Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPN Tennis [Print without images]

Monday, May 17, 2010
Who will surprise us at Roland Garros?

By Ravi Ubha, ESPN.com



4. Who are the dark horses?



Given that Rafael Nadal is the overwhelming favorite to win the French Open, and Roger Federer is hands down the distant second favorite, any dark horses are more like dark, dark, dark horses. Before Rafa came along, the French Open was easily the most wide-open major.





There are a few dark horses out there, however, and two are fellow Spaniards. David Ferrer is enjoying a renaissance. Ferrer leads the circuit in clay-court victories this season, transferring his success from the Latin American swing to European dirt. Still one of the game's best returners, the aggressive baseliner with the wicked inside-out forehand is on the verge of returning to the top 10 following a two-year absence, which is impressive since he's one of the tour veterans at 28. How can you not like this attitude? Although Rafa sends a message to foes by sprinting to his side of the court as a match begins, Ferrer's boxer-like skip returning serve is pretty menacing. Ferrer showed his heart, again, in saving a match point with a gutsy stretch volley against Marcos Baghdatis in Madrid.

Nicolas Almagro accomplished a rare feat by taking a set off Rafa on clay this spring. Long an underachiever, Almagro possesses a huge serve and rips the ball from both sides. Negatives? There are a few: Almagro's court coverage isn't great, his return of serve on the second serve is predictable (more so on the backhand), and, crucially, unlike Ferrer, he remains shaky between the ears. Prior to Madrid, Almagro was having a dismal clay-court campaign. Reaching the semifinals or losing in the first round wouldn't be a surprise.

A tired John Isner managed to test Rafa in Madrid, and the baby-faced giant from North Carolina is growing in confidence with every tournament, clay included. Ernests Gulbis has matured under the guidance of coach Hernan Gumy (who has experience with jilted geniuses).

Santiago Giraldo might not even reach the second week, but the Colombian newcomer is a Nikolay Davydenko clone, taking the ball on the rise and hitting ultra flat. You won't see many better clay-court performances than Giraldo's against a rejuvenated Juan Carlos Ferrero in Rome. He was unlucky not to beat Isner in Madrid.

On the women's side, Madrid winner Aravane Rezai deserves more attention than first thought. (See question No. 10.) No one, perhaps, hits harder in the women's game than the Frenchwoman, as Jelena Jankovic can vouch for. Rezai's ball-striking against Jankovic in the Madrid quarterfinals wouldn't have looked out of place in the men's game. Spanish late-bloomer Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, whose style is completely different to Rezai's, won in Rome, although she got a fatigued Jankovic in the finale.