The Roland Garros men’s draw is out. Here’s the top quarter of the draw, featuring Rafael Nadal. Click on the other three quarters of the draw to pop them up on your computer.
Here are five initial impressions of the draw. This year, the draw is newsworthy precisely because… well… no fan base of a top-four player is particularly angry about it. That, in itself, rates as a big upset, and one wonders if we’re going to see a lot more upsets in the coming weeks.
5 – ANDY MURRAY SHOULD ACTUALLY MAKE THE QUARTERFINALS (!)
The word “should” is an oppressor.
Human beings know this: When the expectations crammed into “should” do not become actualized past-tense realities, the spirit suffers. The human organism feels acute pain.
Yet, what other conclusion can one reach after looking at Andy Murray’s draw?
A relative non-factor on tour for several months due to injuries and/or rust, Murray — who gave Rafael Nadal a strong test in the Rome quarterfinals before falling 7-5 in the third set — has been given a path filled with hope in Paris. A first-rounder with Andrey Golubev is no piece of cake. Yet, “main-tour Golubev” is a far more feeble creature compared to “Davis Cup Golubev,” who defeated Stan Wawrinka on indoor clay in early April as a member of Kazakhstan’s Davis Cup squad. If Murray gets past that test, the only other imposing match for him before the quarterfinals is a possible third-rounder against Philipp Kohlschreiber, a noticeably talented but always erratic performer whose penchant for playing no more than 1.5 strong sets in a best-of-five match is well established… except when John Isner is the opponent.
The other seeded players in Murray’s section of the draw are either injured (Richard Gasquet) or immersed in a tailspin (Fernando Verdasco), meaning that if Murray gets out of the third round, he should move through the fourth round as well.
Sure, a quarterfinal is not a career-transforming event for Murray, but it’s worth stopping yourself and asking: “Did I ever imagine two or three months ago that Murray would be more likely than not to make the quarterfinals of Roland Garros this year?”
If you did imagine just such a scenario in March, you should be a professional gambler in Las Vegas, and you’ve probably chosen the wrong line of work for yourself.
4 – TSONGA TSHOULD HAVE A TSAY IN MEN’S TSINGLES
Three particularly intriguing players exist in the 5-through-13 seed range at this tournament: Grigor Dimitrov at 11, Kei Nishikori at 9, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at 13. Dimitrov might have the best mixture of health and form right now, but David Ferrer on clay in the quarterfinals is a brutal draw for the Bulgarian. Nishikori had been the ascendant player on the ATP Tour until an injury stopped him cold in the Madrid final against Nadal. It’s hard to demand or expect a certain level of performance from Nishikori in Paris, simply because his health is such a question mark.
This leaves Tsonga, who has done nothing of note during the clay-court season, but has reached the quarterfinals or better in each of his past two Roland Garros appearances. Tsonga roared to the semifinals last year, authoritatively smacking Roger Federer in straight sets in the quarters. A year earlier, he had multiple match points against Novak Djokovic in the quarters, but the Serbian superstar persevered and found a way to escape with a five-set win.
Tsonga, as average as he’s been to this point in the tennis season, has a great path through the first three rounds. The other seeded player in his pod of eight players, 22nd-rated Jerzy Janowicz, is likely to get knocked off in one of the first two rounds. Tsonga should get another date with Djokovic, this time in the round of 16. Though Djokovic would be the clear favorite in such an encounter, Tsonga would possess the proverbial puncher’s chance, especially on home soil.
3 – CAN STAN STAND THE HEAT?
Kei Nishikori has been the breakout star of the ATP’s clay-court season, but among the top-tier players in the sport, no man has risen higher since September than Stan Wawrinka. He made his first major semifinal at the 2013 U.S. Open. He then won the Australian Open and leveraged that massive points pickup into the No. 3 seed in Paris, his highest seeding at a major. When you’re seeded third, you figure to get a comparatively favorable draw, and you expect to make the semifinals. Wawrinka’s draw is exactly what a third seed is supposed to promise. The other seeded players in his section are either injured (Gael Monfils at 23), certifiably loony (No. 14 seed Fabio Fognini), or not that good on clay (Feliciano Lopez at 26).
With Andy Murray — a player with underwhelming clay-court credentials — as his possible seeded opponent in the quarterfinals, Wawrinka should be favored to make the semifinals and face Rafael Nadal. Given the fact that Nadal suffered an injury against Wawrinka in the Australian Open final, the global tennis community would love to see the reigning Roland Garros champion take on 2014’s first major champion on Friday, June 6. A full-scale battle without injury concerns would enable Wawrinka to test himself… and Nadal to gain revenge. Next to a Nadal-Djokovic final, a Nadal-Wawrinka semifinal would rate as the second-biggest possible attraction on the ATP side of the divide in Paris.
If Wawrinka is ready to handle the pressure of being a true target at a major for the first time in his career, that semifinal showdown will come to pass.
2 – IT ALL WORKS OUT FOR RAFA… IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
Beneath its surface, the career of Rafael Nadal is endlessly complex and fascinating. It is impossible to fully express how well the Mallorcan competes and accesses the deepest inner wells of motivation, these sources of inspiration 99 percent of other athletes aren’t even aware of.
Yet, on the surface, the reality is plain: Rafael Nadal loves to work his way through tournaments. He likes to suffer on the court. It is what his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, has instilled into his bones and marrow.
If you’ve paid attention to the past few French Opens, you are especially aware of Nadal’s rhythms and methods: Spending a lot of time on court in the first week of Roland Garros should leave most players spent for the second week, unable to call forth more resources. For Rafa, though, long battles only sharpen his competitive instincts and build up his belief. His escapes against the likes of John Isner and Daniel Brands did not deter him from conquering Paris and Court Philippe Chatrier. That which does not kill Nadal only makes him stronger.
At this year’s tournament, Nadal might not be pushed much in the opening rounds, but when he gets to the quarterfinals and semifinals, he will be made to work for his Roland Garros title. David Ferrer is his likely quarterfinal opponent, and though Nadal will be favored, that match has “7-6, 5-7, 7-5, 6-4, in four hours” written all over it. Stan Wawrinka — the new and improved version — has a very good chance of keeping Nadal on court for at least three hours in a would-be semifinal. Those are not “easy-peasy, quick and breezy” matches for Nadal, not by any stretch of the imagination.
They’re probably just what Nadal needs in advance of a possible final against Novak Djokovic, who is seeking to complete a career Grand Slam in the City of Light.
The draw works out for Rafa… because Rafa will be made to work out. It’s exactly what he likes.
1 – ANXIOUSLY INTRIGUING FOR THE UNDERLINGS, BLESSEDLY BLAND FOR THE BEHEMOTHS
The biggest takeaway from the men’s draw is, oddly, how little there is to take away from it.
In other words, there’s no real bombshell of a story in this draw.
None of the top four seeds received an overwhelmingly difficult draw. There’s no match in the first three rounds which should severely threaten any of the top four seeds (Nadal, Djokovic, Wawrinka, and Roger Federer). Djokovic and Nadal could get pushed in the fourth round by Tsonga and (for Nadal) Nicolas Almagro, but they’re going to be heavy — not modest — favorites in those matches.
The quarterfinal draws don’t leave a lot to the imagination. Nadal is paired with Ferrer, while Djokovic is in the same quarter as Milos Raonic (who is not likely to reach the quarters, given his lack of clay-court chops). You’ve already seen that Wawrinka and Murray are in the same quarter. This leaves us with the most intriguing potential quarterfinal, a matchup between Federer and personal nemesis Tomas Berdych, who rarely if ever gives the Swiss an easy stroll.
Imagine how different the draw could have been, though: It would have been interesting this year to see Ferrer meet Federer at Roland Garros for the first time, giving Ferrer a chance to win his first match against the new father of four. Tsonga versus Nadal at Roland Garros could have been last year’s final, but Ferrer thwarted Tsonga in the semis. Seeing a Tsonga-Nadal match in Paris would be quite a scene, but those two players didn’t land in the same quarter or section. A possible Ferrer-Wawrinka quarterfinal — if the draw had broken differently — would have been a showcase matchup. Federer and Murray meeting at Roland Garros for the first time would have been spicy as well.
All in all, the draw we have — not the draw which might have been — is bland in the upper reaches of the bracket.
This tournament is more fascinating in the early rounds, where unseeded players and dangerous floaters could either soar or crash out:
The winner of a Lleyton Hewitt-Carlos Berlocq first-round match could very well collect a fourth-round paycheck, given the draw in that section of the bracket.
Julien Benneteau and Ernests Gulbis could produce the best second-round match at Roland Garros.
A possible third-round match between Berdych and rapidly improving Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut has “popcorn” written all over it.
If you’re going to follow the first week of the Roland Garros men’s tournament, watch the non-superstars — that’s where you’re likely to see tennis theater at its finest. The top dogs should move through the first week without much of a problem, setting up heavyweight matchups on Friday, June 6, and Sunday, June 8.