Four times every year, tennis fans around the world are forced together as they deperately await news on those dreaded Grand Slam draws. Sometimes, the pain comes all as once as we are given real-time visuals of the draws as they unfold before our eyes, and other times the tournaments seemingly take a sadistic pleasure in toying with our emotions, leaking out the draw drip by drip and line by line. However, regardless of when, where or how long it takes for the draws to be released, the reactions are always the same; from the great big sigh of relief when the news is positive, to the indignant Soderling-esque fistshaking at the computers screen, accompanied by the obligatory cursing of the imaginary ‘Tennis Gods’ when all hell breaks loose.
It was exactly the same today as the French Open draws was conducted, and we were finally given an idea of what the next fortnight will hold. This time last year, I almost fell into post-traumatic stress disorder as we all learnt shocking truth that Serena, Maria and Justine had all been cruelly shoved into a tiny little quarter of death, while acres of space were left open in practically every part of the draw. Thankfully, that isn’t the case this year.
The biggest talking point for the women since the start of the clay season has been the fact that, following Justine Henin’s retirement in January and the eerie absence of the Williams Sisters, it really is one of the most open French Opens in decades. Back when Justine first retired, all eyes immediately shifted onto Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic who looked set to take the helm, and they did, meeting in the semi-finals and contesting a brilliant (and oh-so-dramatic) de-facto final in the semis, with Ivanovic scraping through into the final before cruising to the first Grand Slam of her career. But 2008 was a long time ago, and along with most other active players with strong clay credentials, both sadly come into Roland Garros in poor form and zero confidence.
Naturally, the clay season has seen a number of new contenders emerge, with Julia Goerges finally coming of age by capturing her first big title in Stuttgart and then storming to her first Tier I (yes, we’re still calling it that over ‘ere) semi-final in Madrid, dispatching world number one-niacki twice en-route. Then we saw the ever-inconsistent Petra Kvitova blast through the field to capture the Madrid title, beating up on the tour’s in-form player Victoria Azarenka in the final. And then finally, Maria Sharapova, the Queen of clay, dusted off, polished and majestically placed her crown back onto her head as she stepped back into the limelight and announced herself as a huge contender for the French Open by winning her first ever big clay title in Rome.
What I love about this draw is that, for once, all the main contenders have managed to stay well away from each other. There’s no nightmare second round match between two big favourites that make us want to collectively jump off buildings and smash our head through walls. Instead, it’s all nicely spaced out and balanced with so many different possibilities.
In the top half, all eyes will be on Miss Karolina, Goerges, Stosur, Zvonareva, Junkovic and defending champ Schiavone, It really is there for the taking, and I have a sneaky suspicion that, with the respective forms of all involved, the winner of the projected quarterfinal between Goerges and Stosur could well go all the way to the final. As for the second quarter, just about a million questions are begging to be answered. I can see Vera continuing her stellar form in the slams and making the semis, but in addition to her racket problems and confidence issue, there’s also that gigantic elephant in the room regarding her current coaching situation and “the Karen guy” in her box. The Empress could undoubtedly also surprise us all by finding some form here and making the semis, but then again she seems to really be suffering from a crisis of confidence and there are clearly some issues that need to be addressed in both her psyche and game, so who knows? And, of course, we all watched in awe and shock last year as Francesca stormed to the title, incredibly playing the best match of her career to lift the French Open trophy. She caught the holy ghost last year, and though she has been in poor form so far in this claycourt season, she could certainly do it again this time ’round.
The second half is a similar, yet completely different affair. Just like the first half, there seems to be a similar number and spread of contenders for the title, but the main consensus seems to be that the 2011 French Open champion will come from the bottom half. And I have to agree.
Everyone has been going cuckoo over Petra Kvitova recently. Some still think she’s just an erratic ballbasher, while others believe she is the real deal. I’m inclined to think that she is, well, the erratic real deal. There’s no doubt that her game is taylor-made for the grass, and that the 2011 Championships will be incredibly important and could be immeasurably fruitful for the young Czech, but regardless of how clumsy her movement is on the clay, she is just such a naturally brilliant and clean ballstriker that she’ll always be in with a chance, wherever she goes. She has landed in the same quarter as Victoria Azarenka and the question question on everyone’s lips is whether she can get past Vika. I don’t think that’s a valid question. Just as at Wimbledon last year, in the Madrid final we watched as Petra, who wasn’t even playing very well, exposed Vika’s flaws for the world to see - highlighting the fact that though Vika is relentlessly aggressive ball-after-ball, both the speed and weight of her shots and her movement are distinctly average. The gulf between the pace of their shots was unbelievable, and Azarenka, both unable to go toe-to-toe with Kvitova’s pace and unable to effectively defend against it, was forced to stand in the middle of the court, helplessly watching both the winners and errors fly by. So if Kvitova is playing well enough to reach the quarterfinals without too much erratic play to lesser opponents, she will most likely beat Azarenka. But that’s a big ‘if’, as far as I’m concerned. If not, Azarenka will likely move through to her first slam semifinal unless her body falls apart or Ivanovic, who has been placed in her section, finds some form (and, again, if Ana plays well enough to reach the fourth round without too many problems, it’s certainly a possibility).
And that leaves the final quarter. The quarter that is home to, by a country mile, the two most successful players in the draw. The titans. I’ve rambled on for so long in the hope that I’d have something to say when I finally reached this quarter - you know, the one that really matters. But I just don’t have anything to say. All I know is that Rome was brilliant from Maria. Even when she reached the semis and final of Indian Wells and Miami this year, I was so unconvinced of her game and form, but in Rome something just seemed to click. The the fluidity in her strokes and confidence in her technique that I have been near-obsessing over for the past year finally seems to be back with a vengeance. Naturally, the Sharapova hype train has come flying back into business and many believe that it really will be the year she takes the French Open and closes out the Career Grand Slam. She certainly has a great draw to reach the quarters, but with Kim, there’s just no telling how she will play. So we’ll just have to wait and see.
But that’s enough from me. What about the rest of you; who do you all think will be the Roland Garros Champion once the dust has settled?