Draw fares well for both Federer, Nadal

5/29/2006 - Tennis

PARIS -- So, can he win the big one? The only one that has so far eluded his formidable grip on the men's game?

World No. 1 and seven-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer of Switzerland comes into this year's French Open as the top seed, keen to win his fourth consecutive major and complete the career Grand Slam -- something only five other men have accomplished. Andre Agassi is the last to have done so, his 1999 French Open triumph over Andrei Medvedev gaining him entry into an exclusive club (Don Budge , Fred Perry, Rod Laver and Roy Emerson) that counts neither Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe nor Pete Sampras among its members.

One British columnist went so far as to write earlier this week that Federer was "obsessed" with winning the French, but there's still a ways to go before we can lump his quest along with Pete Sampras' pursuit of the French title or Ivan Lendl's efforts to win at Wimbledon. After all, he's just 24 and has a lot of tennis in front of him if he stays healthy.

It's highly unlikely that swashbuckling Rafael Nadal, the No. 2 player in the world but holder of a 5-1 career advantage head-to-head against Federer, will give up his 2005 French crown easily. The Spaniard comes in riding a record-tying, 53-match clay-court winning streak and drove another stake into his Swiss opponent with a recent five-set win in a five-hour Rome final two weeks ago. Nadal is the favorite coming in and will benefit from a draw that placed six qualifiers in his quarter. He opens against Sweden's Robin Soderling in his quest to top Guillermo Vilas' record streak, set in 1977.

The American men's contingent is smaller than usual, with just six players in Paris, led by No. 5 seed Andy Roddick (if his injured left ankle heals in time for him to compete), No. 8 James Blake, No. 17 Robby Ginepri and unseeded ESPN blogger Paul Goldstein. Roddick, if healthy, could potentially face diminutive Belgian Olivier Rochus in the third round in a rematch of the America's stirring five-set win in Davis Cup play on clay last September in Belgium, and then play Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus in the round of 16. Baghdatis bounced Roddick out of the Australian Open in January, but Roddick beat him on clay in Rome earlier this month.

One thing's for sure: Unless the Americans play aggressively and resist the temptation to camp far behind the baseline and trade ground strokes for hours with European and South American players who've been playing on the dirt forever, we could be looking at a second week devoid of U.S. participation on the men's side. Some might even say that's a distinct probability.

The highest-ranked players in Nadal's half of the draw are No. 4 Ivan Ljubicic and Roddick, both huge servers, but neither is a favorite to go deep into the tournament on the surface that's least conducive to their power games. Nadal could play Blake or No. 9 Fernando Gonzalez in the quarterfinals, but that's only if the hard-hitting Chilean survives an unenviable first-round matchup with unseeded Marat Safin of Russia, a two-time Grand Slam winner. Blake would need to get past emerging Spanish clay-courter Nicolas Almagro, who fell in three long sets to Federer in Rome, to advance to a potential round of 16 encounter with Gonzalez.

Federer also has a favorable draw and wouldn't appear to face a significant test until the quarterfinals, where he could face No. 7 Tommy Robredo of Spain, recent winner of the injury-depleted Hamburg Masters Series. Looming as a potential semifinal opponent for the world No. 1 is Argentina's David Nalbandian, who always plays Federer tough and extended him to three tough sets in the Rome semis, a match Nalbandian very well could have won.

Expect at least one mystery semifinalist at the major most likely to spawn unforeseen upsets. Unseeded Mariano Puerta of Argentina, now sidelined due to a doping ban, made it all the way to last year's final, and names like Martin Verkerk, Albert Costa and Franco Squillari jump out as unheralded players who also came out of nowhere in the past few years to emerge at Roland Garros.

Some interesting first-round matchups include: Andy Murray vs. No. 25 Gael Monfils in a battle of young guns; Safin vs. Gonzalez; No. 26 José Acasuso vs. Fabrice Santoro; and No. 3 Nalbandian vs. Stanislas Wawrinka, who fell to the Argentine in four sets earlier this year at the Australian Open.

The last time the top two men's seeds contested the French final was in 1984, when No. 2 Lendl overcame top-seeded John McEnroe in five sets to hand McEnroe one of his three losses (82-3) for the season. Two weeks from Sunday, with the World Cup in full swing, expect to see Nadal once again raise the winner's trophy, deferring Federer's destiny with history for yet another year.

Whit's picks
Nadal def. Ferrer in 4 sets
Federer def. Nalbandian in 5 sets
Nadal def. Federer in 5 sets

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.