French Open Round of 16 Preview

1 Jun

The table is set for the French Open round of 16, and the helpings could scarcely be tastier. The field – comprised of four Spaniards, a trio of Frenchmen, two Swiss, two Serbs, two Germans, and a Russian, Japanese and South African mixed-in for good measure – has all the makings for a spectacular second week of play. Happily, despite operating on a shoestring budget, the Balke Bros has arranged to have an on-site correspondent at Roland Garros next week for a pair of quarter-final match-ups. It’s a testament to how much we care about bringing high-quality, real time coverage to our seven readers (and/or to our great good fortune that Balke Bros homeboy Ari Binder chose to make Stade Roland Garros a part of his pre-PhD, European summer tour). 

Sir Binder will no doubt see a lot of tasty action, including, potentially, a titanic clash between seven-time and defending French Open champ Rafael Nadal and his former prodigious counterpart on the junior circuit, Richard Gasquet, who is in top-form, and stands likely to have the full-force of the French faithful behind him, despite Rafa’s repeated heroics on the clay in Paris (it seems that nationalism and a major title drought that now exceeds three decades trump appreciation of a foreign champion, splendid and classy though he may be, every time).

In this piece, I’ll go thru each of the match-ups, describing some of the dynamics at play and offering predictions on who’ll come out on top. Let’s take it from the top.

Djokovic (1) – Kohlschreiber (16):

Ruthlessly efficient, mentally impeccable, and extraordinarily adverse to making unforced errors, the German number two has absolutely no chance against the world’s top player, Djokovic, who I expect to go all the way this year in Paris.

Haas (12) – Youzhny (29):

This one’s tricky. Haas has been playing great (and sometimes sublime) tennis over the last twelve months, and, at the ripe-old age of 35 (which, in tennis years, puts him somewhere close to 200) seems, finally, to have found full form, reaping every last ounce of effectiveness out of talent that once carrier him to number two in the world, but which, until now, was never coupled with the mental fortitude to climb to the top. Today, the talent remains, the mental strength is, at last, there, but, as a senior citizen, Haas has lost a bit of mobility. Having just come-thru an epic, five-set clash with American giant John Isner, in which Haas did everything he could to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the German will need to recover very quickly, if he is to emerge victorious against Youzhny, whom, at the age of 30, isn’t exactly a spry chicken. The Russian is also a former top-ten player, and has gone deep into majors on several occasions. He’ll come to play, and Haas will have to produce good stuff to pass the test – but, I think he will. Haas in four tough sets.

Gasquet (7) – Wawrinka (9)

This is, far and away, the fourth-round match I’m looking forward to most. Each player owns one of the game’s top one-handed backhands, and I anticipate – and am fantasizing about – the myriad extended cross-court battles on that wing that are sure to ensue. On top of that, each player comes into the match in top form. The Swiss reached the finals in Madrid, has climbed back into the top ten, and is, arguably, playing the best tennis of his career. Meanwhile, Gasquet – who has immense talent and who many tennis followers predicted would have a more successful pro career than Nadal when each broke into the ATP circuit a decade ago – has repeatedly disappointed fans (including your correspondent) by failing to play up to his potential in key moments. However, he has pulled together an impressive and, crucially, consistent year, and will have the French fans fully at his back. So, despite the fact that he has let me down so many times before, and though I know my Balke Bro will hate me for it, I’m going to call Gasquet in five, gruesome sets, over the Swiss. (Sorry, Stani – I still love you.)

Nadal (3) – Nishikori (13)

Nadal in three, relatively pain-free sets.

Almagro (11) – Robredo (32)

Tommy Robredo may be the world’s most boring tennis player. And, my resentment towards him reached new levels when he clawed back from a two-set deficit and four match points to defeat charismatic Frenchman and former world number seven Gael Monfils, who knocked-off five-seed Tomas Berdych in the first round in Paris, and is storming back to the top ranks after suffering injuries over much of the last year and a half. Just imagining the theatrics of a Monfils-Almagro fourth round makes my mouth water, with Monfils using his other-worldly speed and athleticisim, and fully leveraging the enthusiastic support of his French compatriots, to retrieve shot after shot from the smaller, but more powerful, Almagro. Robredo has robbed us of this match-up, and I despise him (or, at least, his game – he’s probably a nice dude). Almagro in three.

Ferrer (4) – Anderson (23)

This one’s gonna be super fun. It’s difficult to imagine two more contrasting styles. Ferrer is the consummate counter-puncher, 5’9″ of muscle, grit, speed, and determination. He’ll square-off against the hard-hitting South African, who, at about 6’8″ is nearly a foot taller than the Spaniard. Anderson, whose monstrous serve and power game makes him much more at home on grass and hard-court than clay, has impressed on the dirt at Roland Garros, pulling off a solid victory against world 16 Canadian bomber Milos Raonic (in what could be a preview of a juicy, late-round match in a few weeks at the All England Club, depending on the draw). Still, I expect the disciplined Spaniard to absorb the South African’s power, and turn the latter’s entreaties to take control of the contest into target practice. Even if the South African comes out in impeccable form, and manages to squeek out a set, I expect Ferrer to grind him down over the course of the match, using the un-flappability and drive that has served him so well throughout what has to now be considered one of the most unexpectedly impressive careers in the men’s game over the last devade. Ferrer in three.

Tsonga (6) – Troicki

A resurgent Viktor Troiki, who, after an extended on-court meltdown during the second-round in Rome a few weeks ago, has come back with a vengeance in Paris, knocking-out the eleventh-seeded Croat, Marin Cilic, in the third round. The Serb will do battle with the uber-talented fan-favorite and ever-charismatic Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A few years ago, Troiki flirted with the top ten, and, despite falling from grace, still possesses the talent, fitness and tennis IQ (if no longer the mental fortitude) to hang tough against the game’s best. That said, although I expect Troicki to came out and produce great tennis in the match’s early stages, Tsonga should weather a hotly-contested first set and then cruise to a three-set victory, setting-up a titanic quarter-final match with…

Federer!

Federer (2) – Simon (15)

One of my favourite things about the Swiss all-time great is that he is a fan favourite everywhere he plays, against any opponent – even if that opponent is a national of the country in which the match is being played! Simon, a former top-ten player, who has regained his form and did well to come thru against an impressive baseline blitz from American giant Sam Querrey in a lengthy, five-set third-round encounter, will no doubt come out looking to pull off the upset. However, Fed has looked super impressive and, as importantly, relaxed in his first three matches in Paris. Moreover, his style of play is suited perfectly to take down the French number three. Simon is one of the game’s fastest players and best counter-punchers, and thrives against more powerful players who charge the net and give him a spot to hit the pass. Still, Fed has just a little too much juice on his groundies, a touch too much crispness and precision on his volleys, for the Frenchman to make much of a dent. Indeed, I trust that, while he is hoping for a perfect alligning of the stars, and to ride a wave of (I think, half-hearted) support from the French faithful, he’s got to believe deep down that he’ll come up short against the game’s greatest ever player. Still, I’ll give him a set. Fed in four.

So, there you have it! My French Open fourth round predictions. I aimed to be bold but reasonable, provocative but logical. Above all, I tried to whet your appetite for a spell of tennis that promises to display the best of what this game has to offer, on a surface and at a venue, where players must produce their best, most creative tennis, to win.

Enjoy the action, and we’ll touch back in for the quarter-finals.

(Ari, travel safely!)

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