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WTA Roland Garros Visions: Picks, Predictions, Dark Horses, Winners

Maria Sharapova wins Roland Garros French Open 2012

(May 25, 2013) With Roland Garros officially kicking off on Sunday, the team at Tennis Grandstand has once again come together to provide you a one-stop comprehensive preview of the women’s draw of the season’s second Slam. We’ve covered dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets and matches to watch for, and potential semifinalists and eventual champion for the women’s tour.

In the table, you will find the entire Tennis Grandstand team’s “Quick Picks and Predictions” for the WTA draw, with further detailed analysis below by Melissa Boyd, Victoria Chiesa, David Kane, Chris Skelton, and Maud Watson.

Dark Horse

Melissa Boyd: (14) Ana Ivanovic. Ivanovic has played well this clay court season and appears to be most comfortable on the red dirt. Roland Garros is her best chance to win another Slam and the draw was kind to the Serbian. She avoids the Top 3 until the semifinals and finds herself in the same section as the struggling Agnieszka Radwanska and last year’s finalist, Sara Errani.

Victoria Chiesa(20) Carla Suarez Navarro. The Spaniard knows what it takes to be successful in Paris, as she reached the quarterfinals in her debut in 2008 as a qualifier. Since then, however, she has not advanced further than the third round. After reaching the final in Oeiras, she also reached the quarterfinals in Rome before losing to Serena Williams. She opens against another potential dark horse in Simona Halep. Should she find a way past the Romanian, the 20th seed is in by far the most open quarter of the draw to make a run at the second week; a potential third round against Nadia Petrova (11) is in the cards, but the Spaniard already scored a clay-court win against the Russian in Rome.

David KaneSimona HalepHave you ever seen a player and thought, “why do I know you?” You don’t remember them winning a title or causing a noteworthy upset. Yet when Simona Halep clubbed her way into the semifinals of Rome, few among the tennis cognoscenti were completely left scratching their heads. The young Romanian won the French Open girl’s title at 16, but despite being a mainstay of the top 100 for the last few years, had yet to make a big breakthrough on the senior tour. That all changed at the Foro Italico when, as a qualifier, she upset a host of current and former top 4 players including Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic before running out of gas against an inspired Serena Williams. Halep only has one third round appearance on her Grand Slam CV, but should she get past fellow darkhorse Carla Suarz Navarro in the first round, her draw may open up with struggling Nadia Petrova anchoring her section.

Chris Skelton: (14) Ana Ivanovic. The champion here five years ago, she showed glimpses of vintage form by reaching the quarterfinals in Stuttgart and the semifinals in Madrid. Ivanovic extended world No. 2 Sharapova to three tough sets at the former event and demolished top-eight opponent Angelique Kerber at the latter. Ana remains susceptible to the unforeseen clunker, and always will be, but her first-week draw is filled with players whom she normally handles with ease. None of the top three can meet her until the semifinals.

Maud Watson: Can I just say Serb?  I like both (14) Ana Ivanovic and (18) Jelena Jankovic as dark horse candidates.  Both have produced some good tennis in 2013, and this season Jankovic in particular has enjoyed her most success on the dirt.  Still, I’d give the edge to Ivanovic.  She has it easiest in her opening rounds and has actually won a major.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

Boyd(4) Agnieszka Radwanska. It would have been easy to go with Caroline Wozniacki here. The Dane has not won a match on red clay in four tournaments this year and has to play the fast-rising Laura Robson in the first round. Radwanska’s clay court record in 2013 is almost as unflattering as her good friend. She has won just one match and has never made it past the fourth round at Roland Garros.

Chiesa(8) Angelique Kerber. For her first round match, Kerber was dealt one of the players on the fringe of a seeding in countrywoman Mona Barthel. Neither player comes into the match on a rich vein of form. Despite reaching the semifinals and quarterfinals in Stuttgart and Madrid, Kerber withdrew from Rome citing injury; Barthel also withdrew from the Italian Open, and did not win a match in Stuttgart or Madrid. Barthel is a tricky case, as her form can turn on a dime, and she holds a 2-1 head-to-head advantage against her countrywoman. Even if Kerber does pull through this match, she’ll do well to live up to her seeding and set up a quarterfinal date with Serena on her least-preferred surface.

Kane: (6) Li NaThe veteran Chinesewoman has been trending up in 2013, with a run to the Australian Open finals and recovered well from an ankle injury to reach the Stuttgart finals to start the clay court season. But when last we left Li Na, she put on a terrible show to lose to Jelena Jankovic in Rome. So often in tennis, it is rarely about to whom one loses as much as how one plays during that loss. An upset wasn’t improbable, given Li’s resurgent Serbian opponent. But the ridiculously high number of unforced errors (62 in two sets) looks more like foreshadowing than an aberration. Against a steady claycourter in Anabel Medina Garrigues (against whom Li is 0-3 in completed matches) in round one, the 2011 Champion will have to be on song from the get-go, lest she face another surprising Slam exit.

Skelton: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska. The obvious choice in this category is Caroline Wozniacki (see below), but that’s too easy when someone much more notable has struggled almost as much. A top-four seed at Roland Garros, Radwanska has won just one clay match this year while absorbing overwhelming losses to Laura Robson and Simona Halep. Clay is her worst surface, and she withdrew from her Brussels title defense last week with a shoulder injury. While Radwanska doesn’t have many giant-killers around her, Halep didn’t seem like a giant-killer until she slew her.

Watson: (10) Caroline WozniackiA couple of names come to mind here, with one of those names being Caroline Wozniacki.  It’s hard to imagine a time when the former No. 1′s confidence and form have been lower than they are right now.  Against an up-and-comer like Robson – who has already enjoyed more than a few big wins in her young career – she’s definitely ripe for the upset.

First Round Match to Watch For

BoydEugenie Bouchard vs. Tsvetana Pironkova. After reaching her first WTA semifinal in Strasbourg thanks to some impressive wins, the 19-year-old Canadian arrives in Paris on a roll. Her game on clay has vastly improved and she’s chalking up experience as she goes along. It will be interesting to see how she deals with the former Wimbledon semifinalist. A win for Bouchard and she will likely play her idol Maria Sharapova for the second time in two months in the second round.

Chiesa(22) Ekaterina Makarova vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova. One of the women’s draw’s most dangerous floaters, one of Kuznetsova’s crowning career achievements came in Paris when she lifted the trophy in 2009. She just missed out on a seeding here and Makarova is coming off of a strong quarterfinal showing in Madrid that included a win over Azarenka, the Belarusian’s first true loss of the year. The two have never played on clay, but Kuznetsova holds a 2-1 head-to-head lead after a 6-4, 6-4 win in Miami this year.

Kane: (7) Petra Kvitova vs. Aravane Rezai. If you read my article from last week (or follow me on twitter), you’ll know of my penchant for reality television. What first round match looks more likely to be real than Kvitova/Rezai? Both have flashy games, with the ability to crush any ball seemingly at will. Both have the potential to fly horribly off the rails and rack up triple-digit unforced errors. Playing at home, the already-expressive Rezai will draw on the energy of an upset-hungry crowd. Kvitova has been struggling, and seems as far from her top tier, world beating form as ever. The odds of this being a “pretty” match are low, but this has “Trainwreck of the Year” potential written all over it. And damned if I won’t be there for every second.

Skelton: (18) Jelena Jankovic vs. Daniela Hantuchova. This match might not produce the best tennis or most meaningful result on the menu, but the first round is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s a rare opportunity to see two former members of the top five and two major semifinalists meet in the first round. Their last five meetings all have come on clay, they have a relatively close head-to-head with multiple thrillers, and each has shown recent signs of life. Colliding for the first time in two years, Jankovic and Hantuchova will showcase a lovely contrast of styles between the down-the-line groundstrokes of the Serb and the cross-court angles of the Slovak.

Watson: (4) Agnieszka Radwanska vs Shahar Peer in the first round isn’t a popcorn match.  But the Pole has run a dismal clay court campaign that’s been compounded by shoulder issues.  How she looks in her opening match could be a good indicator as to just how likely she is to live up to her No. 4 seeding.

First Round Upset Special

BoydOlga Govortsova d. (13) Marion Bartoli. Bartoli has struggled this season amidst her coaching changes and has not had great preparation coming into Paris. Last week in Strasbourg, she won only five games in a first round loss to Camila Giorgi. Add to that the pressure of playing your home Slam and Bartoli is a prime candidate for a first round upset.

ChiesaLaura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki comes into Roland Garros on a five match losing streak and is winless on red clay so far in 2013. While Robson too has struggled since the early part of the season, Wozniacki’s plight is different. The former World No. 1 seems lost on court and rarely looks to be enjoying her tennis. Barely hanging on to a spot in the top 10, I’d call it a bigger upset if Wozniacki manages to win this match.

KaneKimiko Date-Krumm d. (9) Sam StosurThis pick has little to do with Stosur; though coming off a calf injury that derailed most of her spring, the top Aussie did have a solid run to the quarterfinals of Rome where she pushed nemesis Victoria Azarenka to three sets. This has more to do with her draw, namely her first round opponent, the ageless Kimiko Date-Krumm. No stranger to the first round upset, Date-Krumm beat two-time finalist Dinara Safina in Paris three years ago, and began 2013 with a crushing win over Nadia Petrova in Australia. Her unorthodox groundstrokes are hit with a thudding efficiency, and take time away from her opponents. Even at her best, Stosur is a player who needs the extra couple of seconds that clay courts give her to wind up her topspin forehand. Coming in still lacking sufficient match practice, she could be in for a long day against Date-Krumm, who beat her in their only prior encounter in 2010.

Skelton: Laura Robson d. (10) Caroline Wozniacki. Since reaching the Indian Wells final, Wozniacki has fallen off a cliff. She has not won a match on red clay this year, losing five straight overall starting with Charleston. One of her losses came when she squandered a third-set lead against Bojana Jovanovski, who hasn’t beaten anyone else since the Australian Open. Anyone marginally dangerous will have a chance against Wozniacki right now, and Robson is more than marginally dangerous after she upset Radwanska in Madrid.

Watson: Anabel Medina Garrigues d. (6) Li NaLi Na is another likely prospect for crashing out early, as she takes on Medina Garrigues in her opening match.  Medina Garrigues is a crafty veteran who gave Serena all she could handle in Madrid (albeit with some blatant cheating).  She’s an especially tough customer on the clay, so unless Li can clean up her game, her stay in Paris won’t be a long one.

Semifinalists

Boyd: Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka vs. Maria Sharapova. It’s hard to fathom Williams not navigating her draw rather easily and Errani is in arguably the softest quarter with Radwanska and Ivanovic. Look for last year’s finalist to make another deep run, especially if the weather makes the playing conditions heavy and difficult. The draw was less kind to Azarenka and the defending champion Sharapova, but I still like both of them to make it through to their much-anticipated match up. Azarenka will get a stiff test from Elena Vesnina in the first round and potentially Na Li in the quarters, but she has played well since returning from injury.

Chiesa: It’s hard to see anyone in Serena’s quarter of the draw giving her much trouble, even if Williams comes out struggling with the demons of her early round upset from a season ago. It’s tough to see her losing a set en route to the semifinals. The second quarter is incredibly open with Agnieszka Radwanska as the highest seed. Lurking at the bottom of this quarter is last year’s finalist Sara Errani, and it would be much less surprising to see the Italian at the late stages of the event this time around. Her best chance to beat Serena would be on clay, but even then, it still doesn’t seem likely. Semifinal: Serena Williams d. Sara Errani.

With Victoria Azarenka and Li Na the two seeds in the third quarter of the draw, a potential quarterfinal match between them could go either way. Although Azarenka has turned around the head-to-head between the two, Li’s greater comfort level on the surface can give her the edge here. I expect Sharapova to navigate the minefield that is her quarter of the draw, even if she experiences some bumps along the way. Semifinal: Li Na d. Maria Sharapova

Kane: Kuznetsova/Errani, Azarenka/Sharapova. “But where’s Serena?” Here me out. Given the form exhibited by the undisputed No. 1 in the world this season (no less on clay), there is no reason to think the American won’t bulldoze the field and collect her second French Open title, and her 16th overall.

However. This is at least the fifth time in ten years that Serena has gone into the French Open as the overwhelming favorite, yet has failed to make it past the quarterfinals since her lone victory in 2002. Beyond the loss to Razzano, Williams has seen a 33-Slam match winning streak snapped in 2003, another shocking loss to Katarina Srebotnik in 2008, and premature losses to Svetlana Kuznetsova and Stosur in 2009 and 2010 respectively. All on the terre battue.  Serena simply has a history of not getting it done in Paris, and though now looks like as good a time as ever to turn things around, I’ll believe it when she invariably proves me wrong in two weeks.

That said, 2009 Champion Kuznetsova has a history in Paris and likely prefers to be the underdog. The other three have had some of the best Slam results in the last 12 months, and while their draws look tough on paper, resistance may be surprisingly low (at least for a WTA tournament).

Skelton: Serena Williams, Sara Errani, Victoria Azarenka, Maria Sharapova. Remember the era of anarchy in the WTA when people who you never saw before suddenly became superstars for a week? Well, it’s over. Only one woman outside the top three of Serena, Azarenka, and Sharapova has reached a final across the six marquee events this year (majors, Premier Mandatory, Premier Five). Roland Garros usually does have one clay-court specialist for its flavor of the year, so Errani should repeat her results from Madrid and Rome in the draw’s weakest quarter.

Watson: In the top half, Serena Williams vs. Sara Errani. Serena’s tennis the last 12 months speaks for itself, and that includes the dominance she’s shown this year on the dirt with her titles in Charleston, Madrid and Rome. Her opponent is less certain, but Errani has been very consistent of late. The Italian also reached the final here last year and has been playing better than No. 4 seed A. Radwanska.

In the bottom half, I’ll stick to the seeds and go with Sharapova vs. Azarenka. Sharapova has looked sharp, and lately, it seems Serena is the only one with her number. Azarenka’s star has shined a little less brightly since her win in Melbourne, but she did just reach the finals in Rome and should be feeling confident.

And the Champion is …

Boyd(1) Serena Williams. I think one of the most compelling stories of this fortnight will be watching Williams attempt to conquer her French Open demons after her shocking first round exit in 2012. With the win streak she’s on and the level she’s playing at, the only person who can beat Serena, is Serena herself.

Chiesa(1) Serena Williams. The old saying goes that if you’re going to get them, it’s best to get them early. The World No. 1 is on a mission this year, and if she can navigate her way through the early rounds, it’s hard to see anyone being able to stop her at the business end of the event. While Li has shown she has the game to go toe-to-toe with anyone on tour, it remains to be seen what will happen if she actually gets herself into a winning position. Championship: Serena Williams d. Li Na in three sets.

Kane: (2) Maria Sharapova. Over the years, the French Open women’s event has become known for its predictable unpredictability, and its wackiness tend to happen in twos. Dinara Safina made two runs to the French finals before Errani’s compatriot Francesca Schiavone made two romps of her own (taking the title in 2010). Errani hasn’t had the drop-off in form many had predicted, and looks as capable as ever for another (slightly less) surprising run to a Slam final. Last year’s champion Sharapova must also feel a sense of déjà vu, coming into Paris with the same number of match wins as the year before. She wouldn’t have to play Serena until the final (or at all if you subscribe to my alternate universe), and has proven she can beat everyone else on clay. As the French say, pouquoi pas? Why not?

Skelton: (1) Serena Williams. She swept the two biggest events on outdoor red clay, moving better than she has on the surface since the last time that she won in Paris. She completely thrashed each of her two leading rivals in the Madrid and Rome finals. She will bring an extraordinary level of motivation to atone for last year’s disappointment, since when she has lost just three matches. Nobody is stopping Serena in Paris unless her body betrays her again.

Watson: (1) Serena WilliamsLogically, Serena is the best choice.  She’s playing the best tennis of anyone in the field, and she’s in one of the weakest quarters.  She’s likely also extra motivated after the humiliation she suffered here last year.

ATP Australian Open Visions: Predictions, Matchups and Winners

2012 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic

January 12, 2013 — The Australian Open kicks off main draw play on Monday, January 14th, but what exactly do we have in store in this year’s men’s draw? Your trusty panel of Tennis Grandstand writers delve into the hot topics surrounding the first Slam, including dark horses, seeded players crashing out early, first round upsets, and potential semifinalists and champion for the men’s tour. You won’t have to look anywhere further than our comprehensive coverage!

Check out our women’s Australian Open draw preview here!

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Dark Horse

Romi CvitkovicGrigor Dimitrov.The men’s draw this Slam seems to be very forgiving to the top 8, but not so much to the players just under them. Despite that, the 21-year-old has finally been delivering this year, reaching his first ATP final en route taking out three players ranked considerably higher than him. His road to the quarterfinal is fairly open after his first round encounter with No. 32 seed Julien Benneteau, against whom he holds a 2-0 winning record.

Yeshayahu GinsburgJo-Wilfried Tsonga. Dark horse is a relative term, because the fact remains that in men’s tennis today it’s the top 4 and then everybody else. Nadal is out, so the odds of anyone but Murray, Federer, and Djokovic winning are incredibly low. But if I had to take someone from the field, I’d go with Tsonga. The AO is historically his best Slam and Federer is probably the one of the top 4 he’s most comfortable against in a quarterfinal. The fact that his draw is not particularly challenging until then helps too.

David KaneTommy Haas. The German has had more lives than a cat as he enters 2013 in the midst of his third career. With a pretty nice draw that pits him against a tournament’s supply of wild cards and a pair of Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Haas could keep things interesting for nostalgic fans that remember the German’s glory days. Should he make the second week, he could get a war-weary Roger Federer, who has more than his fair share of tough opponents early on. It might not be too late to party like it’s 2002.

Andrea LubinskyRichard Gasquet. Perhaps it’s a risky pick, at 26, it’s unlikely the Frenchman will all of the sudden start to consistently maximize his talent. However, after hitting a career high of No. 7 in 2007, Gasquet is back in the Top 10. He’s already 5-0 this season after winning his eighth career title, in Doha. His draw isn’t exactly a cake walk, but that backhand should get him to Week 2.

Chris SkeltonMilos Raonic. His towering serve makes him a threat in any draw on any surface, and he nearly toppled potential fourth-round opponent Federer on three occasions in 2012, losing two final-set tiebreaks and a 6-4 final set. Raonic will need to win his previous matches efficiently, something that has troubled him before but certainly within his abilities considering his accommodating draw.

Evan ValeriRichard Gasquet. Winning a three set match against Davydenko in the Doha final to start the year, had Richard fist pumping left and right. Looking reenergized and in a favorable section of the draw, Gasquet is poised to make a deep run during the first major of the season. Look for a potential quarterfinal match up between the current world number ten player and Roger Federer.

Maud WatsonJuan Martin del Potro. Assuming anyone outside of the Big 4 is a dark horse, Delpo is in with a real shot.  He had two big victories over Federer at the end of last season and gave Djokovic all he could handle at the 2012 ATP World Tour Finals.  He’s looking an awful lot like that guy who won the 2009 US Open, and let’s not forget that he is the only one outside of the Big 4 to have won a slam in over half a decade.

Seeded Player Crashing Out Early

CvitkovicFernando Verdasco. Sadly, “Fer” has become my go-to player for crashing out early in Slams. But this time the strengths of his first round opponent, David Goffin, warrant it. The two have never played each other, and though Goffin’s best Slam result came in the fourth round of Roland Garros last year, the young Belgian has had consistent results on the hard courts as well. Fer had a nice showing in Hopman Cup the other week, but we all know those good results come in all too-short bursts for him.

GinsburgJanko Tipsarevic. Nothing against Janko here, but there is no tougher atmosphere in tennis than playing against Lleyton Hewitt in Rod Laver Arena. Hewitt will feed off the crowd and will give Tipsarevic the match of his life. And even if Janko gets through this, it will be physically and emotionally draining, possibly leading to potential problems in his next few matches.

PentecostAlexandr Dolgopolov. His encounter with Gael Monfils may well be the match of the first round, but I suspect it’s one the Dog won’t survive intact. This will of course depend on Monfils’ recovery from Auckland. I also doubt whether Juan Monaco will get past Kevin Anderson in the second round.

SkeltonJanko Tipsarevic.  The second-ranked Serb doesn’t have as many weapons as the rest of the top eight seeds and never has left an impact on Australia other than a first-week epic against Federer in 2008.  He may find himself in trouble against Hewitt in his opener, for the Aussie crowd always galvanizes their champion, but Tipsarevic’s section also includes rising young stars like Janowicz and Dimitrov who look ready to take the next step.

ValeriMarin Cilic. The fourteen seed will lose in the first round to Australian Marinko Matosevic. The two played a tough five setter at the U.S. Open last year where Cilic came out on top but don’t expect the same result this time. Cilic is off to a so so start of the season, losing to Benoit Paire in the quarterfinals of Chennai. The 2012 ATP Most Improved Player of the Year will beat Cilic and advance to the second round.

WatsonJuan Monaco. Monaco was actually given a decent draw, but a hand injury that took him out of the Kooyong Classic has certainly hurt his chances.  Now even his opening match against Kuznetsov is a tricky proposition, and a possible second round encounter with South Africa’s Kevin Anderson may be all she wrote.

First Round and Potential Second Round Matches to Watch For

CvitkovicGael Monfils vs Alexandr Dolgopolov. Though a first-rounder, this match has the potential to be a highlight of the tournament. Both players employ vastly unorthodox playing styles and they will run each other down until someone lands in the hospital. Be certain there will be plenty of diving, slicing, acrobatics and “Ooo’s” and “Aaa’s” from both the audience and the players. I recommend this match over any quarterfinal matchup of the top eight, and that’s saying something.

KaneRobin Haase vs. Andy Murray. That this rematch is nigh may only serve to prove that the end of the Mayan calendar was not so much wrong as they were merely a few weeks late. I was in Armstrong Stadium for the last three sets of their US Open 2011 encounter, which has a similar effect to admitting that one was in the eye of Hurricane Sandy. Murray had seemingly righted the ship after falling two sets behind, only to suddenly take his foot off the proverbial gas pedal within feet of the finish line. Buoyed by support from perennial Armstrong courtside ticketholders (who are usually the ones behind the unnerving “What time is it? Break time!” call and response), Haase took advantage and nearly took the match before Murray once again regained composure. Can these two recreate the magic in the crazy bottle? Can you resist finding out?

PentecostJanko Tipsarevic vs. Lleyton Hewitt. This is sure to be a night match, and here in Australia neither effort nor expense will be spared in whipping the nation to a patriotic froth. It’s hard to see this one lasting less than five sets, or finishing before 2am, which history has shown to be Hewitt’s preferred timeframes.

Skelton: For tennis reasons, Julien Benneteau vs. Grigor Dimitrov.  The Sydney semifinalist faces the Brisbane finalist in an match that pits two hot hands at opposite ends of their careers.  Also featured here is an intriguing contrast in styles between the streamlined two-handed backhand of Benneteau and the graceful one-handed flick of Dimitrov, often compared to Federer’s backhand.  For the best atmosphere in a first-round match, though, nothing  will top Hewitt vs. Tipsarevic, which seems destined for a Rod Laver Arena night session.

First Round Upset Special

CvitkovicLleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. This may be a bold prediction given Tipsarevic is sitting nicely as the 8th seed and Hewitt is ranked 82nd, but Hewitt can surprise anyone, anywhere, and especially on his home turf. Though Hewitt leads their head-to-head 3-1, the two haven’t played since 2009, so dynamics have completely changed. If Hewitt doesn’t pull off the upset, you can be sure it’ll at least go the distance with five sets.

LubinskyLleyton Hewitt d. Janko Tipsarevic. If there’s ever been a player who has played to their maximum potential, it’s Lleyton Hewitt. The 31 year old’s ‘never say die’ attitude makes him a difficult opponent regardless of his health and playing on his home turf seems to give him an extra kick. He’s made the fourth round in three of his last five appearances and has played some excellent tennis at the Kooyong Classic this week, which puts in him a prime position for the upset.

PentecostGrigor Dimitrov d. Julien Benneteau. Dimitrov seems congenitally incapable of playing well for consecutive weeks, but the bad news for Benneteau is that the young Bulgarian got his bad week out of the way in Sydney. Benneteau on the other hand went deep in Sydney, and may balk at a best of five in the Melbourne heat.

Skelton: Gael Monfils d. Alexandr Dolgopolov.  The Frenchman with talent in spades and consistency in spoonfuls moved back into the fringes of relevance with a series of solid victories in Doha and Auckland.  Meanwhile, the mercurial Dolgopolov struggled even against anonymous opponents at every major last year, needing a fifth set to escape the first round here against the world #198.  If Monfils starts well, his opponent may lack the resilience to launch a counterattack.

ValeriGrigor Dimitrov takes down number 32 seed Julien Benneteau. Grigor started the year by taking down seeded players Raonic, Melzer, and Baghdatis to reach his first ATP final in Brisbane, where he lost a tight two setter to Andy Murray,  6-7, 4-6. With new girlfriend Maria Sharapova in his corner, Dimitrov is on a roll to start 2013. This kid has loads of talent and is backing it up by playing smarter than ever, which will prove to be too much to handle for 31 year old Benneteau.

Semifinalists

Cvitkovic: I like to take risks in Slam draws, but with Rafael Nadal out of the loop, the draw gods have been nice to the top eight seeds, and I’m expecting the majority of them to make the semifinals. Djokovic will take on Berdych, while Ferrer will battle compatriot Almagro in the top half. The bottom half will most likely see Del Potro taking on Murray in one semifinal while Tsonga will battle Federer in the other.

Ginsburg: Well, I can’t be that boring with this pick. Then again, in today’s ATP world, not going with the obvious choices at the top is usually just silly. But there are a few potential surprises in the draw. I will take Tsonga, Murray, Djokovic, and Kei Nishikori as my semifinalists. Kei has a 2-1 career head-to-head against Ferrer and I think that Tipsarevic loses early. Nishikori also has the power to overpower Nicolas Almagro in the quarterfinals. This would be a perfect draw for Lleyton Hewitt to make one final miracle run through, but he just doesn’t have the legs to play that many matches anymore. I think Nishikori becomes Japan’s first Grand Slam semifinalist in recent history.

Kane: Djokovic/Ferrer. Despite the loss to Bernard Tomic at Hopman Cup, there’s no reason to believe the No. 1 seed won’t waltz into his third straight Australian Open semifinal (and beyond). That is, assuming he gets past Tomas Berdych. The one major stumbling block to the Big Four, Berdych does not fear the upset, but getting there may prove the bigger challenge for the inconsistent Czech, who lost to Roberto Bautista-Agut in Chennai (I’m forgiven for not knowing who that is, right?). Murray/Federer. Murray has his work cut out for him after an unconvincing (although successful) display in Brisbane two weeks ago, but aside from a potential run-in with Juan Martin del Potro, the Scot will have few problems en route to defending his semifinal points from one year ago. As for the Swiss Maestro, his draw is something of a minefield, littered with upset fodder like Nickolay Davydenko, Tomic, Milos Raonic. Even Lukas Rosol landed in Fed’s section! Yet, for all the talk about his age, Federer has rarely showed it in the first week, and unless Tsonga strings together a nice run, I can’t seen anyone posing a sufficient threat.

Pentecost: Novak Djokovic vs David Ferrer. If anything Ferrer has a cleaner run to the semifinals than Djokovic, although this depends on which version of Berdych shows up. Nonetheless, Djokovic should move through to the final in four sets at most. Roger Federer vs Juan Martin del Potro. I suspect Delpo will push deep here, and upset Murray in the quarterfinals. Federer’s draw is not kind, but he remains the favourite to make it through. I suspect the semifinal will come down to fitness, where the Swiss has the advantage.

Valeri: Novak Djokovic, Janko Tipsarevic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer. I expect the big three to all make the semis, although Federer and Murray will have a harder route than Djokovic, with many potential four and five set hurdles along their way, whereas Novak should cruise. Tipsarevic is set to have a breakthrough and has some momentum coming in with a win in Chennai. He has a tough first rounder against home crowd favorite Lleyton Hewitt, but should get through it and advance to the quarterfinals where he will defeat the number four seed David Ferrer.

And the Winner is …

CvitkovicNovak Djokovic. I can’t really go against the Serb who is the favorite and defending champion. Hard courts are clearly his expertise, though Berdych can prove his most likely nemesis in the quarterfinals. If Federer prevails over Del Potro in the other half, it will be the first time Djokovic and Federer will have met in the final of a Slam since the 2007 U.S. Open. It’s been a long time coming.

Ginsburg: I have to go with Novak Djokovic to three-peat here. Australia is his best Slam and, while he hasn’t been playing at his seemingly-invincible level in a while, he still is the man to beat here in Melbourne.

KaneNovak Djokovic. Ok, Nole fans; you can relax now (or at least stop flailing so violently). For the third year in a row, the Serb has started the year looking the fittest and making the strongest case for supremacy. Odds are strong that he will punctuate that assertion with a hat trick of Australian Open crowns. With Murray and Federer to duke it out in the other semifinal, Djokovic will only have to play one of them for the title, and likely relishes the thought of a rematch with Murray, the man who took his US Open title a few months ago. Had Murray shown more authority in Brisbane, it could have been a toss-up, but he still lacks that consistent killer instinct of his peers.

LubinskyNovak Djokovic. Djokovic/Murray may be the new big rivalry in tennis, but when it comes to the Australian Open, Djokovic is on top. He’s won this tournament three of the last five years, and after finishing runner up at the French Open and US Open, he’s likely to be hungry for another trophy to add to his collection.

PentecostNovak Djokovic. By this point one has to come up with good reasons why Djokovic won’t win his fourth Australian Open, and I can’t think of any. He appears supremely fit, calm, driven and in good form. Of course, Federer is still Federer, and he demonstrated amply last year that age has yet to weary him. On his day, he can still ascend to unplayable heights. But I still feel Djokovic, on blue plexicushion, has the decisive edge.

SkeltonNovak Djokovic.  He has won three of his five major titles in Australia and probably has played his most dominant tennis during those runs.  If playing 11 hours in two matches against Murray and Nadal doesn’t stop this man Down Under, it’s hard to think of anything short of an asteroid strike that will.  He also receives the softer side (e.g., the Ferrer side) of the draw, as though he needs any help.

Valeri:  Novak Djokovic. Djoker is in a great section of the draw and should make the final relatively unscathed. I have never seen a player who can will himself to victory as much as Novak. After a well rested off-season the worlds number one will be ready to fight off any challenges to his throne from Murray or Federer. The two time defending champ has great memories and too much support in Melbourne not to be crowned the 2013 Australian Open Champion.

WatsonNovak Djokovic. Murray ended up in Federer’s half.  Djokovic has won it the last two years.  Federer said that the current World No. 1 has been the best hard court player the last couple of seasons.  Is Djokovic a strong favorite to win the title and pull off the three-peat in Melbourne?  You bet!

***

And there you have it: 8 of 8 Tennis Grandstand writers pick Djokovic as the heavy favorite. That’s pretty good odds for the Serb.

FEDERER, NADAL ARE ROLLING AT ROLAND GARROS

As the second week of the 2010 French Open begins, fans can take a closer look at who is likely to be playing for the title next weekend.

Rafael Nadal, the king of clay and the four-time French Open champion, is the huge favorite in the French Open tennis betting.

Roger Federer, the defending champion, wants nothing more than to beat Nadal in the final and prove that he can beat the Spanish lefty on his favorite surface and continue to cement his case for being the greatest player of all time. He needs only to reach the semifinals to hold on to his No. 1 ranking for a 286th week and equal the all-time record set by Pete Sampras.

Among the outside dark horse picks are Robin Soderling, who shocked Nadal last year in the round of 16, Nadal’s only loss to date at the French Open. He will next play Federer in the quarterfinals in a re-match of last year’s final won by Federer. Soderling decisively beat Marin Cilic of Croatia in straight sets. Cilic was a trendy pick to potentially knock off Federer, so this result certainly shows the type of form that Soderling is in. Wouldn’t it be interesting that Soderling play the spoiler two years in a row at Roland Garros? Last year, ending Nadal’s streak of 31 straight Roland Garros match wins and this year, preventing Federer from equaling the ATP World Tour “weeks-ranked-No. 1-record.”

Novak Djokovic, ranked No. 3, is a dark horse choice of some to potentially snag the title as he has is not a player intimidated of Nadal on clay. The two could face-off in the semifinals. Besides Federer and Nadal, Djokovic has won a major title (the 2008 Australian Open) and has played in a Grand Slam final on one other occasion at the 2007 U.S. Open, losing to Federer.

Another player to watch is Tomas Berdych, who beat No. 4 seed Andy Murray, the Australian Open finalist earlier this year, in the round of 16 Sunday. Berdych, who beat Roger Federer en route to the final of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami earlier this year, is looking to take advantage of the 40th anniversary of his countryman Jan Kodes’ win at the 1970 French Open and become the first Czech to win at Roland Garros since Ivan Lendl’s last of three titles in 1987.

Roland Garros is one of the biggest opportunities for the tennis players to move up in the rankings and earn a place among the best in the world, especially if the players are clay-court specialists. However, surprises can happen as two Spanish clay-court monsters, David Ferrer and Juan Carlos Ferrero, were both upset – Ferrer losing to Jurgen Melzer of Austria and Ferrero to American Robby Ginepri. However, Spaniards Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro, are continuing to fly the Spanish flag along with Nadal.

Ginepri is the next opponent for Djokovic and Berdych will face Mikhail Youzhny of Russia.

For the full French Open draws, go to www.RolandGarros.com.

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