Mutua Madrid Open

Rafael Nadal, eight times a winner at the French Open, usually rolls into Roland Garros holding a swath of clay-court titles and is, as the French like to refer to him, “the ogre of the ochre.”

Things are different this year, very different. He has played five events on clay and won only two, but that easily could have been none.

In Rio de Janeiro in February, he took the title but had to save two match points in the semi-finals before beating his compatriot Pablo Andujar 12-10 in a final set tiebreak. Earlier this month in the Madrid final, he defeated Kei Nishikori when the Japanese retired in the third set because of a back injury after clearly dominating almost all of the first two sets.

Nadal’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 loss to Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s Italian Open final won’t do his confidence any good heading to Paris. But the main thing in Nadal’s favour is those eight titles in his previous nine appearances – the only hiccup being 2009 when he lost to Robin Soderling in the round-of-16 bothered by a knee injury (that eventually kept him out of Wimbledon) and distracted by his parents’ separation.

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Even in 2011, when he lost both the Madrid and Rome finals to Djokovic, Nadal raised the ‘Coupe des Mousquetaires’ in the Court Philippe Chatrier on the final day.

So Nadal will bank on past success as he attempts to win a remarkable 9th Roland Garros title on June 8, two days after he turns 28.

As for Djokovic, he enters the French Open on an incredible high. Not only did he beat Nadal in the Rome final but he outclassed him 6-3, 6-3 seven weeks earlier in the Miami final on hard courts.

He has also survived in terms of his fitness. A wrist injury during the Monte Carlo Masters in April, which kept him out of the Masters 1000 in Madrid, appears to be a thing of the past.

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There has been much made of Djokovic’s superb tactics and execution against Nadal – and unquestionably his brilliant service returns and sensational ground strokes got the better of Nadal. But what was probably the most impressive was how he dealt with adversity.

After leading 2-0 and having two break points for a 3-0 lead in the final set, Djokovic soon found himself pegged back to 3-all as Nadal mounted an aggressive charge. Djokovic, after 2 hours and 45 minutes in the quarters against David Ferrer and three hours against Milos Raonic in the semi-finals (not to mention that he had not played in over three weeks heading into Rome), should have been tired and dispirited by not really getting on top of Nadal when he had the chance. But, in that moment before beginning the seventh game, his face betrayed no frustration or disappointment. He completely erased what had happened up to that moment in the set and focused on the vital final few games remaining in the match.

Young players would be wise to look at, and be inspired by, how well Djokovic re-composed himself. Over the last three games, he lost just five points and broke Nadal twice to win his sixth Masters title (counting the 2013 ATP World Tour Finals) in his last seven played – the only setback being the loss to Roger Federer in the Monte Carlo semi-finals when he was diminished by the wrist problem.

It’s all pretty heady stuff for the 27-year-old (as of Thursday) but winning the French Open remains a gigantic challenge for him.

Despite all his success since his sublime 2011 season – Australian, Wimbledon and US titles – he has only won two Grand Slams (the 2012-13 Australian Opens) out of his last nine.

And he desperately wants a Roland Garros to complete his career Grand Slam. The past three years he has been snake-bit in Paris – in 2011 he lost to Roger Federer in the semi-finals to end an incredible 41-match winning streak. In 2012 he lost to Nadal when rain forced postponement when he looked to finally be in the ascendency in the fourth set after losing the first two sets. In 2013 he led 4-3 in the fifth set against Nadal when he accidentally touched the net, ending a rally that would have given him a point for a 5-3 lead.

So, Djokovic must feel the Fates are against him at Roland Garros. It’s also worth noting that the weather in Rome for the final was mild and cloudy. On a hot, sunny day at Roland Garros, Nadal’s heavy topspin would be more lively off the court. And that’s the kind of conditions that Majorca-native Nadal loves, and the kind that sometimes can wear on Djokovic.

Ever since his superb 2011, the Serb also has had a tendency to lose first sets – as he did against Philipp Kohlschreiber, Raonic and Nadal in Rome. In six off his last seven losses at Grand Slams – Stan Wawrinka in the quarters at the 2014 Australian Open is the lone exception – Djokovic has lost the first set. He’s well aware of that fact but there’s no magic formula for getting off to better starts.

“Experience helped me stay calm and play the right shots at the right time,” he  said about overcoming Nadal in the Rome final.

He seems to think that the little something missing, since 2011, to put him over the hump at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open is Grand Slam champion stardust (a la Andy Murray–Ivan Lendl) in the person of Boris Becker.

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So far in 2013, Djokovic has not won a tournament with coach Becker present by himself. Longtime coach Marian Vajda (lower left above) has been the lucky charm – having been alone in Indian Wells and Miami and with Becker in Rome for his player’s three successes so far this year.

Djokovic has under-achieved at the Grand Slams since 2011 – winning a first Roland Garros title this year would go a long way to righting that situation.


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There’s no question the 2014 French Open title is hers to lose for Serena Williams.

Following her 6-3, 6-0 victory over Sara Errani in the Italian Open final on Sunday, Williams seems to be over her thigh injury and ready to defend her title at Roland Garros.

Based on the lead-up to the year’s second Grand Slam, and with Monday’s withdrawal of Victoria Azarenka due to an ongoing foot ailment, Williams and Maria Sharapova, winner in Stuttgart and Madrid this spring, are clearly the consensus main contenders.

Since Sharapova has not beaten Williams in almost 10 years, probably the only chance for a non-Williams champion is if Serena gets a little nervous and is pushed by a swinging-from-hips opponent in an early round. It happened two years ago against Virginie Razzano in the very first round.

The chances are also there for a member of the new generation in the 19 to 22 age range – led by Eugenie Bouchard – to go a long way.

But despite her dominance, Williams has only won two of the last five Grand Slams she has entered.

The 2014 French Open has a lot of significance for her – should she win she will join Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 on the all-time Grand Slam champions list.


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Milos Raonic has three wins against the so-called Big Four during his career, all of them over Andy Murray – in Barcelona and Tokyo in 2012 and in Indian Wells in March.

But it can be argued that his best performance ever against one the top quartet was his 6-7(5), 7-6(4), 6-3 loss in three hours to Novak Djokovic in the Italian Open semi-finals on Saturday.

Raonic was clearly the better player over the first two sets. He was remarkably consistent from the baseline – frequently dominating rallies with the world No. 2.

Two experienced coaches – Sébastien Grosjean and Roger Rasheed – were duly impressed by Raonic’s improved play (and firepower) from the backcourt.

And Raonic’s movement was probably the best it has ever been.

Needless to say, his serve was awesome – and Djokovic, the best serve returner in the business, had this to say afterward, “I can’t recall the last time I was feeling so helpless in the return games. It was brutal.”

So Raonic heads to Roland Garros off a strong performance, confident that he can play with the very best on clay.

Three-out-of-five sets will be more challenging for him but his impressive level of play in Rome – including wins over Simone Bolelli, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jeremy Chardy – will give him belief he can at least reach his seeding position of No. 8.

Let’s have a little fun here. Below is a list of the hardest and the easiest opponents he could face in the first round depending on Friday’s draw for Roland Garros. Quite frankly, on his current form, it was not easy coming up with players, outside the 32 seeds, who stand a realistic chance of upsetting him. But you never know about variables such as weather conditions and fitness. Here’s the list of potentially his hardest and easiest opening-round opponents:

Ivan Dodig (35) Filippo Volandri (97)
Federico Delbonis (45) Somdev Devvarman (93)
Carlos Berlocq (48) Victor Estrella Burgos (98)
Juan Monaco (54) Michael Russell (96)
Dominic Thiem (58) Donald Young (78)

Vasek Pospisil is also in the main draw, and will be seeded about No. 30. Unfortunately, the current world No. 31 is 0-7 in ATP and Challenger events since his back injury woes began in January and just winning a match in Paris would be a big boost for him.

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Eugenie Bouchard has had a disappointing beginning to her European clay-court season – going 2-3 at events in Oerias (Portugal), Madrid and Rome. But the losses – to Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Francesca Schiavone – have all been to players of an established pedigree.

Bouchard won her first match on Monday, 6-0, 6-3 over Barbora Zahlavova Strycova at the WTA low-level $250,000 (US) event in Nuremberg, Germany, and could potentially face a fascinating clash with fast-rising Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia in the semi-finals.

Bouchard is ranked No. 19 and so will have a seeding at the French Open of at least No. 18 after Monday’s withdrawal of world No. 5 Victoria Azarenka.

As with Raonic – here’s a list of the hardest and easiest opponents she might meet in her first round match:

Caroline Garcia (46) Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (107)
Elina Svitolina (38) Romina Oprandi (121)
Francesca Schiavone (53) Galina Voskoboeva (69)
Madison Keys (44) Shahar Peer (86)
Camila Giorgi (51) Monica Niculescu (75)

Sharon Fichman, No. 77, is also in the main draw, and will play in her second career Grand Slam after debuting at last year’s US Open


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Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic won their second Masters 1000 title in as many weeks when they defeated Robin Haase and Feliciano Lopez 6-4, 7-6(2) in the Italian Open doubles final on Sunday. The 2,000 (1,000 + 1,000) points earned the past two weeks is the equivalent of the number of points they would get for a Grand Slam victory.

After defeating the top-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan in the Madrid final two weeks ago, they again ousted the Bryans in Rome – 7-6(3), 4-6, [12-10] in the semifinals.

It was Nestor’s fourth title of the year – he started out the season with wins in Brisbane with Mariusz Fyrstenberg and Sydney with Zimonjic before losing in the Australian Open semi-finals with Zimonjic to Eric Butorac and Raven Klaasen to end a 10-match winning streak.

Nestor and Zimonjic have now won 27 titles together – and Nestor 85 overall.

Their success has moved them into the No. 2 spot behind the Bryans in this year’s ATP Race.

They have 3,290 points so far in 2014, which almost guarantees them a spot in the final eight for the year-end ATP World Tour Finals in London in November. Last year, the No. 8 team, Fyrstenberg and Marcin Matkowski, qualified with a total of 3,155 points.

The Nestor – Zimonjic reunion is certainly paying dividends, with Nestor already up to $482,000 in official prize money for 2014.

Here’s a Zimonjic tweet from Rome.

Partner stability with Zimonjic in 2014 contrasts sharply with Nestor’s dance card a year ago. In 2013, he finished No. 15 in the ATP Race final team standings with Robert Lindstedt, No. 43 with Leander Paes and No. 50 with both Vasek Pospisil and Mahesh Bhupathi. Diversity did not have its rewards.

Currently ranked No. 7 and 8 respectively in the ATP individual doubles rankings, it looks like Nestor and Zimonjic will be the No. 4 seeds at the French Open.

Here’s a fun Q&A with Nestor and Zimonjic from the ATP website.



Click here to get in the mood for a chauffeured ride to Roland Garros – especially if you’re a Novak Djokovic fan.

Andy Murray turned a youthful 27 last Thursday – to be joined this Thursday by Novak Djokovic. The picture here is of Murray on his birthday with a hardy band of scribblers from the British press.

A different, old-fashioned Genie Bouchard.

New Balance already has things underway for the Milos Raonic 2014 French Open publicity campaign. This picture is of a display window near the Marcel Sembat Metro station in Paris. It’s not far from Roland Garros.

NOTE: We will return with a blog on Friday from Paris after the draw is made on the last scheduled day of competition in the qualifying event.