French Open mid-way point: Amidst intrigue, surprise and scandal, Djoko en route to routine victory

1 Jun

The French Open has reached its mid-way point. Despite a first-week chalk-full of upsets and intriguing story lines, I see the men’s side playing-out in fairly routine fashion, with Novak Djokovic beating either Andy Murray or Gael Monfils to claim his first French Open title.

Murray has the game to beat anyone, anywhere. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – a lousy start to 2014 and the absence of a coach, the Scot seems to be playing with extra purpose and resolve at this year’s French. He battled to dismiss disciplined German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber 12-10 in the fifth set of a third-round marathon, in which the Scot had plenty of chances to lose.

After winning the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon last year, Murray both knows he has what it takes to win, and, since, in winning Wimbly, he’s already met the grandest expectations anyone ever had of him, he’s now effectively playing with house money. That, coupled with potential quarter-final opponent Stan Wawrinka’s unexpected departure in the first-round, must be freeing for Murray. Why not add a cherry on top in the form of a major title on his worst surface, clay?

Monfils, meanwhile, is the ultimate showman (and potentially the coolest person on planet Earth), and playing better than he has in a number of years. With the Parisian faithful firmly behind their home-town boy, look for Le Monfe to deliver the goods against wily Spaniard Garcia-Lopez in the round of 16, and then give Murray all he can handle in the quarters.

Whomever prevails in the Murray-Monfils quarterfinal, I think, will then knock-off Rafa in the semis. Pundits will call this a shocking upset. It will not be.

We got multiple tastes of Rafa’s newfound vulnerability on clay during the spring. Losses in Monte Carlo and Barcelona to countrymen Ferrer and Almagro, players he has historically treated more as whipping boys than serious opponents, pointed to growing doubts from the lefty about his ability to continue dominating on the dirt.

Then, in Rome, Murray blasted thru Rafa to win the first set 6-1. True, Rafa clawed back into the match, ultimately emerging with a hard-fought 7-5 triumph in the third. But the Spaniard’s level, and belief, on clay has dropped a bit, and Murray has the goods to capitalize and pull off an upset in the Paris semis.

With Monfils, anything is possible, always, including stunning victories over the world’s best, and jaw-droppingly lopsided losses against journeyman whose names most tennis fans will never know.

So, that’s the top half of the draw. We’ve got either Murray or Monfils emerging to the finals.

Down on the bottom, week one provided plenty of intrigue and story lines. This was highlighted, of course, by Ernests Gulbis’s captivating, five-set win over Roger Federer in the round of 16. Followers of the game are on the edge of their seat wondering if the talented Latvian is now, finally, putting everything together and on the path to reaching what has always been enormous potential.

He’ll face-up with world number six Tomas Berdych in the quarters. The Czech has cruised thru his first four matches in Paris. But the real news from the Czech is that he has shamelessly forced his entire team to collude in his H&M-abetted fashion miscues throughout the Paris fortnite – poor souls.

As with Monfils, anything is possible with Gulbis – he can lose to and beat everyone. He can be two players during the same match. With Berdych, you know what you’re going to get: big, technically sound ball-striking that is devoid of creativity and, stylistically, provides tennis’ counter to Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. This one could truly go either way.

In an important way, though, the outcome of Gulbis-Berdych doesn’t really matter. Both players are mere pawns in, and detracting attention from, the main story on the men’s side in Roland Garros: Novak Djokovic’s inevitable march to his first French Open title.

Djokovic is focused. He’s hungry. He’s playing better than anyone else. He’s got Rafa’s number (yes, he does: he’s won their last four matches and eight of the last 9 sets the two have contested). He wants to regain the number one ranking, he wants to complete the career grand slam, and he wants to do all this in Rafa’s palace at Stade Roland Garros.

Although I don’t think he’ll have to go thru the Spaniard himself to get the job done, expect to see Djoker on the winner’s podium next Sunday. The Serb will beat Tsonga later today (I’m sprinting to finish this post before that match is already decided!), dismiss Raonic, potentially playing left-handed, in a sleeper in the quarters (the tennis world is fawning over Raonic’s run to the final eight in Paris, but let’s not forget that a healthy Nishikori would’ve taken down the Canadian in the round of 16), and then steamroll his way thru an outmatched Gulbis or an outclassed Berdych in the semis, before grinding to victory against Murray/Le Monfe.

Just like this year’s NBA playoffs, amidst tons of intrigue, tantalizing story lines, and even a bit of scandal (Berdych’s fashion choice), this year’s French Open men’s title will be claimed in fairly routine fashion by a 2-seed who is simply better in all aspects than his opponents.

Maybe Djok and Lebron will have a victory dinner to celebrate.

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