PARIS – Back in the 1990s, when the likes of Pete Sampras, Patrick Rafter and Tim Henman were major factors, the return of serve was less important than it is today. So was horizontal movement, as moving quickly straight ahead like those net rushers did was paramount to their success.
Today, while the serve remains a critically important part of the game, having a very good if not great return is the key to entering the top 5. The top four men in the world — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray – all put ball after ball into play, off both first and second serves. It is very difficult to get ball past any of these men who deeply read their foes tendencies. They are experts at returning balls deep and if they are not attacking, they manage to draw their foe into a neutral position, and then they can ply their baseline trade.
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Isner has an outside shot at glory. MAL TAAM PHOTO
TOP HALF, FIRST QUARTER Novak Djokovic begins his pursuit of his fourth straight Slam with a straightforward match against the declining Italian Potito Starace. He possibly face the recently returned bionic man Lleyton Hewitt (who is playing with plate in his foot) and then maybe Jurgen Melzer, the same man that stunned him at 2010 Rolland Garros, but a guy who is in decline. His fourth round might be Fernando Verdasco, who could trouble him on a fantastic day, or possibly the enigmatic Andreas Seppi. His quarterfinal foe will likely be one of these three: Gilles Simon (provided he get past the American duo of Ryan Harrison and the miracle man Brian Baker) Stan Wawrinka or Jo Tsonga, but I could see the winner of the Viktor Troicki- Thomas Bellucci match upending Big Jo. Really, Djokovic has been playing well enough to win every one of his matches in four sets, but after the first two rounds, if he’s not clicking, I could see Melzer, Verdasco, or Bellucci giving him hell for five sets, but the world No. 1 will come through nonetheless. His real problem in getting to the final will be Roger Federer, if the Swiss gets there, because Federer is more than capable of spinning the Serb around like he did in last year’s semis. But Djokovic just beat Federer in Rome, so a repeat of that result is far from guaranteed. TOP HALF, 2ND QUARTER Federer leads this packed quarter and does not have an impossible road to the semis, but it could be rocky, too. He begin with Tobias Kamke, which should be fairly routine, but then he could face David Nalbandian, which is an awfully complicated second round match if the Argentine is in good form. Should he beat the Argentine, then his third round should be simple, as the scheduled seeded across the net is Andy Roddick, whom he owns. But Roddick is way off his best form and will likely go down in the first two rounds. The American just dumped three straight matches in Dusseldorf. Federer’s fourth round for could be either Radek Stepanek or Feliciano Lopez, both of whom he’ll handle routinely. It’s his potential quarterfinal opponent that is worrisome: an in form Tomas Berdych, the up and down yet dangerous Juan Martin Del Potro, or maybe the somewhat revived Croat Marin Cilic. Yes, Federer can beat all three, but they are also capable of getting on top of the ball and stinging him. BOTTOM HALF, 3RD QUARTER This is perhaps the most interesting quarter, as it contains both Andy Murray and David Ferrer, as well as the threatening John Isner and Richard Gasquet, and the youngster Alex Dolgopolov and Bernard Tomic. Murray should not be tested until a potential match with Tomic in round three, but the young and erratic Aussie might not get there as it’s easy to see either of two Columbians – Alejandro Falla or Santiago Giraldo — taking him down. Both of this men could also challenge to Murray, who is contending with a bad back and does not have much to show form his clay court season. A Court Philippe Chatrier clash between the fun yet streaky Dolgopolov and Gasquet in the third round would be a real treat, especially if the winner is to meet Murray. Maybe Gasquet can actually make a quarterfinal push but he’s always been hard to read at home. Ferrer is a pretty much lock to reach the fourth round, but Isner is not with Marcel Granollers potential third round foe. Yet despite his so-so performances at Madrid, Rome and Nice, Isner has become a more than decent big match player. If he can keep his mind clear and chin up in the first three rounds, the likes of Ferrer and Murray must be very wary of facing him BOTTOM HALF, 4TH QUARTER Rafa Nadal