters. Venus won the first-set tiebreaker with a fine display of her superior athleticism. The points remained closely fought thereafter, but there were too many inopportune unforced errors by Venus. These allowed the Russian player to stay in contention and gradually find the range for her own artillery, which on this day was heavier and more effective than Venus's. Safina became able to take the initiative regularly, sometimes moving inside baseline to attack Venus's second serve. Dinara closed out matters in an extended tenth game in set three despite three double-faults.
In the other Rome semi, Svetlana Kuznetsova continued her current strong run, defeating Victoria Azarenka in straight sets. The right-handed teenager with the strong backhand, who had not lost a set in advancing, kept the points and games close. But Svetlana was driving her ground-strokes extremely well, and the Russian veteran, still just 23, closed out impressively at the finish.
The final on May 10 re-matched Kuznetsova and Safina, who had met in the previous week's final at Stuttgart, where Svetlana won behind an excellent attacking forehand. Now, at Rome, the two again exchanged heavy blows from back court with little temporizing by either. The day's deadliest weapon was Safina's attacking forehand, delivered with blistering pace and often with strong overspin, boldly directed and with excellent avoidance of error. Further separating the two were the many narrow, unforced errors by Kuznetsova.
The women's play at Madrid was less lustrous, overshadowed by the strong men's field there and dimmed by the early-round elimination of many of the female favorites. Safina reached the May 17 final without meeting a seeded player, and there defeated ninth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, 62 64. The score of the first set reflected an obvious difference between the two in serving and stroking power, Dinara exploiting her size and strength in her usual long- and high-backswing stroking. The second set was closely fought, the teenager raising her game nicely, but only after Safina collected what proved the set's only service break.
PREDICTIONS: TOP QUARTER
Extracted from the main draw made at Garros today, May 22, are the high-seeded players in each quarter. (Each player's seeded place is given.) Writer's privilege is invoked--i.e. the predicted winners defy the above-quoted odds in several cases.
Safina (1), Ivanovic (8), Azarenka (9), Zheng (15). Azarenka should defeat Ivanovic in the fourth round here. Victoria beat Safina at Indian Wells 09, but her 2009 record on European clay is incomparably poorer than Dinara's. The verdict here favoring Safina is unreserved.
V. Williams (3), Zvonareva (6), Petrova (11), Mauresmo (16). Venus's road is not easy, including meetings with Safarova or Lisicki in round two, dangerous Szavey in round three, Mauresmo in round four. After that, an unseeded Maria Sharapova lurks as possible opponent in the quarters. My guess is that Venus will not survive the course, and that the emergent winner from the quarter will be Mauresmo.
Dementieva (4), Jankovic (5), Wozniacki (10), Bartoli (13). There should be a marvelous fourth-rounder here pitting Jankovic and Wozniacki, followed by an equally marvelous quarter-final between the winner and Dementieva. Elena has been quiet of late, losing to Mauresmo at Madrid. Nevertheless, my pick here is Dementieva, a wonderful hitter and mover.
S. Williams (2), Kuznetsova (7), A. Radwanska (12), Pennetta (14). I learned long ago not to pay strong heed to Serena's pre-tournament disappointments. With good knees and legs, Serena's survival here would be unquestionable. But Kuznetsova's strong runs though the finals at Stuttgart and Rome (followed by a first-round loss Madrid the next week) convince me that she should prevail given Serena's obviously damaged underpinning. Kuznetsova.
Kuznetsova should defeat Dementieva in one semi, repeating the verdict at Stuttgart. Safina should beat Mauresmo in the other, where Amelie's small chances will improve given the expected home-nation crowd support. Then in the final, Safina should prevail over Kuznetsova, as happened in the final round at Rome. It will be the first Slam crown for the world's current #1.
The universally acknowledged favorite at Garros 09 will be Rafael Nadal, who continues to build a claim as greatest-ever artist on clay. Having won Garros the last four years and after sweeping this spring's events at Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome, Nadal seemed in a class by himself. That impression faded in Madrid, where Verdasco extended and Djokovic nearly defeated Rafa in emotional matches and where Federer found new aggressiveness in defeating Nadal in the final. Exposed at Madrid was a suggestion of Rafa's vulnerability.
We begin with a look at our numerical prediction, where Nadal stands far ahead in his chances for capturing Garros 09. The calculation is based on weighted performances in the foremost tournaments of 2008 and 2009. (The weights are derived from past data showing how well outcomes at various tournaments correlated with those at Garros.) About 64 percent of the overall weight is from clay-court events. Here are the leaders in their chances for winning Garros 09, listed by raw score Sc from our calculation along with odds for winning the tournament:
1. Nadal, Sc 6.70, odds 1-2 (odds on)
2. Djokovic, 4.06, odds 5-1
3. Federer, 4.03, odds 5.25-1
4. Murray, 3.08, odds 22-1
5. Wawrinka, 2.46, odds 87-1
6. Verdasco, 2.44, odds 92-1
7. Ferrer, 2.15, odds 217-1
8. Gonzalez, 1.92, odds 500-1
The top four in our prediction are also the generally agreed best players in today's pro tennis. They are also the four highest-seeded players at Garros 09, though the seeded order differs from ours. Thus each member of our Big Four was drawn atop one of the quarters of the draw and was thereby assured not to meet another member of the Four prior to the semis.
It is also interesting to look at 2009 clay-court achievement (measured here in ATP points, just after Madrid). The three leaders are the same as in our primary calculation, just above. But Andy Murray, our #4, slips behind several others, most of whom are from nations associated with clay-court tennis. Ahead of or even with Murray on clay in 2009 are the following: Robredo, Gonzalez, Verdasco, Monaco, Almagro, Wawrinka, Davydenko, del Potro, in that order. These make up a second group of stars--candidates having plausible chances for reaching a place in the Garros 09 final four.
In addition to Nadal, there are a strong group of clay-courters in this quarter. All can make the points and games interesting against Rafa, but the only serious threat for the champion is Verdasco. Fernando, however, according to our calculations, is not favored to defeat Wawrinka enroute. Here are some of the likely match-ups, where we rely exclusively on our calculated scores to predict the winners:
3r (third round): Verdasco (2.44) over Almagro (1.39)
3r: Wawrinka (2.46) over Davydenko (1.89)
3r: Ferrer (2.15) over Soderling (1.19)
4r: Nadal (6.70) over Ferrer (2.15)
4r: Wawrinka (2.46) over Verdasco (2.44)
qf: Nadal (6.70) over Wawrinka (2.46)
The draw gives Andy Murray the least difficult path to the tournament semis among our Big Four. Our model predicts that in this quarter Gonzalez will defeat higher-seeded Simon in their fourth-round meeting, again contradicting the official seedings.
3r: Gonzalez (1.92) over Safin (0.90)
4r: Gonzalez (1.92) over Simon (1.52)
qf: Murray (3.08) over Gonzalez (1.92)
Djokovic appears safe prior to the quarters, where the likely opponent is the rising del Potro. Djokovic's combination of power, movement, and consistency should prevail in a match-up that seems closer than our numbers indicate.
2r: Monaco (1.34) over Tsonga (1.09)
3r: del Potro (1.79) over Andreev (1.40)
4r: del Potro (1.79) over Monaco (1.34)
4r: Djokovic (4.06) over Robredo (1.89)
qf: Djokovic (4.06) over del Potro (1.79)
Roddick has a favorable draw for reaching the quarters, as Monfils has been out with injuries. Andy made things interesting in Madrid, but his chances against Roger at Garros seem remote.
4r: Roddick (1.69) over Monfils (1.36)
4r: Federer (4.03) over Blake (1.33)
qf: Federer (4.03) over Roddick (1.69)
THE BIG FOUR AT ROME AND MADRID
Performances of the Big Four at the recent events in Rome and Madrid help in understanding likely outcomes in the final weekend at Garros. Rome has long been a useful predictor of Garros. Conditions at Madrid 09, however, differed from those usually seen at German Open--the last Masters event prior to Garros in former years. The new Madrid site featured three arenas with retractable roofs, and these provided the settings for nearly all the matches involving the top players. The clay courts played fast, and they dried quickly after each watering, making for slippery footing and perhaps contributing to what seemed many bad bounces. The 2,000-foot elevation in Madrid contributed to the relatively fast playing conditions and the difficulties of players in controlling shots. The high and relatively close walls at the two smaller retractable-roof arenas gave a feel of tennis played indoors.
But there was plenty of excitement in the tennis. Three of the Big Four succeeded in reaching the semis at both Rome (ending May 3) and Madrid (ending May 17). Andy Murray failed in both cases, losing to Juan Monaco in the first round at Rome and to Juan Martin del Potro in the quarters at Madrid. Andy, who turned 22 during Madrid, was the less aggressive player against both opponents, and against del Potro he was outplayed most of the way amid his opponent's bolder and heavier stroking. Del Potro was typically seen rallying on baseline, in contrast to Murray's usual place six feet deeper. Also showing del Potro's aggressiveness was the Argentine player's three-fold lead in points won at net. Following his straight-set win over Murray, del Potro would lose to Federer in his next outing, but he came away from the week having shown strong evidence for doing well in Paris.
Prior to 2009 Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic had met surprisingly often, Rafa having won 10 of their 14 pro match-ups including all five on clay. Rafa won their first three meetings of 2009, all on clay including in the finals at Monte Carlo and Rome. The two again met in the semis at Madrid in another likely preview of a Garros final. Rafa had beaten a tenacious Verdasco the previous day, winning the first set but then falling behind by two breaks of serve before winning the second.
Now in Madrid, Djokovic won the first set from Rafa, serving and driving the ball powerfully, playing aggressively from back court almost without error and answering Nadal's forcing bids with excellent defensive movement, control, and power. Rafa remained in trouble through much of the second set as Djokovic continued to play close to perfection, with plenty of mustard on his deliveries. Meanwhile tape had been tightly applied to an area above Nadal's right knee. But Rafa managed to survive the second-set-ending tiebreaker, helped in two instances by a friendly net cord.
The third set produced superb play by both men as Djokovic repeatedly received trainer help for apparent onset of cramping. As the match-ending tiebreaker reached its climax, the now-frenzied crowd reacted wildly as the dazzling tennis rose ever higher. Three times, Nadal overcame adverse match points, in two cases after furious, extended exchanges ending in forehand strikes by Rafa. Meanwhile Djokovic fought off one match point, producing a remarkable drop-shot and passing-shot combination. But when facing his second adverse match point, the Serbian youth narrowly failed to return a near-ace from Nadal.
Although Novak was the loser, the day confirmed his readiness to defeat Rafa on clay. The Serbian star won more points than Rafa, more games, had higher serve-winning percentages, more aces, more winners, and fewer unforced errors. But Rafa claimed the victory by his winning of the two tiebreakers, both by the narrowest of margins.
It was not the same Rafa against Federer the next day for the championship. The fire and inspiration were absent, as if the stresses of recent months--multiplied in the previous day's four-hour fight with Djokovic--had put Rafa's best tennis now out of reach. Unforced errors from Rafa came in bunches, many of them net-dumps probably reflecting a tired body. Meanwhile Federer on this date rediscovered the aggressiveness that had been lacking through most of his 2009 play. Gone was the passive and overly patient stroker seen of late. Allowing Nadal little opportunity to attack, Roger unveiled the old forceful forehand, winning many quick-strike points directly off Rafa's serve return, meanwhile consistently pressuring the Nadal backhand into the deep corner. Roger finished with twice Rafa's total of winners, and his count of points when at net exceeded Rafa's by 18 to 2. There was one service break in each set, Rafa yielding the first with a spell of errors and Roger taking the second with some strong attacking. Nadal stirred the crowd briefly at the very end, but the rally soon faded amid some strong serving by Roger. Federer d. Nadal, 64 64.
PREDICTING THE GARROS FINISH
The fresh evidence from Rome and Madrid, in my opinion, confirm that the best hope of beating Nadal on clay lies in aggressive play. Both Djokovic and Federer served and stroked strongly against Rafa, and both attacked early in points, denying Rafa short and softish balls that he deals with ruthlessly.
Rafa's likely semi-final opponent at Garros is Murray. Andy showed good clay-court rallying skills this season, but he seemed not the attacker by inclination. Thus Rafa--presumably refreshed from the final weekend at Madrid--should have little trouble claiming the victory in this longer, best-of-five-set course. The other Garros semi should be closer, but the magnificent talent of Djokovic seen throughout the spring places him plainly, albeit only slightly according to our numbers, over Federer, even at Roger's attacking best. Djokovic should repeat his split-set win over Roger in the semis at Rome.
A breakthrough by Djokovic against Rafa on clay would seem not far off, and it could conceivably come in the Garros 09 final. But surely Novak was not the only one to learn from the four-hour marathon at Madrid, and surely Rafa too will be refreshed and at his best physically and emotionally. To succeed, Djokovic must rekindle the magnificent tennis he displayed at Madrid, and he must do so long enough to win three sets out of five. Our calculations argue, in my opinion correctly, that Rafa should claim his fifth-straight Garros crown.
Watchers should look for another great French Open, featuring extended rallies of breathtaking forcefulness in stroking answered by extreme athleticism in reply. With every exchange opponents will be seeking the optimum balance between patience and attack--risk and potential reward--in order to favor his own chances. Strong serving will be important, though less so than on faster surfaces. Spins, changes of pace, net approaching, and deception in shot-making will be at play, while some of the most exciting--and crucial--tennis will stem from drop shots and their ensuing exchanges. As the flow of each match develops, the mental elements may tilt back and forth. Producing ones best tennis and raising ones play at tight moments will decide.
Here are the weights used in our men's singles prediction for Garros 09. The weights were determined from correlations data across tournaments over the last nine years.
Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Hamburg 08, each 5.4%
Garros 08, 7.4%
Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Madrid 09, each 8.7%
clay total, 63.8%
Wimbledon 08, 2.8%
Canada, Cincinnati, Olympics 08, each 2.6%
U.S. Open 08, 3.5%
Paris indoor, Madrid indoor 08, 2.9%
Masters Cup 08, 3.7%
Australia 09, 3.8%
Indian Wells, Miami 09, each 4.4%
nonclay total, 36.2%
Conversion of calculated scores into odds for winning the tournament requires a calibration designed to reach overall probability of 1.0. Used here as calibration are 2-3 odds (odds-on) for Nadal's winning the tournament, estimated separately.
Here are the male leaders in clay-court points for 2009 to date, unofficially extracted here from ATP data immediately after Madrid 09. Several clay events will follow Garros 09 including a 500-Series event (the same as Barcelona) in July in Hamburg.
1. Nadal, 3,100
2. Djokovic, 1,810
3. Federer, 1,450
4. Robredo, 860
5. Gonzalez, 790
6. Verdasco, 630
7. Monaco, 600
8. Almagro, 590