By Randy Walker
With the French Open only a few rainy, 50-something degree Parisian days away, I was curious to get the take on the upcoming fortnight-plus one day of drama on the terre battue of Roland Garros from Steve Flink, one of the world’s leading tennis historians and observers.
When I asked Flink for his predictions for the 2012 US Open last August, to include in a press release to hook to the release of his much-discussed and raved book THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME, Flink predicted triumphs from Serena Williams and Andy Murray. Of course, Flink was right on the money, so, while working to coordinate some upcoming book signings for him, I asked him to toss in some thoughts on the French Open.
“A few weeks back, I would have picked Novak Djokovic to win the French Open, and I still believe he will be awfully difficult to beat, but now I pick Rafael Nadal,” Flink wrote back to me. “After his loss to Djokovic in the final of Monte Carlo, Nadal won Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. He has won six of the eight tournaments he has played this year and hasn’t missed a final. Over the last two weeks, Nadal really fine-tuned his game and took it to another level. I see him winning his eighth title this year. Djokovic would be by far his toughest opponent, whether they meet in the semis or the final.”
With the withdrawal of No. 2 ranked Andy Murray, the seedings will now be jumbled as No. 3-ranked Roger Federer will be bumped to No. 2 and Nadal will move to No. 3, meaning that there will be much suspense when the draw is made on where Nadal, beaten only once in eight previous trips to Roland Garros, will be placed in the draw – in the No. 1 seeded Djokovic’s half or that of the 2009 champion Federer.
“Nadal is going to be seeded third and the best scenario for the tournament would be for Rafa and Novak to be on opposite halves,” Flink pointed out. “It is possible, though, that Nadal and Djokovic could clash in the semifinals with Roger Federer and David Ferrer seeded to meet in the other semifinal. Federer has never lost to Ferrer, so the Swiss could make it to the final if he gets the right draw. The fact remains that he has not won a tournament since Cincinnati last summer and Nadal crushed him in the final of Rome. Federer is the third strongest candidate to take the title, but he could be susceptible to a loss to someone like Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Richard Gasquet.”
Federer’s final-round beat down by the hands of Nadal in Rome – a match that had a final scoreline of 6-1, 6-3 but Nadal should have served out a 6-1, 6-1 win in under an hour – has caused for some observers and media to question whether Federer still has what it takes to break through in win major singles title No. 18 or whether he will be a semifinal and quarterfinal guest from now until he decides to not make the professional tennis tour his primary vocation.
“Even if Federer does manage to use his experience to reach the final, I don’t see beating either Nadal or Djokovic,” Flink wrote. “If he has to play either one of them in the semifinals, Djokovic or Nadal would be the clear favorite.”
On the women’s side, as last year, Serena Williams is the clear favorite, having won two of the last three major titles and strutting into Paris on a career-best 24-match winning streak and a winner in her last four tournaments, including three in a row on clay.
“Serena’s preparation for this tournament has been excellent,” wrote Flink. “She won Roland Garros in 2002 and, amazingly, had not been back in the final since. She will be a big favorite to claim her second crown in Paris this year. Maria Sharapova played top of the line tennis to complete a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros last year and she has earned her status as the No. 2 ranked woman in the world. But a virus suffered n Rome might slow her down, and Maria has not beaten Serena since the end of the 2004 season.”
Pundits were quick to anoint Williams the winner of last year’s French Open, as she entered Roland Garros under slightly similar hype, but she was side-swiped like a Peugeot circling the Arc de Triomphe in the first round by No. 111-ranked Virginie Razzano of France. Serena was also the head-and-shoulders favorite in Australia earlier this year, but was stunned in the quarterfinals by fellow American Sloane Stephens. Could this happen again in Paris at some point before she is handed the Suzanne Lenglen trophy?
“The last woman to beat Serena this year was Victoria Azarenka, but she has only stopped Williams twice in their careers,” Flink pointed out. “Azarenka did play a terrific match against Williams in the final of the U.S. Open last summer and she was two points away from winning that match in three sets. But Williams just ousted Azarenka 6-1, 6-3 in the final of Rome, which will be an obvious confidence boost for the American coming into Roland Garros”
Besides Azarenka, Flink is very astute in pointing out an even bigger challenger to Serena adding a 16th career major singles title in Paris.
“The only player who can beat Serena is Serena,” he wrote, before adding that all-time great “should be almost unstoppable this time around in Paris.”
Steve Flink’s book THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME features profiles and rankings of the greatest matches of all time dating from the 1920s featuring Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen up through the modern era of tennis featuring contemporary stars Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Flink breaks down, analyzes and puts into historical context the sport’s most memorable matches, providing readers with a courtside seat at these most celebrated and significant duels. Other champions featured in the book include Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Rod Laver, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf among many others. Flink’s fascinating “greatest strokes of all time” section ranks and describes the players who best executed all the important shots in the game through the years.
THE GREATEST TENNIS MATCHES OF ALL TIME, a hard-cover book that retails for $28.95, can be purchased via this link http://m1e.net/c?110071818-LXcqCkGsVODLU%407802041-0/Tc3iAzb6wzE at www.NewChapterMedia.com and where ever books are sold. The book is available in electronic formats, including on Amazon.com’s Kindle here: http://m1e.net/c?110071818-98fuK3yZadOq.%407802042-Tg3ina8lEtKvI
Flink, one of the most respected writers and observers in the game, is currently a columnist for TennisChannel.com. A resident of Katonah, N.Y., he is the former editor of World Tennis magazine and a former senior columnist at Tennis Week.