Another Thursday, another Toss. Last week, Toss regular Ben Rothenberg joined to dive into the murky waters of Olympic qualification. Does tennis even need qualifying? Should it go straight off the rankings or open it up to a playoff? By a narrow margin, the readers think Olympic spots should be decided by the rankings.
This week's Toss turns to a couple of big names who are both chasing career milestones at the French Open.
Today's Toss: Who's more likely to complete the career Slam at the French Open: Novak Djokovic or Maria Sharapova?
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining on this week's Toss, Bryan. It's been too long.
There are quite a few storylines of note as we head into the second Slam of the year. Rafael Nadal is going for his seventh Roland Garros title, Roger Federer is chasing No. 1, and a resurgent Serena Williams goes in on a 17-match win streak on clay. Add to that Li Na's return to Paris, Venus Williams' continued quest to lock in her Olympic qualification and John Isner's attempt to justify the hype surrounding his clay game, and we've got enough stories to track as it is. But for me, the most interesting storyline is whether Novak Djokovic can complete the "Djoko Slam" and whether Maria Sharapova can finally overcome the perils of her worst surface to complete the career Slam. ,There's not much reason to doubt either of them can pull it off, but if I were forced to put money on it, I think Sharapova has a better chance of accomplishing the feat.
Sharpova's improvement on clay has been remarkable. Dating back to 2010, four of her last five titles have been on clay, and though she's still never made the final of Roland Garros, she hasn't suffered from the bad losses that plagued her early in her career. For all the talk about Sharapova's ineptitude in Paris, the fact is that since 2005, she's lost to an eventual finalist or champion four times. In the past four years since her comeback from shoulder surgery in 2008, she's continued to close the gap, with her last two years being the most exemplary. She won Rome last year by beating Victoria Azarenka, then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur in the final. She looked well on her way to a title in Paris before being upset by Li Na in the semifinals. This year, her title runs in Stuttgart and Rome included hard-fought wins over Stosur again (in what might have been the WTA match of the year so far given its quality), Petra Kvitova, Azarenka, Ana Ivanovic, Venus Williams, and Li. Those are big wins for a woman who's not supposed to be comfortable on the red dirt.
Sharapova's biggest obstacle to finally completing the career Slam are two-fold and they both start with an "S": her serve and Serena. Much like Rafael Nadal stands as a huge impediment for Novak Djokovic, Sharapova has yet to solve Serena Williams. In fact, she hasn't beaten Serena since the year-end Championships in 2004. That's eight years of beatdowns that forced Maria to admit that until she starts winning these matches no one can refer to their matchup as a rivalry. Sharapova is going to need some help from the draw in this respect to ensure she doesn't meet Serena until the last possible moment (i.e., the final) and she would love to get some help from someone in the field to do the dirty work and knock Serena out for her.
As for Sharapova's oft-maligned serve, I think the conditions in Paris will just as important as her draw or opponents. Her serving in Stuttgart is what won her the title. She was lights out all week, and she served so well in the final that Victoria Azarenka -- who's spent most of 2012 embarrassing Sharapova every time they met -- couldn't attack her serve with the same brutal efficiency she had in Melbourne and Indian Wells. But here's the problem: Stuttgart is an indoor tournament. Under perfect conditions Maria's serve held up. She won't have that luxury in Paris, as evidenced by her serve's return to earth in Rome, where she threw in 10 doublefaults against Li in the final (though that was in the midst of torrential rain). She probably won't have to play in conditions *that* bad. Then again, you never know with the Parisians. They might want revenge after Maria famously told the Parisian crowd to "Allez up your f*****g a**." She's a charmer!
I'll turn it over to you, Bryan. How do you handicap Novak's chances? I have to say, the prospect of making "The Djoker Slam" a thing is very intriguing. If for no other reason than we get to say "Djoker Slam" with a straight face.
Bryan Armen Graham: No player in the history of tennis has owned a Grand Slam tournament like Nadal at Roland Garros, where he won the title in his first attempt -- becoming the first teenager to win a major since Pete Sampras in 1990 -- and has never looked back. He’s 45-1 on the terre battue, the lone setback coming against Robin Soderling in 2009 when Nadal was beset by injury, and enters this year’s tournament at better than even money to win his seventh straight French Open title. (British oddsmaker William Hill lists him, incredibly, as the 5/6 favorite.)
Yet even though Nadal appears to be peaking at the right time -- titles at the Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome tune-ups; a pair of victories over 2011 bugaboo Novak Djokovic -- the time is right for the top-ranked Serb to dethrone the King of Clay. Should they meet in the final as is expected if not assured, Djokovic will enter with the confidence of a player who won seven straight finals against Nadal last year -- yet unburdened by the pressure of an overwhelming favorite. Motivated by the opportunity to achieve something that neither Nadal nor Federer ever did -- the fortunately named “Djoker Slam” -- I expect Nole to achieve something no player has done to date: a victory over a full-strength Nadal at Roland Garros.
Djokovic vs. Nadal in the 2011 French Open final is one of the great “what if” matches of our generation, a test Rafa was spared and the fans were denied when Federer played spoiler in the semis and snapped Nole’s 43-0 run to open the year. Lucky for us, we’ll finally get it one year later, and the history will be no less profound.
Sharapova is no longer the self-described "cow on ice" when she plays on the dirt -- in fact she's 5-0 lifetime in clay-court finals, with four of her past five titles coming on the surface -- but, as you concede, it's hard to imagine Masha capturing her first French Open title without a little help from the draw fairy. The chances of seeing Nole’s history rate much higher from where I sit.
Nguyen: Methinks someone forgot to set his calendar forward. It ain't 2011 anymore, Bryan.
Everything you're saying was applicable 365 days ago, when Djokovic was No. 2, unbeatable, winning via brute physical and emotional force, and decked out in curiously shiny Sergio Tacchini kits that looked like a set of fancy pajamas. The times they have a'changed. A year later Djokovic is still playing some masterful tennis but he's definitely (and quite naturally) come back to earth. He'll go into the French Open clad in a new Japanese clothing sponsor (sayonara, pajamas) with no clay titles, a two match-losing streak to Nadal, and losses to Andy Murray, John Isner, and Janko Tipsarevic this year. Do I doubt that he'll still make the final? Not really. The Serb has become almost as difficult to beat in a best of five match as Rafa, but a Novak vs. Rafa final in 2012 bears little resemblance to the "what if" final of 2011.
Nadal hasn't dropped a set en route to the three titles he won on red clay and it's not like he beat a bunch of scrubs. He beat Djokovic easily to win Monte Carlo, took out David Ferrer without a sniff in Barcelona, and then beat both of them again, along with Tomas Berdych, to win Rome. That's a 15 match win streak on red clay (yes, I am intentionally ignoring Madrid as should everyone), 30-set win streak, and he was only pushed to a tiebreak in two of those sets (both matches vs. Ferrer). Rafa's on a roll right now and he knows that if he can nip Djokovic in Paris, 2012 is a whole new ballgame.
Speaking of a whole new ballgame, let's turn to the ladies again. How weird is it that Victoria Azarenka has dominated the conversation through much of the year and yet now that we're on clay, all we want to talk about is Serena and Maria? These are weird and exciting times for the WTA, which finally has a product that is equally balanced between youthful surges and veteran stability. Sharapova finally winning the French Open would be a tremendous story and well-earned topper to her career. In fact, it would be a symbolic win for her to complete her career Grand Slam in Paris. While many think Sharapova's lucked out and her success was handed to her (pretty face, lucky run in 2004), the fact is Sharapova has had to work harder than anyone to build the tennis career she has. She's not a naturally gifted athlete. Her game isn't smooth. Her strokes look drilled. And nowhere is this more apparent than when she plays on clay. She's had to work her butt off to get herself to the point where we're even talking about her having a shot at a Roland Garros title. It would be pretty sweet if that effort was finally rewarded. She'll definitely need some help, but hey, she's earned it.
Sorry. Did I just get sentimental? It was an accident, I swear.
Graham: The roll of recent French Open champs on the women's side (Li, Schiavone, Kuznetsova, Ivanovic) -- combined with the lack of a runaway favorite -- leaves me unconvinced that another relative outsider won't raise her game and leave us slack-jawed two Saturdays from now. (Paging Angelique Kerber?) And who can blame me when the prohibitive favorites are a 30-year-old who hasn't made it past the quarters in nearly a decade and an iffy mover with an iffier serve who hasn't beaten the thirty-something since George W. Bush's first term? I can't see Vika breaking through here, at least not yet. Just one of her 11 career titles came on clay, at a lower-stakes event in Marbella last year, and she's yet to make it past the quarterfinals in six French Open appearances. That leaves Li Na (erratic, no top-10 wins since January), Petra Kvitova (dogged by injury), Sam Stosur (4-22 vs. Serena, Vika and Masha) among the top-shelf contenders. I agree Sharapova deserves the legacy-capper of a career Grand Slam as much as anyone -- I know I had my doubts she'd come all the way back from the shoulder surgery that sidelined her for almost a year -- and now's as opportune a time for her as any. I just see Djokovic as having a better chance of derailing Rafa's bid for Roland Garros immortality.