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Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Molding French Open seeds for clay

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

'Tis the season for thinking about clay, not grass. But every year when the French Open seeding lists are released, the mind briefly wanders back to Wimbledon.

When seeding male players for the Wimbledon Championships, the All England Club uses a formula that gives players extra credit for their grass-court performances. It doesn't always yield perfect results, but does give the tournament a more customized seeding list than the year-round, all-surface world rankings.

So if Wimbledon can adjust its seeds for grass, why not the French Open for clay? The past couple of years have presented a strong argument for doing so, with Rafael Nadal entering the French Open as the No. 2 seed behind Roger Federer despite the Spaniard's clear superiority on clay.

Kamakshi Tandon

Nadal will finally get to take his rightful place at the top of the Roland Garros draw this year, having ascended to the No. 1 ranking last summer. While that discrepancy has disappeared, others persist further down. We take a look at what happens when the equivalent of Wimbledon's seeding formula is applied to the French Open.

(There are two things to note. One, changes in seeding that would affect where players end up in the draw. Two, the proportional points increase each player gets from the formula, which awards extra ranking points for clay results. A high percentage indicates they've been posting above-average results on the surface and could be dark horses in Paris.)

Men

Upward Movers

He's already at the top of the list, but Nadal's lead against the rest of the field would increase significantly under a seeding formula -- evidence, if any were needed, that clay only magnifies his dominance.

The first seeds to actually change hands are No. 3 and No. 4 -- Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray swap places -- with Djokovic moving up thanks to his stronger results on clay this season and his semifinal run at the French Open last year. As a result, whoever draws Nadal for the semifinals would have drawn Federer and vice versa.

Overall, the biggest gainers are Spanish clay-court specialists Albert Montanes and Nicolas Almagro. Under the rankings, Montanes and Almagro will be among the last players seeded, and that only because players ranked ahead of them withdrew. Here, however, they go all the way up to No. 22 and No. 23, respectively. That means instead of meeting a top-eight seed like Nadal in the third round, they would meet someone seeded between Nos. 9 and 16 like Gael Monfils or Tommy Robredo.

In practical terms, Stanislas Wawrinka's move would be the most significant. He would go from No. 17 to inside the top 16, guaranteeing that he wouldn't face anyone ranked above him till the fourth round instead of the third round.

Other players who gain three or more spots are Robin Soderling, Jurgen Melzer and Paul-Henri Mathieu, but Fernando Gonzalez and David Ferrer have bigger percentage gains in ranking points.

Downward Movers

The players slated to drop down generally fall into two categories -- those who have generally struggled on clay, and those who have been struggling, period.

Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Ivo Karlovic and Feliciano Lopez are in the former category. Gilles Simon, Marat Safin, Igor Andreev and Rainer Schuettler belong more to the latter.

Women

Kamakshi Tandon

Upward Movers

Like Nadal, Dinara Safina's stellar clay results give her a significant points boost under the seeding formula, but it's Jelena Jankovic who posts a big seeding jump by going from No. 5 to No. 2. The reason for her rise is -- what else? -- consistency. The Serb reached the semifinals of last year's French Open and made the quarterfinals of Stuttgart, Rome and Madrid this spring after winning a small event in Marbella.

Caroline Wozniacki and Patty Schnyder would have the most meaningful rises, leaping two spots into the top eight and top 16, respectively. Being No. 8 instead of No. 9 or No. 10 means being scheduled to face another top-eight player only in the quarterfinals rather than the fourth round, providing a better chance of going further into the tournament.

Wozniacki and Schnyder also get a substantial percentage boost in points, as do a few other players, like clay specialist Carla Suarez Navarro, Svetlana Kuznetsova (a title in Stuttgart and final in Rome) and Ana Ivanovic (last year's French Open champion).

The biggest numerical jump goes to Agnes Szavay: a rise of four spots to No. 26. The Hungarian reached the quarterfinals of Madrid and has recently improved her results after struggling for the better part of a year.

Downward Movers

Under a seeding formula, Serena Williams would pay the price for going winless this spring, dropping from No. 2 to No. 3. Even if her injured leg is on the mend, she'll find it difficult to claim the title of "real No. 1" going into the tournament.

Venus Williams would drop down the list, as well, slipping out of the top four after a couple of tough losses this month.

Vera Zvonareva and Katarina Srebotnik have been injured, which would also end up costing them in the seeding standings. In practical terms, however, it doesn't matter much since neither is likely to play in Paris this year.

Amelie Mauresmo manages to hang on to a top-16 spot, but another homegrown hope, Alize Cornet, stands to take a hit for her inability to record back-to-back wins since February. Marion Bartoli is another Frenchwoman struggling to find her groove.

Missing from the seeding list altogether is Maria Sharapova, a former semifinalist who is making her comeback this week after being sidelined for nine months with a shoulder problem that eventually required surgery. Formula or no formula, she'll be a dangerous floater in the French Open draw.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com. Robert Waltz contributed to this story.