ATP French Open: Preamble
The second Grand Slam of the season is upon us as the players hit the courts at Roland Garros in the quest for glory. The storyline this year will once again center around Rafael Nadal & Novak Djokovic mainly. Can Djokovic can finally break through for that elusive title? Or can Nadal rediscover the consistency and magic that has been missing in large part since he won his 9th title here in 2014? Both players sport remarkable records at this tournament; none greater than Nadal’s incredible 66-1 mark. Djokovic is a tame 42-10 compared to that, but is 17-3 in Paris over the last three years. All three losses have come at the hands of Nadal. This year, it’s Djokovic who comes in white hot with a 22 match winning streak and five titles already to his credit. The five titles consist of four Masters events and the Australian Open. Nadal has of course struggled mightily with consistency in going 25-9 with just one title in Buenos Aires. The Masters events on clay that he has dominated in the past were decent by most standards, but not Nadal’s. In Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, he went 9-3, but made just the Final in Madrid where he was brutalized by Andy Murray 6-3, 6-2. Just a week ago, his tour in Rome came to an end at the hands of Stan Wawrinka who has lacked much in the way of consistency either in recent months by a 7-6, 6-2 scoreline. Clearly he knows that he is experiencing some major ups and downs as he has remarked on it several times; happy to be playing again in good health, but not as happy of course with the lack of results when it comes to winning titles. As we come into action at Roland Garros this weekend, all signs seem to point to this being Novak Djokovic’s time.
Realistically, the French Open in recent times has really only offered up a handful of legitimate contenders to take home the trophy for most of the last decade. You can thank the Big Four for a good part of that of course and in particular, Rafael Nadal. Surprises in Paris are infrequent when you get to the business end of this tournament. The most famous surprise of all was of course Nadal’s lone loss at this tournament back in 2009 to Robin Soderling. Soderling himself this week has said he hopes Nadal loses again. Those words aren’t meant with hate to Nadal, but Soderling has made no bones about it lately, he’s tired of that being the first question in almost any interview he does.
Could there be a shock or two this year as the tournament closes in on its Final week? 2014 produced a mild surprise with 19th seeded Ernests Gulbis getting to the semifinals. He was the first double digit seed to make the semis since both Jurgen Melzer (22) & Tomas Berdych (15) did it back in 2010. Robin Soderling and Fernando Gonzalez both did it in 2009, but those have been mostly exceptions to the dominant rule of the top tier players in the past decade. The last unseeded player to make the semis was Gael Monfils in 2008. Since 2005, only Monfils and Argentina’s Mariano Puerta (2005) have made the semis as non-seeds. The aforementioned double digit seeds in 2009, 2010 and Gulbis last year are the only “lower” seeded players to crack those elite spots in the semis. It’s truly amazing there hasn’t been more of a shift, but perhaps this year could provide a bit more bounce to the chances of not only non-seeds, but double digit seeds to find their way to the party in the semifinals at Roland Garros. After Novak Djokovic at #1, there seems to be quite a bit of wiggle room for the other party-goers this year to make some noise.
First, let’s take a look at how seeds have fared at Roland Garros over the last five years to break down the consistency with which seeded players have made the latter stages of this tournament. One thing to point out however is the 1st round shock upset of a highly ranked player.
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Three of the last five years, we’ve seen a top six seed fall in the opening round. 3rd seeded Stan Wawrinka was dumped in R1 last year by Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Tomas Berdych has been bit twice for 1st round upsets at Roland Garros in the past five years. In 2013, it was wild card Gael Monfils who pulled off the win in five, not exactly unexpected given his flair for the dramatic. The more shocking upset was 2011 when Berdych fell to French qualifier Stephane Robert in five sets.
For the most part from the chart, you see that seeded players have made up the field for the quarterfinals just about every year. In 2011, Juan-Ignacio Chela and Fabio Fognini crashed into the quarters as unseeded players. So of the 40 QF spots in the last five years, exactly TWO went to unseeded players. So it seems a longshot that you would expect much to fall that way in 2015. What it also shows is that players inside the Top 30 or so in the rankings do seem to have a definitive skill advantage on clay over the outliers in the Top 40 to 100 in the ATP rankings. That mitigates the shocking upsets in Paris that we do see on hard courts at the Australian Open and U.S. Open from time to time or the recent rash of stunners at Wimbledon on grass. The slower court speed of the clay definitely takes away something from the majority of the “power” players who might be able to pull off one of those stunning upsets on a faster surface even if they for the most part have inferior weapons to their higher ranked opponent.
One of the other things you will want to keep an eye on early is where the players who made it through qualifying land. Who do they match-up with? There can be a distinct advantage to getting multiple matches under your belt in qualifying with the right placement in the draw. Likewise, wild card entrants are also very intriguing to monitor. Eight players each year get those exemptions and it seems as if many of them try to show appreciation for that reward by at least winning their opening match. As you would expect, this year’s wild card entries for the ATP side of the French Open have a heavily french flavor to them with six of the eight spots going native. Edouard Roger-Vasselin, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Nicolas Mahut, Quentin Halys, Maxime Hamou and Lucas Pouille will all be in the main draw along with American Frances Tiafoe & Aussie Thanasi Kokkinakis.
Here is a look at how both qualifiers and wild cards have fared in the past five years.
*Indicates the number of 1R wins by qualifiers over another qualifier or a wild card over another wild card.
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Wild cards had their worst year in 2014 after being pretty solid to win about half of the eight matches you normally see them in the opening round. Qualifiers likewise have struggled the last two years after being close to a 50-50 proposition in the opening round in the three years before that. I don’t think there is a blanket statement you can make regarding wild cards or qualifiers each year at Roland Garros. The match-ups they draw in the 1st round ultimately will give you some clue about where you can see some wins from these qualifiers, but history does show that a fair amount of them will grab a win in the 1st round.
Keep up with The Pig for more this weekend as I take a Quick Draw McGraw look at the ATP draw when it is released and a look at those seeds who need to be on high alert for potential early round losses.