COUNTDOWN TO FRENCH OPEN (2 DAYS): Are You Sure This Man is Done? From the Scrap Heap, Don’t Forget Roger Federer

There is no easy path to a French Open title, no way to envision a draw that can neatly avoid having the names Djokovic and Nadal on the line next to your name. After seeing the draw, I’m sticking with my pick: Rafael Nadal is going to win.

He will have won four of the past five majors. Yet he still might lose his No. 1 ranking to Novak Djokovic, who’s being called the most dominant athlete in the world. If Djokovic wins, I agree.

In looking for a longshot, though, I’m going to dig deep into the scrap heap. You might laugh when I pull this name out of the past, if you can even remember him. Well, here goes:

Roger Federer.

I like his draw. He has a chance. The feelings about Federer among tennis fans have gone a little overboard. They always have. First, he was defended to the death, and now he’s forgotten about. Moderation, people.

Seems to me that not one year ago, Federer fans were packing my email for consistently pointing out the obvious, that Nadal was better. Well, everyone knows that now, and it’s also clear that Djokovic is better. But now, Federer is treated as if he’s gone.

Look, he beat Robin Soderling in straight sets in Madrid this month. That re-established him as the world’s third-best player and stopped the slide. Then, he fought Nadal evenly before losing in the third set.

He’s not perfect anymore. He has real shortcomings. But the third-best player can win, especially if he has won here before and has been the second-best player on clay for years.

More importantly, while a draw can’t neatly avoid Nadal and Djokovic, this one does not attack his weaknesses.

Around the rest of the draw, Nadal gets John Isner in the first round, which might produce a close enough-looking score. In the third round, Nadal gets Nikolay Davydenko, who could be trouble. But not likely.

Djokovic is going to get Juan Martin del Potro in the third round, and could lose that. I’m not sure del Potro has the stamina or full health yet, but within a year, I think he’s going to be right there with Nadal and Djokovic. Maybe by the U.S. Open. And the winner of that match could get Thomaz Bellucci next. Tough.

Other than Mardy Fish, the U.S. men will likely all be gone after the first round. That’s partly because Andy Roddick pulled out with a sore shoulder. He would have lost in the second round anyway.

I would like to look deep into the women’s draw, but let’s face it: It’s nearly impossible to pick a women’s draw. They almost all play the same way. When they are all just bashing from the baseline, one day the shots don’t quite stay on the court, and it’s all over.

I’m still taking Maria Sharapova, but she’s going to have to get past Kim Clijsters. The Williams sisters are out, hurt, and Clijsters is the wildcard here. She’s one of the few women who can and will change strategies, and will keep her nerve. But she’s trying to play, despite having torn ligaments in her ankle. Meanwhile, this is the golden chance for No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who will go deep in the tournament until she finds a basher with nerve.

But I want to talk about Federer. He has three main problems 1) He is losing his nerve 2) He has lost half a step 3) He’s using an old flexible racquet that matches up all wrong for his one-handed backhand.

In the old days, Federer could have an off-day, and still beat almost everyone. Now, he can’t do that.  And because of the lost speed and weak racquet, he can be pushed backward and outmuscled at any given time.

So he’s in trouble against the new breed of top players who are tall and crush flat shots. That’s why he has lost in majors recently to del Potro, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych.

But he’s free and clear of those guys until the semifinals in Roland Garros, when he likely gets Djokovic or del Potro.

Look, the ball slows down on clay, which can help a guy who has lost some speed. He can catch up to the ball. It also reduces the power coming at that racquet and backhand. It didn’t help enough to get past Soderling at the French last year, but that’s where Fed’s draw come in.

The first round, against Feliciano Lopez, could be a problem. . Federer can lose that one, but I don’t think he will. Maybe I’m biased, but let’s just say I’m a big disbeliever in Lopez. Every time I watch him, he loses valiantly. Fast-forward to the quarterfinals, where Federer will probably see David Ferrer. OK, Ferrer’s relentlessness might be too much on Federer’s nerve. But Ferrer isn’t big enough to push Federer backward.

Even in the semis, if del Potro has beaten Djokovic he could be wearing out or becoming nervous as he gets close to the big prize after being gone so long with injuries.

That still leaves Nadal. Like I said, you can’t get around these guys. Federer just has to find a way to get to them, and then hope for the best.

He still can have one more major in him with the right draw. He’s vulnerable, but the scrap heap?

Not yet.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

One response to “COUNTDOWN TO FRENCH OPEN (2 DAYS): Are You Sure This Man is Done? From the Scrap Heap, Don’t Forget Roger Federer

  • David Spector

    I agree that Fed will get by Lopez. Fed will have advantages he didn’t in their close match in Madrid; slower court, no home crowd (and Real Madrid footballers to impress). But, Lopez has had a good spring on clay, more than just “losing valiantly.” Lopez d. Garcia-Lopez, Montanes, Tipsarevic, Raonic, Llodra & Kohlschreiber. Yeah, not exactly Murderer’s Row, but really hasn’t had any bad losses since the tour hit clay.
    You think the winner of Delpo-Djoker 3rd round will meet Bellucci and not Gasquet? I don’t see Bellucci, despite great play in Madrid, getting by Gasquet on his home courts. Just sayin’…

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