The French Open is coming!

As we move closer to the start of the French Open in Paris on May 24, here are a few more lessons to take away. The Internazionali BNL d’Italia is happening in Rome right now, one of the more important tune-up tournaments in advance of the French. The best clay courters in the world generally show up, and this year has been the site of some amazing tennis.

I wrote recently to look out for Novak Djokovic coming off a wrist injury; he appears to be pretty much fine. I caught his quarterfinal match against David Ferrer, and he looked mostly good in a three-set barnburner against the scrappy Ferrer. At no point did Djokovic look bad or out of sorts, Ferrer is simply a player who exposes any weaknesses you might have with his strong groundstrokes and unique athleticism. A hard-fought victory seems just what the doctor ordered as he gears up for a potential showdown with Rafael Nadal in the final.

First, however, he faces hard-hitting Milos Raonic of Canada in the semis. Every match that guys like Raonic, John Isner, Marin Cilic, and even Juan Martin del Potro play feels like a referendum on the effectiveness of “big-man tennis.” I might include Jerzy Janowicz and Lukasz Kubot in that list as well. Between them, they have one Grand Slam title and whole lot of not-so-near misses. Every time a player with their style is taken down, it seems like further proof that big-man tennis cannot succeed consistently, that you need to be able to move better, that big serves can be countered, that tiring groundstrokes inevitably lead to fitter, smaller players running circles around them, and that for all the pace they can apply to the ball, it all means nothing in the face of better foot speed and technique. Jury’s out, but I’m already convinced.

I also recently linked to an article about how Nadal appeared to be slipping on the clay this season. He’s answered the critics with a stupendous run, ripping through the rest of the field in Madrid and looking strong so far in Italy. Once again it appears that the sky is the limit for him.

Ana Ivanovic, the enigmatic Serb, is back on her strongest surface (where she won her lone Grand Slam title in 2008), and certainly appears happy to be there. She unceremoniously dropped Maria Sharapova, who had looked strong coming off a victory in Madrid. Keep in mind that this is the Ivanovic who gave world number one Serena Williams fits at the Australian Open in January, mixing it up, keeping her off balance, attacking her second serve, and pounding her groundstrokes into making mistakes. Yes, she played a great match that day to beat the world number one. Yes, she’s wildly inconsistent at times. Yes, she gets another crack at Serena in Rome. Yes, sparks should fly.

Canadian Milos Raonic's hard-hitting style is not tailor-made for the clay. Can he prove the doubters and critics wrong with big runs in Rome and Paris?

Canadian Milos Raonic’s hard-hitting style is not tailor-made for the clay. Can he prove the doubters and critics wrong with big runs in Rome and Paris?

Also in the semifinals on the women’s side is the Slamless wonder (no, not Caroline Wozniacki), Jelena Jankovic. Remember back in 2007-8, when Serbs Jankovic and Ivanovic seemed to be at the tops of their games, Serena was injured and questioning her devotion to the game, sister Venus was inconsistent except at the Wimbledon grass, and it looked like it would be an era of Eastern European domination? There was a bevy of young Russian, Belorussian, and Polish stars on hand to complement the Serbs?

Man, some predictions don’t just go awry, they take a left turn off a cliff. Jankovic and Ivanovic vanished from contention, totally losing what had put them on a trajectory to relevance. Most of the Russians didn’t pan out, and Sharapova, the best of them, is frequently bitten by the injury and the Serena-itis bugs (though she regularly contends and has won Slams since then). Agnieszka Radwanska and her sister Urszula seem ready to make the leap, but haven’t yet. Victoria Azarenka is a multiple Grand Slam champion, but has yet to beat Serena when it really matters. Advantage: non-Warsaw pact countries.

Look out for onetime French Open finalist Sara Errani (who has won the doubles title there). She beat Li Na in Rome (Li is also quite strong on clay) in three hard-fought sets. More thoughts leading up to Paris in the coming days.

Keep it here.

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