The way things are shaping up in Rome, a lot of quality pros will spend less time during this next, quiet week kicking back and enjoying Paris than obsessing about whether to make those reservations for the Tour d’Argent on the early or late side.
In recent years, the major question heading into the French Open was, “Which poor ATP schmo is destined to get crushed in the final by Rafael Nadal this year?” But now, whether Nadal will survive to reach the final is as legitimate a query as wondering whether any French man or woman will last more than two rounds.
Nobody, but nobody, among the ATP or WTA elites seems destined to embark upon the second Grand Slam of the year with a full head of steam. Significant question marks hover like storm clouds over every one of them. Here’s the short version:
ATP No. 1 and French Open top seed Nadal: Even if Nadal wins in Rome, completing yet another set of back-to-back wins in Masters 1000 events (he won in Madrid last week), his form since the very start of the clay season has been, at best, ragged -- at least by the standard he himself set and maintained for years until this spring. Make no mistake: Those early Euroclay losses to David Ferrer (Monte Carlo) and Nicolas Almagro (Barcelona) have shaken him, and although Nadal is winning, he’s been struggling -- and providing infusions of hope to all his rivals.
WTA No. 1 Serena Williams is 32 years old and had to pull out of Madrid last week with a nagging thigh injury. Clay has never been her preferred surface, especially when it comes to the two-week grind of Roland Garros -- where she’s collected just two of her 17 Grand Slam titles. It’s never easy for Williams in Paris; it’s as simple as that.
ATP No. 2 Novak Djokovic made no secret of his main ambition for 2014, which is to win the French Open and complete his career Grand Slam. He got off to a rocky start this year but seemed to build momentum by winning the two U.S. hard-court Masters events.
Since then, though, he’s stalled -- partly because of a sore right wrist. He took a loss to Roger Federer in Monte Carlo and pulled out of Madrid to rest and rehab that right wrist. Just how that joint holds up to the stress of two weeks of five-set matches looms as a major question.
WTA No. 2 Li Na won this tournament a few years ago, and as the winner of the Australian Open, she’s the only woman who could complete a calendar-year Grand Slam. Whoa! Li has also been puzzlingly inconsistent. You just can’t count on her one way or the other.
ATP No. 3 Stan Wawrinka stepped up in Monte Carlo and launched his spring campaign with a big win in the final over Federer. Since then, though, he’s been upset in the first round of Madrid by emerging Austrian talent -- but still just No. 70 -- Dominic Thiem. He also lost in the third round at Rome to 36-year-old Tommy Haas. Well, nobody can say he won’t be well-rested for Paris anyway.
WTA No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska has had a lot of trouble finding her A-game in semis and finals lately. And No. 7 Maria Sharapova has become something of a nemesis, with straight-set wins over Radwanska in their two recent meetings on clay.
ATP No. 4 Federer is a new dad again, and his plan to get a few matches in before Paris went afoul in Rome, where he was upset in the second round (but his first match, thanks to a bye) by Frenchman Jeremy Chardy. But Federer did reach the final in Monte Carlo, and he has all the experience in the world. And everything at this stage in his career is gravy -- which basically means, “Who knows?”
WTA No. 4 Victoria Azarenka is entered in Roland Garros, but she hasn’t played because of a foot injury since the Indian Wells combined Premier event.
WTA No. 7 Maria Sharapova was generating a lot of buzz until this week thanks to that outstanding record on clay. Only Serena Williams had beaten her on the red stuff since 2011. However, Sharapova has been winning but struggling and relying on her grit and determination rather than her superior shot-making or strategy. It all caught up to her in Rome the other day, where she was beaten convincingly by another former French Open champ, Ana Ivanovic.
That loss will leave a bad taste in Sharapova’s mouth in the coming week, and her up-and-down nature lately suggests that she may have trouble playing consistent winning tennis over two weeks in Paris. But she’ll have this consolation in the coming days: Many of her fellow stars will be in a similar quagmire.