Midway through the clay court season, virtually every tennis pundant was picking Rafa Nadal to win the French Open. Then the earth moved. Novak Djokovic convincingly beat the Spaniard in the Madrid Masters final. Plus, it’s safe to say that last year not one of the 6.9 million souls on the planet predicted a Francesca Schiavone vs. Samantha Stosur final. Go figure! Now, as tennis looks to Paris, there rarely have been more questions bouncing around water coolers and locker rooms.
Here’s our collection:
1. Djokovic may have gotten over Nadal in Madrid, but he’s 1-9 lifetime against the Spaniard on clay and has never reached the French final. Can he win RG?
2. Can Rafael Nadal, who’s claimed five of the last six RG crowns, do it again?
3. If Novak Djokovic hasn’t already risen to No. 1 after the Italian Open, when will he grab the top spot?
4. After The Big Three, who are the most likely to emerge out of the field – David Ferrer, Robin Soderling, Andy Murray, Nicolas Almagro or Juan Monaco? And can a virtual unknown (think Milos Raonic) or even a raw rookie (Grigor Dimitrov, Richard Berankis) make some noise?
5. Can No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, 20, who won six titles last year and has already collected three this year, finally prevail at a Slam, even though clay isn’t her favorite surface? (Her best previous result at RG was the fourth round in ’09 and ’10.) BTW: when was the last time a Danish sportsperson scored a major international title in France or anywhere?
6. With four-time titlist Justine Henin in retirement, and Kim Clijsters (right ankle), Serena Williams (hematoma) and Venus Williams (hip) likely to miss Roland Garros due to injury, has a Slam ever been more wide open?
7. Will there be another breakthrough woman a la Francesca Schiavone — like Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Shahar Peer, Agnieszka Radwanska, Andrea Petkovic or Kaia Kanepi?
8. Was Francesca Schiavone vs. Samantha Stosur the most unpredictable RG women’s final ever?
9. Can defending champ Francesca Schiavone put another splendid run together and reach the semis or better?
10. They say Paris is for lovers, but what about Americans? Will any Americans reach the third round (let alone the second week)?
11. Robby Ginepri, who last year reached the fourth round, was the last American man standing in the Roland Garros draw. Who will it be this year — Roddick, Fish, Querrey, Isner? None of the above? And when will an American man or woman return to the top 10?
12. Is Nadal the best one-surface competitor of all time? He’s an Open Era record 216-17 on dirt, with 31 career titles, including a record seven straight in Monte Carlo. Last year, he became the first player to win the “Clay Slam” (going a perfect 22-0 in claiming Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid and RG); he’s an all-time best 31-3 in clay finals; and he owns the all-time clay-court win streak of 81. Bjorn Borg was also a deft dirtballer (six RG titles), and Borg (41 straight Wimbledon wins), Pete Sampras (seven Wimbledons) and Roger Federer (six Wimbledons) broke new ground on grass, but Rafa rules. BTW: Is there anything more intimidating in tennis (and in all of sports for that matter) than facing Rafa on clay?
13. If Federer somehow manages to win, would it be the best in-your-face statement in years; a stinging answer to the critics who say he’s in serious decline?
14. With Djokovic emerging, is The Federer-Nadal Duopoly a thing of the past?
15. Last year, we were shocked when Justine Henin’s mortgage shot — her backhand — crumbled under pressure. Will Federer’s once invincible forehand crack too?
16. Brad Gilbert used to say that when a player faced his former pupil, Andre Agassi, “I predict pain.” (Last year, Federer saw his incredible streak of reaching 23 straight Slam semis snapped. Sam Stosur was drubbed in the final and a homesick Sam Querry imploded during a first-round defeat, saying, “I wanted to be off the court…I just need to mentally get it together in my head,” and even confessed that he tanked points. So who will feel the most pain this year?
17. It used to be that youngsters like Seles, Graf, Hingis, Chang and Courier regularly won RG. But the average age of the four finalists last year was 26. So when will a teen win again? The last to win a Slam was Maria Sharapova, 17, at Wimbledon in ’04. The last teen to win at RG was the then-19-year-old Rafa in ’05.
18. The annals of the French are filled with fabulous and futile predictions like this:
•After commentator Pat McEnroe claimed Amelie Mauresmo would win the French Open, John McEnroe said, “I’ve got something to tell you,” and gently informed his brother that the French-woman had already lost her first round match that afternoon.
• Asked who he saw as most likely to win the French Open, Thomas Muster responded, “Spain.”
•Bud Collins predicted in ’84 that someone some day would hit an underhanded serve against Ivan Lendl (who often would stand far behind the baseline to receive serve). Five years later, Michael Chang did exactly that and went on to win the point.
•Prior to the ’09 French Open fourth-round clash between Robin Soderling and Rafael Nadal, Thomas Johansson predicted a monumental upset, blogging that his fellow countryman would beat Nadal in four sets. He did.
•Pete Sampras said, “I believe in destiny. And I think I will win the French Open some day. Why not?” (The furthest Pete ever got was the semis.)
•Just before the ’97 final, NBC’s Chris Evert assured us, “There’s no way Iva [Majoli] can beat Martina [Hingis].” Majoli won 6-4, 6-2. Who’ll make a bold prediction this year?
19. Who will provide us with the juiciest snit fit of the tournament? Last year, Liezel Huber went ballistic on her former partner Cara Black, telling the Zimbabwean, “You’re not good enough to play with me anymore.” And there was a delicious catfight between Frenchwomen Marion Bartoli and Aravane Rezai, in which France’s top-ranked woman appeared to be suffering from an acute case of Rodney Dangerfield-itis. Bartoli bristled at the mere mention of her compatriot, who had become a press darling. Rezai shot back, “Marion is a difficult girl…But that’s her education. She attacked me many times.” What will be the best quarrel this year?
20. At Wimbledon you have to have a great serve, return and first volley. What are the greatest attributes you need at Roland Garros? Patience, guile, point craftsmanship, legs, speed, endurance?
21. Among the four Slams, have more great players (who often prevailed elsewhere) failed to win the French Open: (think: Sampras, McEnroe, Connors, Kramer, Gonzalez, Sharapova, Davenport, Venus, Clijsters, Edberg, Tilden, Ashe, Smith, et al)?
22. RG is a fabulous fashion tournament. Last year, the fashion universe orbited around Venus’ stunning and revealing outfit of subtle black lace and red trim, which was a kind of Gussy Moran-Moulin Rouge happening. When Venus served, her dress revealed her backside, which prompted one fan to note, “It’s good for my imagination, but it doesn’t require much.” Venus said “the outfit is about illusion.” Will great fashion in Paris this year be a reality or an illusion?
23. Was the French Federation’s threat to move Roland Garros to a bigger site in the suburbs a real option or just a ploy?
24. What will be the strangest question from the press? Last year, a reporter asked Roger Federer, “I was wondering whether you’d be ready to play against Mickey Mouse from Disney?”
25. Federer is the last player to defend a Grand Slam title (’07 and ’08 U.S. Open)…Soderling has lost in back-to-back RG finals, what will be the best back-to-back this year?
26. Speaking of back-to-back, were Robin Soderling’s wins over Nadal and Federer in ’09 and ’10 the most stunning back-to-back upset wins in tennis history?
27. Is tennis’ nine-week clay-court season the best warm-up stretch to any major event in sports this side of spring training?
28. Are the tennis-savvy, fromage-friendly French fans, with their generous jewels and cable-knit sweaters, the most fickle of all the fans at the majors?
29. The French have a fine collection of players — Tsonga, Monfils, Gasquet, Simon, Bartoli, Rezai. None has won a major. And no French born player has captured the RG title since Yannick Noah in ’83. Will a French player get beyond the quarters?
30. Is Germany’s spring surge its best since Steffi Graf put down her racket in ’99? In April, Andrea Petkovic, Julia Goerges, Anna-Lena Groenfeld and Sibine Lisicki led Germany to a 5-0 rout of the U.S. in the Fed Cup Playoffs, relegating the Americans to the World Group II. Plus, Goerges recently upset Caroline Wozniacki twice, and Petkovic has already danced her way past four current or former No. 1s this year (Wozniacki, Maria Sharapova, Jelena Jankovic and Venus Williams).
31. Is the Roland Garros players’ restaurant the hippest venue for beautiful people in tennis? A snapshot of continental cool, here eager wannabes and faux glitterati, groupies and stunning hangers-on gather with generations of tennis legends and the truly dazzling.
32. From Josephine Baker to James Baldwin to Jerry Lewis to McDonald’s, American culture has long fascinated the French. (Last year, it was all about Sarah Jessica Parker promoting the French version of Sex and the City 2.) What will it be this year?
33. Americans are not always in sync with the French and their ways. Agassi liked to eat at Taco Bell. McEnroe said France would be a great place if there were no French there. And, lore tells us, when Jennifer Capriati passed Notre Dame Cathedral she supposedly asked, “Where’s the football team?” Will an American suffer a say-it-ain’t-so cultural faux pas with French culture this year?
34. Was Chris Bowers’ meteorological commentary from a year ago (“Bright skies will cohabitate with clouds without consequence at Roland Garros”) the most suggestive weather report in Slam history?
35. Was Michael Chang’s underhanded serve against Ivan Lendl in ’89 the most humiliating shot in Slam history?
36. It’s said that sometimes you are numbed by your own excellence. Your interest wanes. Will that ever happen to Rafa?
37. Why is it so much easier for born-and-bred clay-courters to become adept hard-courters than vice versa?
38. The World Series travels from venue to venue. And golf is played on vastly different courses. Still, is the transition from Roland Garros’ terre battue to Wimbeldon’s grass the toughest surface swap in sports?
39. Does clay rule or what? After all, the terre battue clearly diminishes the impact of power play in general and first serves in particular and now (and we presume forever) makes Hawk-Eye redundant.
40. Can the French Open claim to be the most beautiful tournament in tennis? For that matter, can Paris claim to be the most beautiful capital in the world?