The Dirty Dozen: Roland Garros Dark Horses Preview
While attention focuses annually on a small group of contenders, Roland Garros would be much less intriguing without the upset threats that populate each year’s draw. A look at the contenders lies ahead next week, but the spotlight this weekend shines on the dark horses. None of these men or women can win the title in Paris, almost certainly, so their triumphs will consist of stopping those who could.
Stanislas Wawrinka: Almost ranked too high to fit in this category, he cracked the top ten after reaching the final in Madrid. There, Wawrinka recorded consecutive victories over top-eight opponents Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych, rallying from multiple deficits in the latter match. Well before then, the Swiss No. 2 had established himself as a formidable underdog by taking Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to final sets at the Australian Open and Indian Wells, respectively. When the battlefield shifted to clay, he routed Andy Murray in Monte Carlo and David Ferrer to win the Portugal Open title. Wawrinka’s resilient fitness and physical baseline style prepare him well for best-of-five on clay, although he never has reached the quarterfinals in Paris. Nor has he ever won a set from Rafael Nadal.
Nicolas Almagro: The third-ranked Spanish man struggled at the Masters 1000 clay tournaments, continuing a trend of futility at that level. Almagro deserves inclusion here because of his three Roland Garros quarterfinal runs, all ended by losses to Nadal, and his finals appearance at the Barcelona 500 tournament. During the overlooked clay season in North and South America, moreover, he reached the semifinals or better at three of four tournaments, holding set points against Nadal in Acapulco. Almagro often has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, for he let a substantial early lead escape him when he faced Rafa in Barcelona. That flaw emerged in equal proportion to his potential at the Australian Open, where he raced to within two points of the semifinal before surrendering an even larger lead.
Tommy Haas: Thirty-five years young, the evergreen German soared to another title on home soil in Munich, losing only one set all week. Haas brought that momentum to Madrid the next week, where he recorded impressively convincing victories over clay specialists Tommy Robredo and Andreas Seppi. Able to win a set from Ferrer, whom he never has defeated, he arrived in Rome a bit weary and promptly exited to Mikhail Youzhny. His decision to play another home tournament in Dusseldorf next week makes sense for the top-ranked German but will permit him no respite before Roland Garros. Haas has won his most recent meetings against both Novak Djokovic and Federer, however, while he came closer than anyone to stopping the Swiss short of the career Grand Slam.
Jerzy Janowicz: His game would seem more suited to fast courts like those at the Paris indoors, where he achieved his breakthrough last fall. But Janowicz fitted his explosive weapons to the slow clay of Rome with impressive results, scoring top-ten upsets over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet. Against Federer, far more proficient on clay, he imposed his mixture of bullet forehands and delicate drop shots well enough to nearly steal a set. Janowicz sometimes reminds of Ernests Gulbis, who reached a Roland Garros quarterfinal before with a similar combination of power and finesse. Until Rome, however, he had accomplished little on the surface with first-round losses in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. And the restless Paris crowd may fray his raw emotions.
Fabio Fognini: Like Almagro, this Italian opened his clay season in South America and soon struck a rich vein of form by reaching the Acapulco semifinals. Taking a set from Ferrer there, Fognini also defeated Wawrinka in a result that presaged his Monte Carlo surge. At the first of the clay Masters 1000 tournaments, this man who never had reached a quarterfinal at this level reached his first semifinal there. Fognini did it the hard way, upsetting Berdych and Richard Gasquet in stunningly routine fashion. Since then, the bloom of those successes has faded a bit with early exits over the next three weeks. Fognini came close to reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals two years ago, and he has played a series of memorable five-setters in Paris.
Grigor Dimitrov: Sharapova’s leading man usually spurs parallels to Federer, particularly his serve and backhand. Not yet worthy of the comparison, Dimitrov achieved the greatest feat of his career so far when he upset Djokovic in an epic, contentious three-setter of exceptional quality. That Madrid breakthrough concluded a series of matches against top-five opponents that he gradually grew closer to winning. Winning a set from Nadal in Monte Carlo, Dimitrov handled Rafa’s topspin much more effectively than the man on whom he modeled his game. Outside nerve-induced cramps, his fitness and movement have improved dramatically over the last year. Dimitrov has struggled to follow one impressive result with another, so an early Rome loss may bode well for Paris. Never has he passed the second round of a major.
Roberta Vinci: Italians have built a recent tradition of exceeding expectations at Roland Garros, so this veteran aims to follow in the footsteps of Francesca Schiavone and Sara Errani. A doubles titlist there with Errani, Vinci won the first edition of the Katowice clay event over Petra Kvitova and repeated that result while spearheading Italy’s Fed Cup victory a week later. Benefited by a comfortable Rome draw, she reached the quarterfinals there despite a shaky start. Even before the clay season, she had accumulated impressive results by reaching a Dubai semifinal and Miami quarterfinal. Vinci’s veering backhand slice becomes especially lethal on clay, although she has suffered a series of first-round losses at Roland Garros and will want to stay away from Varvara Lepchenko, who has defeated her twice on clay recently.
Ana Ivanovic: The 2008 Roland Garros champion already has accumulated more clay victories this year than in any other season since she won Paris and ascended to No. 1. Ivanovic followed two Fed Cup victories and a quarterfinal in Stuttgart with a semifinal in Madrid, her best result at an event of that magnitude in over four years. Defeating Angelique Kerber twice this clay season, she also won a set from Sharapova. These achievements surprised in view of her meager results through February and March, but Ivanovic always has produced the unexpected. In the wake of her Madrid run, she suffered an inexplicable opening loss in Rome to Urszula Radwanska, and that Madrid run itself might not have happened if not for the woeful serving of Laura Robson, whom she edged past in a third-set tiebreak.
Jelena Jankovic: Echoing the exploits of her countrywoman, the elder Serb reached the quarterfinals in Rome with an upset over 2011 Roland Garros champion Li Na. Jankovic also won her first 10 matches this year on clay as she swept past overmatched competition in Bogota and Charleston. At the latter tournament, on green clay rather than the conventional terre battue, she even won a set from Serena Williams. JJ fans will remind you that she often delivers the least when most is expected, while she lost early at the other two key WTA clay events in Stuttgart and Madrid. Roland Garros has witnessed her most consistent results of any major, however, including three semifinals between 2007 and 2010. Well past her peak now, can she turn back the clock?
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: Either very good or very bad this year, the Russian is the only woman outside the top four to win multiple titles. The second of those came on the clay of Portugal, where she weathered two three-setters and early adversity in the final. Pavlyuchenkova largely has kept in check a serve that can veer out of control, and she held three set points in each set of her loss to Azarenka in Madrid. The guidance of new coach Martina Hingis could offer this former Roland Garros quarterfinalist the boost that she needs to score that type of upset, although this major notoriously eluded Hingis during her playing days. If she gets past her first opponent in Paris, Pavlyuchenkova should keep building momentum from there.
Carla Suarez Navarro: Armed with a backhand that recalls Justine Henin’s flamboyant stroke, she has risen to a career-high ranking this year with finals in Acapulco and Portugal. Suarez Navarro also upset Samantha Stosur on European clay before advancing to the quarterfinals in Rome. An underrated competitor, she excels in long matches and rallied to defeat Petrova there after saving two match points. Suarez Navarro’s serve leaves her vulnerable to the massive returners at the top of the women’s game, but a similar flaw did not prevent Sara Errani from reaching the Roland Garros final last year. Gone in the first week of her last three trips to Paris, she reached the quarterfinals as a qualifier in her first appearance there, winning as many matches as the eventual champion.
Kaia Kanepi: Sidelined until April with injury, this two-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist found her form surprisingly soon . Kanepi has not played on any surface but clay this year, which leaves her both well-adjusted and relatively fresh. Three straight-sets victories carried her to the Portugal semifinals, while her most impressive achievement may have consisted of reaching the Madrid quarterfinals. Among her victims there was Suarez Navarro, against whom she avenged a Portugal loss. Kanepi did not play Rome but will return to action in Brussels next week. Her playing style succeeds there for the same reasons that Sharapova won the title last year: heavy ball-striking that penetrates even the slowest surfaces, combined with extra time to line up her targets.
And, to make it a baker’s dozen, let’s add…
Simona Halep: Strong on clay in 2012, she reached the quarterfinals or better at three tournaments and finished runner-up in Brussels. Halep had sunk to the status of an aspiring qualifier for key tournaments by the time that she arrived in Rome, where she enjoyed the strongest week of a WTA quaifier in recent memory. Notching six straight victories to reach the quarterfinals, Halep demolished former Roland Garros champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, rallied past world No. 4 Radwanska, dominated Vinci, and mounted another comeback to edge past Jankovic after saving a match point. That string of victories over players with far superior credentials popped plenty of eyes and will cause her ranking to soar, although probably not high enough for a Roland Garros seed.