As most players enjoy a well-merited respite before the French Open fortnight, we cast our minds towards the first Slam that will be covered by this blog. Based largely upon the events of Monte Carlo, Stuttgart, Rome, and Madrid, our preview will identify contenders, pretenders, and dark horses at the event that starts in less than a week, as Tennis Channel’s “Countdown to Roland Garros” chronically reminds us. Under “contenders” are the tournament favorites, while “pretenders” feature high-ranked players who likely will falter well before the finish line; “dark horses” comprise the reverse phenomenon of low-ranked players who might perform above their rankings (but won’t win the title). The ATP edition follows below, and the WTA edition will be released on Thursday. All things come in threes, according to the cliché, but here they come in fives.

Contenders (in order of most likely to win):

1) Nadal: In a way, this list should read 1) Nadal, 2) Nadal, 3) Nadal, 4) Nadal, 5) Nadal. A considerable gamble after he dominated Monte Carlo and Rome, the Madrid tournament infused Rafa with invaluable momentum by proving that he can once again conquer the ATP elite after a lengthy stretch of futility against top-10 players. We know that the forehand is brutal, the touch exquisite, and the movement feline, but a key barometer of Nadal’s confidence is his two-handed backhand, which whistled through the court with increasing authority as the week progressed. Although he still donates occasional clusters of unforced errors, such as the fourth game of the final, he has rediscovered his composure at crucial moments, such as when he survived three break points to serve out the first set. Perhaps most intimidating to his future foes, however, was his ability to win this prestigious title despite playing a few notches below his jaw-dropping best. Unless unexpected injury intervenes, one must favor Rafa to win his fifth French Open over the other 127 players combined.

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2) Federer: One knows that a Slam is drawing near when Federer returns to his focused, purposeful demeanor. Among his most fascinating traits is the ability to flip an inner switch with timeliness and alacrity when required; the player who succumbed to Montanes in Estoril never would have defeated Gulbis and Ferrer in Madrid. In his loss to Nadal, Federer looked more confident than on many of their recent meetings, fearlessly attacking Rafa rather than slumping into resignation. A man with a plan, he might well have prevailed or forced a final set had a few key rallies ended in his favor, including the break points late in the first set or the bizarre forehand whiff that ended the match. One doubts that he’ll overcome Nadal in a best-of-five format on clay, but expect him to take full advantage if a new Soderling ambushes the Spaniard before the final. After all, he hasn’t lost to anyone else at the French Open since 2004.

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3) Verdasco: Clearly fatigued in Madrid, he probably should have rested instead of entering the Nice event this week. Nevertheless, the second-best Spanish lefty reminded everyone that he’s more than a flashy hairstyle with inspired performances in Monte Carlo and Rome as well as an emotional title run in Barcelona. In those three tournaments, he conquered a diverse range of playing styles from bone-crushing sluggers Soderling and Gulbis to crafty counterpunchers Montanes and Ferrer. Scoring two wins over 2009 nemesis Djokovic, one emphatic and one suspenseful, Verdasco proved that he can both overpower and outlast top opponents. He still doesn’t believe in himself against Nadal, but he’ll challenge anyone else and would have placed second on this list had Federer not reached the Madrid final.

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4) Ferrer: If Verdasco and Ferrer could be fused into one player, that hybrid might seriously threaten Nadal. While Verdasco showcases the shot-making capacity to hit through Rafa, Ferrer possesses the mental belief; one wouldn’t have surmised his 0-9 record against Federer from the typically tenacious effort that he displayed in the semifinals. It’s worth noting that all of his losses at clay Masters 1000 events this season have come against Nadal (twice) and Federer (once), while he split his two meetings with Verdasco. Lacking the weapons to defeat either of them at their best, he would enjoy a substantial chance against them if previous adversaries had worn them down beforehand, as was the case with Nadal at the 2007 US Open. In the absence of his famous compatriot, Ferrer probably would have claimed at least one French Open by now.

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5) Gulbis: Could he be the 2010 version of Soderling? Among the parallels to the Swede’s game are the explosive and flat, penetrating groundstrokes off both sides, while the Latvian’s artful drop shot trumps anything that Soderling can produce in the finesse department. Under the guidance of coach Hernan Gumy, Gulbis finally has harnessed some decent tactics and a modicum of focus to his ever-electrifying talents. At the climax of his breakthrough charge to the Rome semifinals, his three-set clash with Nadal proved the Spaniard’s most severe test so far on his favorite surface. His loss to Federer in Madrid concealed further positive portents, most notably his ability to recover from a dismal second set and compete effectively in the third set. Don’t forget that his best Slam performance to date was a French Open quarterfinal. If you’re looking for a genuinely threatening sleeper, look no further than the awakened Gulbis, who finally might be more than the sum of his parts.

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Pretenders (in order of ranking):

1) Djokovic: The Serb’s impersonation of a leading contender has been especially unpersuasive recently. Even beyond his sagging serve and crumbling confidence, the Parisian pollen season apparently represents a relevant factor in his performance. Whether or not Belgrade’s budding leaves actually hampered his performance, his retirement there unwisely telegraphed his continuing frailty to hungry future opponents. One might imagine that the slower surface would minimize the significance of his serving struggles, but the mental strain of tense service games will be amplified by the clay, always a test of emotional durability. A sturdy performance by a clay specialist or a reasonably tenacious opponent probably would suffice to send Djokovic to London earlier than he would prefer.

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2) Murray: Mustering a bare three wins during his three clay tournaments, the Scot was humiliated by Kohlschreiber in Monte Carlo and efficiently dispatched by Ferrer at the other events (insofar as Ferrer ever is efficient). Although Murray does appear to be emerging from a hideous post-Melbourne slump, his main goal now must be preparing for Wimbledon, where the recent slide will not have diminished the expectations of his compatriots. He’d be wise not to invest too much emotional or physical capital in Roland Garros, and Murray generally seems a sensible lad. Or do they say “laddie” in Scotland?

3) Soderling: Still streaky despite recent improvements, Soderling has caught fire at unexpected moments in the past, but his hot-and-cold game has been unseasonably chilly over the last few weeks. Unlike Verdasco, he made the right decision by entering Nice to garner some additional clay matches. After his finals appearance in Barcelona, the 2009 French Open finalist disappointed at both Rome and Madrid, where he exited rather meekly to Wawrinka and Almagro, respectively. Both of them are the type of player (sturdy, consistent, but unspectacular) whom Soderling must defeat in order to duplicate his triumph from last year.

4) Tsonga: Far less powerful but far more consistent, Ferrero and Ferrer made the big man look small in Monte Carlo and Rome, while he lost to De Bakker (who?) in Barcelona and ominously retired in Madrid. Even if the retirement was precautionary, as is probable, Tsonga’s brand of undiluted aggression should shine at Wimbledon while remaining antithetical to the demands of this surface. Moreover, one must remember the ignominious reputation of les bleus (and les bleues) for drastically under-performing at their home Slam.  Fortunately for Tsonga, the local pressure will rest largely on a member of les bleues this year.

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5) Cilic: The newest tower from Croatia has looked about as unsteady as his counterpart in Pisa during the clay Masters events. Mustering just a 2-3 record at those tournaments, he succumbed rather routinely to the diminutive Montanes in Monte Carlo, blew a substantial lead against Lopez in his Rome opener, and collected just five games from a stingy Ferrer in Madrid. The slump may not entirely be a product of the surface, moreover, for Cilic fell before the quarters in both Indian Wells and Miami, which should have favored his style. Don’t put too much weight upon his finals appearance in Munich, where no top stars and few clay experts participated. In fact, the clay-averse Youzhny toppled him there.

Dark horses (in order of…nothing in particular):

1) Almagro: Was he overachieving by reaching a debut Masters 1000 semifinal in Madrid? Probably, and his section was decimated by withdrawals (Berdych, Nalbandian) as well as upsets (Melzer def. Verdasco). As in Miami, though, Almagro walked through the door that was opened for him and also impressively dispatched Soderling in the second round. If his draw in Paris offers him room to operate, expect him to take advantage of the opportunity.

2) Montanes: The latest Federer-killer not only defended his title in Estoril but also reached the quarters in Monte Carlo, where he took a set from Verdasco. Unlucky to draw Gulbis in the first round of Madrid, this Spaniard covers the court like a vacuum cleaner, which often proves adequate against an erratic shotmaker on this surface.

3) Wawrinka: Preoccupied with fatherhood rather than forehands for much of the season’s early stages, the steady Swiss #2 comfortably defeated Gulbis in Monte Carlo, a win that appeared more significant in retrospect. Two weeks later, his quarterfinal run in Rome featured a gritty, thrilling triumph over the revitalized Berdych as well as a resounding victory over Soderling. Less renowned than either the Czech or the Swede, Wawrinka lost only to Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic at the three clay-court tournaments. We were a trifle puzzled by his semifinal loss in Belgrade to…

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4) Isner: Despite narrowly falling to compatriot Querrey in the Belgrade final, Isner proved that he can compete on clay both physically and mentally. Unlike most of the American men, he might well justify his seeding or even more. Beyond the eye-opening win over Wawrinka, the Georgia alumnus severely tested Djokovic in a pre-Indian Wells Davis Cup tie; during the course of five twisting sets , he admirably soaked up the pressure, held his nerve (mostly), and demonstrated better fitness than one has come to expect from the ATP’s giants. His mental fortitude resurfaced with consecutive comebacks from one-set deficits in Madrid, where a weary Isner acquitted himself as creditably as one could hope against a Nadal who would not be denied. We found that second comeback from a one-set deficit especially impressive because it came at the expense of…

5) Santiago Giraldo: You’ll want to learn the name of this Colombian and store it away for future reference, perhaps on hard courts as well as clay. Unimposing in stature, Giraldo burst from nowhere to humiliate a resurgent Ferrero in the second round of Madrid; almost as impressive was his ability to follow up the breakthrough with a comfortable third-round win. Far from a one-day wonder, he showcased his mettle just a fortnight later by rallying from a disastrous first set to erase the ever dangerous Kohlschreiber, who has defeated Djokovic and Murray on this surface. Edging within two points of victory against the towering Isner, Giraldo accomplished the rare feat of winning a 6-1 set from the (admittedly tired) elephantine server. Don’t expect him to explode into the second week, for he remains a work in progress, but do keep an eye on his match with the unlucky seed who draws him early at Roland Garros. Unless it’s Nadal, of course.

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Hope that you enjoyed this preview as much as Djokovic is enjoying handing out the hardware below…

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The Serb needs to forget that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  😉