There are the white-hot (Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams) and then there are the ice-cold (Jelena Jankovic, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Andy Roddick). But as the French Open fast approaches with main draw play set to begin Sunday, here’s a look at a few players who don’t fall into either extreme, but are still surging or sputtering into Paris.
Tomas Berdych: Outside of the Big Three, no one has been more impressive on clay than Berdych. He made hasn’t lost before the quarterfinals on clay and won both his Davis Cup matches on the dirt. And his losses haven’t been too bad: he lost to Djokovic in the Monte Carlo semis, fell to Roger Federer in three tough sets in Madrid, and tumbled to eventual champion Nadal in the Rome quarters. And the top three all had to dig down and tap into something special to beat him. Berdych’s clay prowess isn’t a new thing, after all, he did make the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2010, beating Andy Murray to get there. But while that 2010 run seemed to be a one-off (lost in the first round of Roland Garros in 2011 to Stephane Robert), Berdych has maintained a level of sustained brilliance over the past month.
Angelique Kerber: I keep waiting for Kerber to falter and reveal herself to be nothing more than a kid on a hot streak, but there comes a point when streak simply becomes status quo. That’s where Kerber is these days, redefining what she expects of herself and what she can do on a weekly basis. Heading into 2012, Kerber didn’t have one Top 10 win in her career (yes, that includes her U.S. Open semifinal run). We’re not even halfway through the year yet and she already has six, including wins over Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova and Caroline Wozniacki. I thought the clay would slow Kerber down and expose her lateral movement, but it’s become clear that Kerber’s movement issues are a red herring. She doesn’t look like she can move but she gets her weight behind her shots with remarkable effectiveness even when she’s pulled wide.
Lucie Safarova: Yes, it’s a bit weird to put Safarova on a list that includes her ex-boyfriend, but Safarova assured me that they’ve moved on and are happy for each other, so away we go. Safarova’s kept her progress on the hush by choosing to enter the ITF Challenger in Prague (which she won) as opposed to playing Rome. But she made the finals of Charleston in April before getting crushed by Serena Williams, and on the whole she’s had a great year. Clay gives Safarova time to get in position to hit her big lefty forehand, which she uses to great effect on clay. I’m not saying Safarova is going to make a deep run into the second week, but with her ranking at No. 22, she could have an opportunity to pull off an early upset or two.
Juan Monaco: Monaco made a remarkably fast recovery from an ankle injury that could have completely derailed his season, and I wondered if he was coming back too soon in Rome. Monaco, who is having a career year after making the semifinals of Miami and winning Houston, answered my question by taking a set off Novak Djokovic in the third round of Rome. Sure, he eventually lost, but I was impressed by how well he was moving and how clear he was in his shot-making. Like many of his fellow Argentines, Monaco has always been plagued by self-doubt, but as 2012 has progressed I see signs of growth. Trust me, he’s still prone to a few forlorn looks to the sky, but is that a little bit of swagger I see from Pico these days? Si.
Milos Raonic: Some of the Milos hype has died down since his quiet first-round exit from Rome, but that result shouldn’t derail the mounting expectation for the Canuck to prove himself on the Paris clay. Raonic finally got his first win over a top four player in Barcelona when he beat Andy Murray en route to the semifinals, and then made a huge statement the following week when he showed how devastating his game can be on clay, pushing Roger Federer to three sets before losing 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4).”
Andy Murray: Forget what happened last year. If there’s ever a tournament where you can’t count on the top four to make the semifinals, it’s Roland Garros. Murray was able to post his best result in Paris last year by making the semis, along with the rest of the Big Three, but all signs point to an early crash this year. Struggling with a back injury, Murray wasn’t able get past the quarterfinals of the three clay events he played. The losses weren’t necessarily bad ones (he lost to Berdych, Raonic and Richard Gasquet) but he limps into Paris without much confidence on his worst surface.
Marion Bartoli: The 2011 Roland Garros semifinalist will return to Paris with little momentum on clay. Bartoli is 2-5 on clay this year after losing her first match in Brussels, with early-round losses to players like Polona Hercog, Sorana Cirstea, and just this week, Urszula Radwanska. With a load of points to defend at Roland Garros, Bartoli comes in without having beaten a top 40 player on clay this year.
Petra Kvitova: With the rise of Victoria Azarenka and Agnieszka Radwanska, and the dramatic fall of Caroline Wozniacki, Kvitova’s disappointing 2011 has flown under the radar. The Wimbledon champion can be unpredictable. That much we knew. But this year, despite sitting comfortably in the top five, she’s come nowhere near matching her 2011 form. She hasn’t made a tournament final let alone taken home any hardware (by this time last year she had three titles), and she’s struggled with injury and illness throughout the year. Most worrisome at the moment is an abdominal injury she re-aggravated in Rome, which took all the power out of one of her biggest weapons: her serve.
Francesca Schiavone: Given the state of Schiavone’s game in 2012, the images of her winning the French Open a mere two years ago and making the final last year seem like a hazy, foggy, dream. Did that all really happen? To be fair, no one expected Schiavone to be able to back up her title win with a finalist appearance last year, but at least she was relevant and still making quarterfinals and fighting hard. All that energy and emotion has been lacking from Schiavone this year. Until this week in Strasbourg, the Italian went 10 tournaments without winning back to back matches. She’s been flat, frustrated, and she looks like she’d rather be anywhere besides a tennis court. Could this be her last Roland Garros?
John Isner: Isner’s last chance to stay off this list went to the wayside when he lost to Nikolay Davydenko in the third round of Nice on Thursday. That drops him to 2-3 in his last five matches on European clay and puts a damper on any thoughts that he might ride into Paris on a wave of confidence after big wins over Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga earlier in the year. As Patrick McEnroe said on a conference Wednesday, Isner has a game that can beat anyone and lose to anyone on any given day. Can he navigate himself into the second week?