The way many tennis fans and analysts see it there's really no point in contesting the French Open as it's likely to be yet another coronation for the legendary King of Clay, Rafael Nadal. If he were to win again at Roland Garros, it would be for a record seventh time, breaking his own mark of six French championships, an honor he shares with the great Bjorn Borg.
But is it really going to be as simple as showing up in Paris and going through the motions for Nadal? Likely not.
Recall that in last year's French Open Nadal was lucky to escape his opening match when he was pushed to five sets in the first round by top American player John Isner, in a grueling four-hour affair. While there don't appear to be any dangers lurking for Nadal early on this time around, he'll no doubt be tested during the latter stages of the Parisian fortnight.
First things first though. There's really only one question that most have during this Roger-Federer-ranked-third stage in the sport - will he be on Nadal or Djokovic's side of the draw? Remarkably, since Federer has been ranked outside the top two, he and Nadal have only been slotted in the same half of the draw on two occasions in the Slams. And sure enough, they are again at opposite ends of the draw (alighting many tennis chat boards with paranoid discussion of pro-Nadal draw bias). This will prove to be difficult for Novak Djokovic, if he and Federer both survive and meet in the semifinals. Remember it was Federer who arrested Djokovic's undefeated streak when he upended the Serb in four sets in last year's French semis.
Nadal should cruise through the first three rounds with little difficulty - in fact getting to the final does appear to be a foregone conclusion for the Spaniard. Yet there appears to be an intriguing encounter possibly in the fourth round between Nadal and Canadian star Milos Raonic. For over a year now most tennis observers have pegged Raonic as the next dominant player in the sport as he's imbued with a Pete Sampras-like serving fluidity. It's unlikely he can upset Nadal on the dirt but it should prove to be an entertaining match.
Aside from Raonic there's no player who should threaten Nadal until the semifinals, where his likely foes will be either fellow Spaniard David Ferrer or the aforementioned Isner. Ferrer has beaten Nadal on big occasions before (the quarterfinals of the 2007 U.S. Open) and is a tremendous nuisance to play with his relentless retrieving skills and surprising power put forth by his diminutive 5-foot-9 frame. But it's too much to ask Ferrer to take down Nadal on clay. If Nadal were to face Isner again, I'd look for Nadal to try to extend rallies against the 6-foot-9 power server in an effort to exhaust his foe before Isner settles into a serving routine.
Fourth-seeded Andy Murray has been left out of this conversation because, though he has reached at least the semis of his last five Slams, his form has been less than stellar of late. Murray has forever been a conundrum for many, a player of considerable skill but a sometimes emotinally fragile player who has had the misfortunte of having Messrs. Nadal, Federer and Djokovic as his conetmporaries. But maybe Murray’s coach Ivan Lendl, himself a three-time winner at the French Open, can guide Murray through the often laborious on-court proceedings on clay.
The other half of the draw is a bit more interesting, particularly for Roger Federer. While Djokovic should waltz his way into the semifinals much the same way he did last year, Federer will have a decidedly trickier quarterfinal matchup where he's destined to play either Juan Martin Del Potro or Tomas Berdych. Both men are playing solidly of late and either would be a serious test for Federer. He does have dominating records against both men (11-2 vs. Del Potro and 11-4 vs. Berdych) yet both opponents have scored huge victories over Federer - Del Potro beating Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final and Berdych besting Federer in the 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinals.
But I look for Federer to survive these scares. After all, he is unquestionably the second-best clay court player of his time. This fact is often lost because Nadal is so dominant on the dirt. Consider that since 2005 Federer has lost to Nadal five times at Roland Garros. Only one man has beaten him aside from Nadal in that stretch - Robin Soderling in 2010.
So again, it'll come down to Federer and Djokovic in the semis of a Slam. If the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry has usurped the Federer-Nadal tussles and is indeed the current text in the sport, the nearly as compelling subtext is that of Federer vs. Djokovic. Last year alone they played in two stirring semifinals, with Federer winning the French Open battle and then Djokovic triumphing in the U.S. Open in a match that will be seared forever in tennis lore when Djokovic closed his eyes and went for broke while Federer had two match points on his serve in the fifth set.
While most of the pre-tournament talk has been of Nadal's attempt to score that seventh title in Paris, Novak Djokovic is going for an arguably more impressive feat - that of winning four consecutive Slams. It hasn't been done since Rod Laver won the true, calendar-year Grand Slam in 1969. Federer came close several times and Nadal had a shot at it a couple of years ago. If Djokovic were to win the French Open and secure his fourth straight Slam title during this particularly golden and challenging era in the sport, it would be a stirring achievement. But he'll have a lot of work to do on the final weekend of the event if he is to win the only Slam he's yet to claim.
Federer has a way of disrupting Djokovic's rhythm that he can't quite manage to do against Nadal. This is firstly due to Federer's more effective first serve and also because he can rush Djokovic into errors at critical times. And since Djokovic isn't hitting the ball as cleanly as he did during his historic 2011 campaign (it would have been unfair to expect him to replicate his incredible results from a year ago) I'd look for a Federer victory against Djokovic. That is, if the all-time Slam leader can manage to make it through to the semifinals. If Federer doesn’t reach the final four, it’s all but certain Nadal and Djokovic will play their fourth straight Slam final.
But if Nadal and Federer would meet for an unprecedented fifth time in the French final, is there a chance that the outcome would be different? No. Nadal would undoubtedly manufacture a pedestrian three- or four-set victory over Federer.
SEMIFINALS: Nadal defeats Isner, Federer defeats Djokovic
FINAL: Nadal defeats Federer