There are always questions heading into a Grand Slam tournament, and one that might be asked as the 2013 French Open begins Sunday is: Why bother holding it? Why not spare everyone the trouble and just hand the trophies and prize money to Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams?
Sure, there is a chance somebody else will win. But it’s a very slim chance — especially on the men’s side.
Nadal won his record seventh French Open last year and is 52-1 at Roland Garros since his debut in 2005. Read that again. Slowly. The Spaniard has lost only one of 53 matches on his beloved red clay — to Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
And he is back at the top of his game after taking a seven-month leave to deal with his aching knees. Since his return in February, he is 36-2, has reached eight consecutive finals and won six titles.
“I am enjoying every moment, and eight finals in a row is wonderful,” Nadal said. “Four, five months ago, it was impossible to think about this.”
John McEnroe, working for Tennis Channel during the French Open, has been “impressed” with Nadal’s comeback.
“It seems like he’s barely lost anything, if at all,” McEnroe said. “Right now, he seems to be finally, he says, playing the best he’s been playing the whole year, which is sort of frightening for the other players.
“Unless something happens that’s unforeseen, it would be pretty hard-pressed to make an argument for anyone other than [Novak] Djokovic to beat him. It would have to be one of those swing-for-the-fences type players like Soderling was that one year, and the conditions would have to be extremely heavy so his ball wouldn’t have the type of jump it normally does. … Maybe there will be that day where he has that off day.”
It is a similar story line on the women’s side, where an off day by Williams is probably the only thing that can get in her way.
The top-ranked Williams arrived in Paris on a career-high 24-match win streak. She is 36-2 — exactly like Nadal — this year, with five titles. Since her shocking first-round loss to 111th-ranked Virginie Razzano in the French Open last year, Williams is 67-3, including titles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and a gold medal at the London Olympics.
Going back to the 2011 U.S. Open, Williams is 94-6. She regained her No.1 ranking this year, and despite being 31 years old, she continues to dominate. At the recent Italian Open, she lost just 14 of 74 games over five matches and crushed Viktoria Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 in the final.
Williams has won 15 Grand Slam titles, and although her only French Open title came in 2002 and she hasn’t gotten past the quarterfinals since 2003, she is the heavy favorite.
“It’s mindboggling to me that she hasn’t been in the final since 2002,” said Chris Evert, who will be in the ESPN booth from Roland Garros. “She hasn’t had her best results at the French, but she has improved tremendously on clay. I’m impressed with how patient she’s become and how she’s harnessing that power to be not only an effective clay-court player but a tremendous clay-court player.
Said McEnroe: “If Serena doesn’t have a bad day, like she did last year against Razzano, if she just manages to play her normal game, I think she will win her second French Open.
“The level she’s at when she’s playing well, I don’t think anybody can beat her,” McEnroe continued. “But anybody, no matter great they are, has bad days. On clay, it’s her worst surface. The odds would increase. The pressure is greater, obviously, at the French because she’s only won it once. I would say at some stage in the event, it would be likely that she won’t have one of her best days. Depending on her opponent that day, someone might have a shot at her.”
The key to beating Williams, Evert said, is to rely on finesse more than power. Problem is, the other top players in the field — defending champion Maria Sharapova and Viktoria Azarenka — are big-hitting baseline players. Sharapova was fortunate in that she didn’t have to face Williams en route to the title last year.
“I don’t think anybody out there can overpower her,” Evert said. “If there was a player that came out of the blue that was crafty, had a great drop shot, some short angling to get her off the baseline, bring her up to the net, I think that’s the only chance anybody has. But the day of the Martina Hingis-type players, I don’t see those players as much anymore. I just see players that like to bash the ball from the baseline.”
Evert said beating Nadal would require similar tactics.
“I’ve seen Nadal eight feet behind the baseline and have seen players drop shot him, and he doesn’t like it,” she said. “He doesn’t like running up. He doesn’t like being on the defensive, at the net. You’ve got to take them out of their power zone, hit the short angles, drop shots, slice it, make them hit shorter.”
But strategy cannot overcome the biggest problem players face when they see Williams across the net. And the same probably is true of most men against Nadal at the French Open.
“I think 99 percent of the players go out there knowing they’re going to lose,” Evert said. “Azarenka and Maria, I think they definitely give themselves a chance because they’re confident and they have beaten Serena before. Especially at the French, her weakest surface, they know she could have a bad day. … But as far as the other players, it almost doesn’t matter how you’re playing. They hate when we say this, but it really is all about Serena and how she’s feeling and how she’s playing.”