Commentary

Raonic among dangerous floaters

Updated: May 25, 2012, 10:32 AM ET
By Ravi Ubha | ESPN.com

Fifteen years ago, a colorful Brazilian, Gustavo Kuerten, conquered the red clay of the French Open, not to mention Parisian hearts. In 2004, Gaston Gaudio joined Kuerten as another unseeded titlist from South America.

Since then, there haven't been many surprises, thanks mostly to Rafael Nadal. The women's game hasn't had a player as dominant on clay as Rafa, but every champion at the French in the Open Era has been seeded. No such Kuerten-like shocks.

It's unlikely that any of the under-the-radar players below can break through and win a first major (make that very unlikely), yet they showed promise during this year's European clay-court season. The goal should be reaching the quarterfinals and perhaps pulling off an upset along the way.

Can they do it or will they fizzle?

Men

Milos Raonic: Raonic came within a few points of upsetting eventual champion Roger Federer in the second round in Madrid. In one return game alone in the second set, Raonic engineered three, or possibly four, of the best shots of the tournament. His game has progressed, especially the backhand, and reaching the semifinals in Barcelona showed how much. A year ago in Monte Carlo, Raonic was manhandled by bulldog David Ferrer. This April in Barcelona, Ferrer edged Raonic in a tight contest, 7-6 (2), 7-6 (5). He appears to be more comfortable moving on clay.

But Raonic stumbled in his Rome opener, preventing the Canuck from meeting Nadal. If Raonic can land in the third round (he lost in the first round in 2011), his confidence would soar, making him more dangerous.

Verdict: Will reach second week

Fabio Fognini: For the neutral observer, watching Fognini is loads of fun. His coach and fans would call it torture at times. Compared with Fognini, Andy Murray's body language is impeccable.

[+] EnlargeFabio Fognini
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesFabio Fognini has made news at the French Open, but now he's looking to do so for the right reasons.

If the previous two years are an indication, Fognini is bound to do something noteworthy during the French Open. In 2010, he and Gael Monfils played into the darkness, and Fognini riled the locals because he wanted to postpone the match until the next day. Last year, Fognini bravely saved five match points to beat Spanish veteran Albert Montanes in the fourth round. But he exited the court to mostly boos, with the fans suspecting Fognini feigned injury to take a medical timeout when he was cramping. (Timeouts aren't allowed for cramping.)

Fognini reached the final in Bucharest, yet crumbled under the pressure of playing at home in Rome. There's more pressure in Paris with those quarterfinal points to defend.

Verdict: Will lose in first week

Andreas Seppi: If only Fognini possessed the temperament of Seppi, a fellow Italian.

Seppi is far from spectacular. He possesses a forehand that can go off at any minute and certainly wouldn't be labeled a power hitter.

But Seppi works hard at his game, can create angles off both the backhand and forehand and doesn't lose his cool. He's mostly steady.

His quarterfinal result in Rome won't be forgotten by tennis fans for a while. A day after outlasting John Isner in nearly three hours, he saved six match points to beat Stanislas Wawrinka in 3 hours, 21 minutes.

Seppi won a clay-court title in Belgrade (with Novak Djokovic absent) and enters the French at a career-high 25th in the rankings.

Verdict: Will lose in first week

Women

Kaia Kanepi: In recent years, taller, powerful players have enjoyed more success on clay. Although they're not as mobile as others, the slowness of the surface gives them more time to line up shots.

The 5-foot-11 Kanepi executed her game in Estoril to bag the second clay-court title of her career. Saving two match points against Carla Suarez Navarro in the final made it even sweeter.

But Kanepi's momentum, again, has been slowed by injuries. Shortly after he won in Brisbane in the Australian summer, a shoulder problem sidelined the Estonian. Then she skipped Rome with a sore foot.

Competing in Brussels this week, she'll hope her body holds up.

Verdict: Will reach second week

Sorana Cirstea: When Cirstea defeated Jelena Jankovic at the 2009 French Open, winning the third set 9-7, expectations soared. Expectations that, up until now, haven't been fulfilled.

Cirstea rose to 23rd in the rankings later in 2009 but dipped alarmingly thereafter, even tumbling outside the top 100 last year.

Now she's on the way back.

Cirstea upset another player with a hefty reputation, Samantha Stosur, at the Australian Open. Of course, the Aussies nerves probably played a role. Cirstea was almost inside the top 40 this week (at 41).

The highlight of her clay swing was venturing to the semifinals in Barcelona, and she gained more confidence by beating Jankovic and snaring a set off Petra Kvitova in Rome (even if Jankovic and Kvitova aren't playing well). Good signs.

Cirstea's opener against defending champion Li Na will be interesting, but even if she gets past that, Cirstea still has tough opponents nearby.

Verdict: Will lose in first week

Lucie Hradecka: It wasn't a surprise that a Czech reached the semifinals in Madrid. What was a surprise, though, was that it wasn't Kvitova.

Hradecka, helped by her serve (one of the biggest in the women's game), beat her pal Kvitova, eliminated Stosur and kept up with eventual champion Serena Williams for a set in the semis. That was all as a qualifier ranked 105th.

Hradecka and partner Andrea Hlavackova are the defending doubles champions at Roland Garros, meaning Hradecka might be preoccupied with the doubles during the fortnight. Don't, though, call Hradecka a doubles specialist. She prefers singles but admits she's less relaxed than in doubles, which likely explains why, even after Madrid, she's ranked 60th.

Whatever happens in France, with that serve, Hradecka should be looking forward to Wimbledon.

Verdict: Will lose in first week

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.