Eurosport - Tue, 22 May 00:52:00 2007
French Open - Believe it or not, a Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer French Open final is not necessarily ordained from above. Jeremy Stahl runs through the list of contenders who stand a chance on the red-hot clay at this year's Roland Garros.
Rafael Nadal - The odds-on bet
We would be loathe not to mention the two-time defending champion as the easy favourite to defend his crown. The world number two is coming off of the heels of his first defeat on the slow dirt in more than two years, but his loss to Roger Federer in the Hamburg final takes nothing away from the Spaniard's record-breaking 81-match win streak on clay. In addition to having a perfect record in his two years at Roland Garros, Rafa has yet to have even been pushed to a fifth set at Paris. Three titles in four claycourt tournaments in 2007 bode well for the 20-year-old man-child from Majorca.
Roger Federer - To be the greatest.....
From John McEnroe to Andre Agassi, the general consensus among tennis' now wise (once wild) men is that Roger Federer needs to win the French Open and become the sixth man to achieve the Slam in order to challenge for the mantle of "greatest-of-all-time." After a previously disappointing claycourt season, Fed-ex won his first clay title of the spring in Hamburg. More importantly, the Swiss Slam machine overcame one of his biggest goblins of the past two years and beat Rafael Nadal on clay for the first time in six tries. Though Federer had been coy about his Roland Garros hopes, the world number one is clearly anxious to get over the final hurdle of a brilliant career on the burning red dirt of Paris.
Fernando Gonzalez - Gonzo-mania strikes again?
The fifth ranked Chilean starts the French Open as the most credible challenger to the world number one and the two-time defending champion, having already reached the final of one Grand Slam and a claycourt Masters series this year. The man whose red-hot Oz Open run was only ended by an unstoppable Federer in the final, also reached the final of the Rome Masters before being trounced by Nadal. If he can somehow avoid the top-two in the draw, another Gonzo Grand Slam final is a distinct possibility in Paris.
Novak Djokovic - The other young gun
The Serbian starlet, who turned 20-years-old a week before the start of this year's French Open, has not quite rivalled Rafa Nadal as the best young player on the ATP Tour this year, but he has come close. Djokovic, third in the 2007 ATP Points Race behind only Federer and Nadal, won titles in Adelaide and Estoril, and beat Rafa on his way to a Miami Masters crown in a brilliant first-half of the season. He reached the quarter-finals of last year's Roland Garros before retiring hurt down to sets to eventual winner Nadal, but after gaining more experience against Rafa at the Rome, Miami, and Indian Wells Masters, is in the best-possible position to challenge his top-ten 20-year-old peer.
Nikolay Davydenko - Looks good on paper
A perennial Grand Slam quarter-finalist, the Russian had his best-ever finish at Roland Garros in 2005 losing to Mariano Puerta in the semi-finals. Despite his third consecutive quarter-finals appearance at the Australian Open this January, Davydenko's 2007 had been anything but impressive with several first and second round exits. But then the world number four nearly showed what he is nearly capable of by nearly beating Rafael Nadal at the Rome Masters in a semi-final epic. Nearly will not be good enough at Roland Garros, however.
Guillermo Canas - The upset specialist
Returning to the ATP circuit from a 15-month doping suspension last fall, the Argentine gained a more positive notoriety this spring by beating world number one Roger Federer in two consecutive tournaments. Canas has the quickness and defensive agility to challenge the world's best on the slow surface, as he proved in his encore victory over Federer in a thrilling 7-6(2) 2-6 7-6(5) victory at the Miami Masters. Having already beaten former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero on clay to win the Brazil Open, Canas went onto reach the finals in Barcelona before succumbing to Nadal. But only one victory in his last three tournaments means "El Gigantico Killero" has cooled heading into Paris.
Though both the Australian and the Spaniard have faded significantly since their respective runs at the top of the world rankings, back in November 2001 and March 1999 respectively, both Hewitt and Moya have surged into this year's French Open. The former US Open and Wimbledon champion Hewitt struggled after winning the Las Vegas Open in February, but demonstrated shades of his former attacking greatness against Nadal in the semi-finals at Hamburg before losing 6-2 3-6 5-7 to the Spaniard. Moya, the 1998 French Open champion, also started the season strong with a title on clay in Acapulco in February, before struggling up until an impressive Hamburg run, which was ended by eventual champion Roger Federer in a thrilling 6-4 4-6 2-6 semi-final. Between the 30-year-old Moya and the 26-year-old Hewitt, you have to give the edge to the Australian.
David Nalbandian - The long-shot
Another really strong contender on paper, Nalbandian reached his second Roland Garros semi-finals appearance in 2006 before retiring against world number one Roger Federer. The big-hitting 25-year-old has disappointed this season with only one quarter-finals appearance at Barcelona, but is capable of beating anybody in the world as he showed at the Masters Cup final against Federer in 2005. Prone to unforced errors and on-court nervous break-downs the hot-blooded Argentine has all the potential to win the French Open, but probably lacks the mental toughness to go all the way.
Philipp Kohlschreiber - The really, really long-shot
The 23-year-old German could turn a few heads and cause a couple of upsets at Paris, if he continues the form that has seen him to a career-best ranking of 32nd in the world. Kohlschreiber, a natural dirt-baller, won his first-career title on the clay at Munich last month. He pushed Rafa Nadal to four sets before losing to the Spaniard in the second round of the Australian Open, and reached the quarter-finals at Monte Carlo before falling to the eventual champion Nadal yet again. The added experience against the world number two could very well work to his advantage.
And the rest....
Andy Roddick, James Blake, Ivan Ljubicic, Tommy Robredo, Tomas Berdych, and Tommy Haas are threats in any major tournament, while claycourt specialists Juan Ignacio Chela, Juan Carlos Ferrero and David Ferrer could also do some damage.Jeremy Stahl