We are a little less than a month away from the crowning the 2014 French Open champion, and for the first time in what seems like a lifetime the case can be made it’s a wide open field in Paris. That’s because the “King of Clay” himself, Rafael Nadal, continues to languish on his favorite surface.
Today, after getting gifted a Madrid title by the improving Kei Nishiori, Nadal was pushed again in his Rome opener by Gilles Simon before prevailing 7-6, 6-7, 6-2 in a 3-hour, 18-minute marathon of a match.
On hardcourts, Simon can and often does pose problems for the top players, but as a counter puncher on clay against someone like Nadal it shouldn’t be this tight of a match. But such is life these days for Rafa.
“The conditions were difficult, it was very cold and the ball didn’t bounce a lot,” said Nadal who has won the Fori Italico seven times. “It was a tough moment in the second set, but this was the first match on clay where I had to suffer, mentally and physically. I was not playing bad and I am happy to have dealt with that kind of anxiety.
“I look forward to playing the third set because these are the matches that give me more satisfaction, the ones that test you very deeply. I did it and I am very happy.”
Satisfaction? Getting broken not once but twice serving for the first set shouldn’t give anyone satisfaction.
Anyway, on to some thoughts.
1. Nadal’s Issues
Nadal is still trying to find that range that we saw from him last year when he returned from knee injury to dominate the tour. Nearing his 28th birthday and with his body more prone than ever to breakdown, we may never see that “peak” level from him again. To me, since his US Open win he just hasn’t been the same guy. The back injury suffered at the Australian certainly didn’t help any and maybe the long 2013 season which included that lucrative exo series really didn’t allow his body time to heal and recharge, and now he’s running on low gas.
Simply put, the confidence isn’t there, the depth of shot isn’t there and he doesn’t seem to be serving well, especially on the second, as he normally does.
And we are now in mid-May and Nadal has a total of TWO wins over top 10 players this season (Roger Federer in Australia and Tomas Berdych last week in Madrid). That’s well below where he should be.
Still, as I’ve said Rafa has the luxury of time with two weeks before the French and really almost three before he starts playing seeds there. And in Paris, it will be best-of-5 which will make it that much more difficult for anyone to author an upset over the 8-time champ. But more than ever, they rest of players have to finally be feeling some hope.
2. The Djokovic Wrist
Speaking of hope, Novak Djokovic has to be absolutely gripping over the timing of this right wrist problem. With Rafa reeling what a chance for the Serb to finally win in Paris. Oh but that wrist. He says it’s OK but is it really? This week will be a huge marker for where the wrist is. Any sign of issue and you can probably kiss his French Open chances goodbye.
In Paris the matches are much longer, the conditions – rain and cold – can be much heavier and those facts will escalate the odds of another flare up. Or is it 100% healed? I don’t know and he might not either, but that uncertainty has to weigh on his mind.
Djokovic also says tennis will take a backseat once the baby comes at the end of the year, so might that mean this is his last best chance to win the French?
3. Father Federer
One way to get out of diaper duty for a new father is to go back to work, and that’s what Roger Federer did this week by playing Rome. Unfortunately for Roger, a finalist in Rome last year, his “vacation” away from his four kids abruptly ended today by the cool hand of Jeremy Chardy who saved a matchpoint in a third set tiebreak win.
Kudos to Chardy for pulling out the remarkable pass down matchpoint and I thought Federer played well at times despite the breezy conditions, though in the end the errors caught up to him.
4. Outside The Big Three, Wawrinka Leads
For Paris I won’t put Andy Murray in the top tier of contenders, but the Scot joins a deep and growing “B” list of players who can do damage on the red brick of Roland Garros. Tomas Berdych has been playing well. So too has 2013 finalist David Ferrer, Grigor Dimitrov, Tommy Haas, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Ernests Gulbis, JW Tsonga and there are others who could sneak into the last eight.
The pack is of course lead by Stan Wawrinka who if he goes deep in Rome could rise up to the “A” level. Stan, however, has a very tough draw in Rome with Tommy Haas tomorrow, then potentially in order Berdych, Nadal and Djokovic. But the way he played in Monte Carlo and how he looked at the start of the season, navigating that treacherous road is what’s required if want to join the elite.
5. Sharapova’s Fight
Every time she gets down she gets back up to win. That’s been the MO for Maria Sharapova lately who was even down an early break today to Monica Puig before winning in straights. The Russian has won all 12 matches on clay this year with titles in Stuttgart and Madrid, and looks like a semifinal lock in Paris if and only if she and her No. 7 ranking can avoid her nemesis Serena in the quarters. Because despite all her success on clay, Maria’s doing it without beating Serena. And until she beats her main rival, all the numbers and title are nice, but we know who the boss really is. So I’d love to see the two meet this week in the Rome semis on Saturday.
6. Victoria Azarenka MIA
Remember her? Is she still playing tennis? The former No. 1 has played in one match (1st round loss to Lauren Davis at Indian Wells) since her Australian Open loss.
7. Murray’s Coaching Search
It’s been almost two months since Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl ended what was a very fruitful partnership. With Murray turning 27 tomorrow and with Wimbledon just around the corner, might there be a coaching announcement forthcoming?
As for tomorrow in Rome, it’s a very busy day with Nadal, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Sharapova and Serena all on center court.
THURSDAY ROME SCHEDULE
CENTRALE start 12:00 noon
ATP –  S Wawrinka (SUI) vs  T Haas (GER)
Not Before 2:00 pm
WTA –  A Ivanovic (SRB) vs  M Sharapova (RUS)
Not Before 4:00 pm
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  M Youzhny (RUS)
Not Before 7:30 pm
WTA –  S Williams (USA) vs V Lepchenko (USA)
Not Before 9:00 pm
ATP – P Kohlschreiber (GER) vs  N Djokovic (SRB)
GRANDSTAND start 11:00 am
WTA – S Stosur (AUS) vs  N Li (CHN)
Not Before 12:00 noon
 M Raonic (CAN) vs  J Tsonga (FRA)
[PR] J Melzer (AUT) vs  A Murray (GBR)
Not Before 4:00 pm
WTA –  J Jankovic (SRB) or S Kuznetsova (RUS) vs  F Pennetta (ITA)
Not Before 7:00 pm
ATP –  D Ferrer (ESP) vs E Gulbis (LAT)
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