Will Roger Federer recapture this glory? Can the Frenchmen win one for their home fans? With Roland Garros just a few days away, Richard Evans runs down five key questions for the men ahead of the French Open.
Can an outsider pull a Gustavo Kuerten?
Gustavo Kuerten was 20 years old when he arrived from winning a Challenger title in Brazil and swept through the field in flamboyant style to win the first of his three French Open crowns. I suppose you could call the tall Croat Marin Cilic (pictured) an outsider for this year’s title, but he is already hovering near the Top 10 in the world and would be most people’s pick to cause an upset. However, Ernests Gulbis — ranked No. 34 going into Madrid — has so much natural ability that he could become this year’s surprise package. Beating Roger Federer in Rome and taking a set off Nadal in the semifinal offered proof of the 21-year-old Latvian’s improvement.
Can France produce a home-grown champion?
Not since Yannick Noah — father of Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah — won Roland Garros in 1983 has a Frenchman won his country’s premier title. Henri Leconte threatened by reaching the final in 1988, but hopes now rest with Gael Monfils (pictured) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The latter is barely a contender on clay, but Monfils — with a semifinal showing in 2008 and a quarterfinal last year — undoubtedly has the ability to upset anyone in front of a crowd he can whip into a frenzy with his beguiling personality. Unfortunately, injuries seem to hamper his progress. But if Australian coach Roger Rasheed can get him fit and focused, then Monfils’ elastic skills could give him an outside chance. He will, however, have to put up a tighter and more coherent performance than he did while losing to Nadal in Madrid last week.
Can an American even get close?
Well, Andy Roddick got to the fourth round last year — his best showing on Parisian clay in eight attempts. Whether he can better that achievement after being struck down by a bad stomach bug in Madrid, which deprived him of much needed match practice, remains to be seen.
Perhaps we should look to the younger generation — Sam Querrey and John Isner (pictured), those two giants who have been making a bit of an impression in Europe this spring. When Querrey beat Isner in the final of Belgrade, it was the first time two Americans had made it to the final of a European clay court tournament since 1991. Although he lost in the first round of Madrid while Isner progressed to the third, Querrey seems to have the better clay-court credentials. Both feel that they can make an impression with their massive serves. But it may still be too soon to start talking about them emulating the feats of former champions Jim Courier (1991-92) and Andre Agassi (1999).
Is Rafael Nadal unbeatable on clay once again?
Since arriving in Monte Carlo in the middle of April, Rafael Nadal has looked like a man who was, indeed, invincible on red European clay ever since he first won Roland Garros in 2005, starting a run of four consecutive titles at the French Open (not to mention six straight in Monte Carlo and four in five years in Rome).
It was only when Roger Federer beat him in the final in Madrid last year that the first hint of frailty emerged, and then came the staggering upset in Paris when he lost in the fourth round to Sweden’s unheralded Robin Soderling. He was, of course, not fully fit, but the knees and other ailments seem to be a thing of the past now after taking out Federer in straight sets in this year's Madrid final last weekend. With that win building his confidence, Nadal will be as hungry and as prepared as he has ever been to get his hands back on a crown he had come to believe was his own.
Can Federer defend his crown?
If Rafael Nadal continues the clay court form he has shown so far — dropping just two sets while winning Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid — then Federer has got a big problem. Quite apart from Nadal, Federer needs to up his game, which has been strangely lacking in self-belief since his triumph at the Australian Open, after falling to Nadal in straight sets in the Madrid final.
However, it should be remembered that Federer has proved himself to be far and away the second best clay-court player in the world over the past eight years. Nine clay court titles (four of them Masters Series, plus one Slam) and 11 other appearances in finals offer testimony to that. Never count him out.