The men’s draw for the 2015 French Open has been announced.
A one-word summary of the draw: KABOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!
The doomsday scenario arrived for legions of Spaniards and Serbs on Friday in Paris. Rafael Nadal, seeded sixth at this tournament due to his struggles over the past few months, was slotted to play Novak Djokovic, the top seed in search of history… in the quarterfinals.
That’s right: The signature matchup at this and the past three French Opens will take place on a Tuesday or Wednesday of the second week, not on Semifinal Friday or Championship Sunday. It’s a big letdown for NBC, which won’t be able to show that match at the end of the tournament, but it’s great news for ESPN2, which will likely be able to get its mitts on that featured showdown.
Enough about television interests, though. The importance of seeing Nadal and Djokovic in the quarterfinals has all sorts of consequences for this tournament and the 2015 tennis season. This is a classic example of why draws matter… only for unexpected sets of reasons.
Maybe the doomsday draw won’t stand in the way of Rafael Nadal’s push for a 10th Roland Garros championship. If Nadal is able to do the deed, he would not only increase his legend to a degree not thought possible a few months ago (it is in the nature of legends to do that sort of thing, no?); he would cause Djokovic to shed over 800 rankings points and — more consequentially — change the complexion of Djokovic’s glorious 2015 season with 180-degree severity.
Conversely, if Djokovic does manage to beat Nadal at Roland Garros for the first time, Rafa would lose over 1,600 rankings points, putting him at risk of falling to a double-digit world ranking. That seems beyond comprehension. (It is.) Yet, it’s entirely possible.
These realities are squarely in play because of the way the draw shook out. Had Djokovic and Nadal existed in opposite halves of the draw, a victory by the winner or a loss by the loser wouldn’t carry nearly as much weight in the realms of points and rankings.
With all this having been said, of course, the main consequence of the draw is not what it might mean for future rankings tabulations. When you’ve attained the stature and riches of Nadal or Djokovic, you’re playing for championships, not for money or any of the side considerations.
This brings us back — squarely — to the 2015 French Open and nothing but. It’s a tournament where all hell could break loose in the bottom half of the draw.
In our women’s preview for the coming fortnight, we noted that one of the central matches of the women’s tournament could occur well before the semifinal-final end stages. Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka could bring championship-level electricity to a third-round match.
In the men’s draw, a similar dynamic exists — most centrally, in the Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal, but also in a specific possible match from the bottom half of the draw.
Let’s speak broadly about the bottom half before focusing on its most anticipated pre-quarterfinal clash. The overall reality which emerges from this half of the men’s draw is that Nadal, Djokovic, and Andy Murray are all absent from it. The top half is so stacked that the bottom half has become a fertile field, a place where green shoots of opportunity will rise from crushed red Parisian brick.
Naturally, most of the publicity in the bottom half will focus on second-seeded Roger Federer, an old man in tennis terms and a player who — precisely because of his age — can’t take any major tournament for granted. One never knows if subsequent years will take his legs away and diminish his skills to the point where he’s no longer a factor.
Forget about probability assessments — possibility is both a hopeful and dangerous thing. Federer cannot say for sure — the same goes for us — if he’ll get another chance as good as this one to make the French Open final.
No Nadal. No Djokovic. No Murray. They’re all in the other half. Federer just beat Tomas Berdych, 3 and 3, in Rome. That’s the highest seed in Federer’s half. Stan Wawrinka is a darkhorse in this half of the draw (Federer’s possible quarterfinal opponent). The best pick to make the final — maybe not the odds-on favorite, but a richly logical choice — could be Kei Nishikori, a man who has unfurled genuine brilliance on clay at times over the past two years. He’d fancy his chances in a quarterfinal against Berdych. He defeated Federer in Madrid last year, so if you wanted to place him in the June 7 title bout against the Nadal-Djokovic winner, you’d have a strong case to make.
Yet, in terms of a possible match which could capture the imagination of both the tennis world and the locals in France, there’s a specific possibility too large to ignore in the bottom half of the draw. It’s a match rooted in recent French Open history… and even more recent tennis history.
In 2008, Roger Federer came this close to squandering a fourth-set lead against Gael Monfils in the French Open semifinals. Had he lost that fourth set, Federer would have been an underdog in the fifth against an opponent who had fresher legs and abundant momentum on his side. Federer didn’t conquer Roland Garros that year, but he made his third final, reaffirming his credentials on clay.
The following year, 2009, Federer not only lacked Nadal in his half of the draw; he didn’t have Nadal in the tournament when he took the court in the Roland Garros quarterfinals. His opponent? Monfils. The two men played a high-level first set, with Monfils owning full awareness of how close he had come to taking down Federer the year before. Federer had all the pressure in the world on his shoulders in that match, but when he was able to take the first-set tiebreaker by the skin of his teeth (8-6), that pressure melted away. He rolled in the next two sets and took a crucial step to his one and only French Open title, a trophy he’ll try to pair with another piece of hardware this spring.
Those French Open triumphs over Monfils could give Federer some comfort if he faces La Monf in the round of 16, but there is no question that Monfils is now the more comfortable player in this matchup on clay. Monfils’s resurgence against Federer was borne, though, on a hardcourt surface, the last time these men met at a major tournament.
In the quarterfinals of the 2014 U.S. Open, Monfils bossed Federer around the court in the first two sets. When past (and more fragile) versions of Monfils would have folded, the Frenchman steadied the ship in a tense fourth set and earned two match points on Federer’s serve. The Swiss saved those match points, however, and once he was able to overcome that hurdle, Federer asked questions Monfils could not answer. Federer won the fourth set, pulled away in the fifth, and left Monfils stricken, stabbed with the pain of “almost.” That match was either going to wreck Monfils’s forward progression, or it was going to serve as a catalyst for something better in an always-mercurial player.
To Monfils’s great credit, he’s used that match as a positive turning point.
Switzerland beat France, 3-1, in the 2014 Davis Cup Final last November in France. The one point Les Bleus won? Monfils dusted an uncertain Federer in three straight sets on red clay.
Fast-forward to Monte Carlo’s round of 16 this past April: Monfils and Federer met again on red brick. La Monf once again had the answers this time after lacking enough of them in New York. He sent off Federer in two straight sets, confirming the fact that this matchup has changed.
Monfils’s best major is Roland Garros — he’s not a rare French tennis player in that he possesses an endless capacity to exasperate. However, he is a rare bird in that he more often uses the home crowd to his advantage, rather than suffocating under pressure at this tournament. You can pick Nishikori to make the final, which would be entirely sensible. You could say, with total legitimacy, that Berdych — a consistent player in 2015 — will once again make his way to a semifinal and give himself a shot at a first major.
Yet, even before Nadal and Djokovic likely reunite in the quarters, Federer-Monfils could very well provide a second example of a match that could provide a finalist… despite being played before the semifinal stages of this tournament.
Serena-Azarenka in the third round of the women’s event.
Federer-Monfils in the fourth round.
Nadal-Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
At the 2015 French Open — men and women alike — a classic Yogi Berra line very much applies:
“It gets late early out there.”