When tennis tournaments are previewed, a “B.C. and A.D.” time-split exists: before the draw, and after the draw. The Friday announcement of the Roland Garros bracket will bring forth its own questions, but here are five players that will carry their own question marks to Paris, regardless of where they fall in this 128-player event:
5 – ERNESTS GULBIS
The biggest variable in the opening week of the men’s tournament at Roland Garros could very well be this Latvian mystery of a man. He made the quarterfinals in Paris in 2008 at the age of 19, several months after a fourth-round run at the 2007 U.S. Open. Before turning 20, Gulbis’s natural ballstriking ability was evident. Yet, to use a turn of phrase from the gifted tennis commentator Mary Carillo, Gulbis could not “get out of his own way.” He hasn’t made the second week of a major since that 2008 French Open. He’s the ultimate active tennis headcase on the ATP Tour, with Nicolas Almagro not too far behind.
Yet, in 2014, Gulbis has actually managed to win at least two matches at a majority of the tournaments he’s played in. For him, that’s progress. It’s a low bar, but the very fact that Gulbis is showing a little more resilience means that a fourth-round appearance here is not out of the question. Gulbis is quite capable of busting a bracket. He won’t make the semifinals, but he could cause some trouble and clear the path for somebody else.
The second weeks of majors are reserved for the good boys (and girls) who take care of business and compete for championships. The first weeks are reserved for the troublemakers — how many of them will alter their own section of the bracket? Gulbis is the leader of this pack in Paris.
4 – INJURY WATCH: KEI NISHIKORI
On form alone, Nishikori would have been a favorite to make the quarterfinals and a strong candidate to make the semifinals at Roland Garros. However, an injury suffered in the Madrid final on May 11 — when he was outplaying Rafael Nadal — has changed the equation for the ascendant Japanese standout, who cracked the top 10 thanks to a special springtime run on both hardcourts and clay.
Can “Clay Nishikori” make a reappearance in Paris, or will his body stand in the way? That’s a question many will be asking when this tournament begins.
3 – ANDY MURRAY
The two-time major champion will want to plant his flag at Wimbledon, where he’ll be defending 2,000 rankings points (and British pride). However, his surprisingly strong and clearheaded performance in the Rome quarterfinals this past Friday against Rafael Nadal — losing 7-5 in the third set after more than two and a half hours of combat — suggests that a fourth-round showing or even a quarterfinal appearance is not outside the realm of possibility.
If a player with Murray’s talent and experience can be considered a quarterfinal threat, what would an unexpectedly good draw, combined with a big upset of the top-four seed in his quarter of the draw, do for him?
Intrigued? I am.
2 – GRIGOR DIMITROV
The three younger players that, a few years ago, were expected to become The Next Big Things on the ATP Tour were Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic, and Dimitrov. Yes, Raonic did make the Rome semifinals this past week, and moreover, he pushed Novak Djokovic much more than Dimitrov tested Rafael Nadal in the other semifinal. However, Dimitrov has done more over the past several months to merit the distinction of being the best younger hope on tour. For one thing, he’s made a major quarterfinal, unlike Raonic. Second, he played well in that quarterfinal, in this year’s Australian Open. He had a set point against Rafael Nadal at 6-5 in the third-set tiebreaker. Dimitrov could have taken a two-sets-to-one lead against one of the legends of the sport. However, he missed what would have been a point-winning forehand. Nadal was able to escape with the tiebreaker and ultimately the match.
Dimitrov’s losses this season have generally come against highly-accomplished opponents (Nadal, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych) or very dangerous challengers (Gulbis in particular). He’s won multiple titles in lower-tier tournaments and has exhibited a level of physical fitness he didn’t possess in prior years. He’s not likely to make the semifinals, but 2014 is a year in which Dimitrov has to stack together some quarterfinal apperances at the majors. He needs to build up his rankings points so that his top-12 position can soon become a top-8 slot. He also needs to continue to meet the likes of Nadal and Djokovic in quarterfinals so that in 2015, he might be able to break through and win one such encounter — maybe even two.
1 – ROGER FEDERER
He’s played one match since making the Monte Carlo final in late April. His wife gave birth to twins. Federer has enjoyed a solid season, one good enough to move from eighth to fourth in the world rankings, but there’s no handbook for how to play championship-level tennis in the midst of so many off-court joys and transitions. You could see a liberated Federer in Paris. You could also see a rusty one.
This isn’t a question of doubting what Federer is capable of; he’s capable of great tennis, and he’s displayed quite a lot of it one year after a doom-and-gloom feel encompassed his career — not in his own mind, but among many fans and onlookers in the global tennis community. Federer could make a huge run in Paris. Just the same, his lack of match play leaves him vulnerable to an upset if he draws a hot player who is able to maintain a high level.