The 2012 French Open: A Potential Pressure Cooker

The 2012 French Open kicks off tomorrow, May 27. Amongst the men, there is a distinct possibility that this Open could be one of the best ever. The elements for a barn-burner are in place.

Unquestionably, the center of attention is Rafael Nadal. He deserves the distinction of being the man to beat. He’s earned the proverbial target on his back. With the exception of his third-round loss in Madrid on the dreaded blue clay, to this point, he’s made shambles of the clay court season.

Nadal has been like a wild child with an insatiable sweet tooth whose been released in a candy store. He wants it all.

But it’s not just Nadal’s winning that is so arresting, it’s the systematically authoritative manner in which he does it.

Beginning in Monte Carlo it was immediately apparent that he was on a mission. When the red dust settled, the “soldier of clay” had garnered the winner’s trophy for the eighth consecutive time. He accomplished it without dropping a set.

Novak Djokovic, the number one male player in the world, the man who had beaten Nadal in their previous seven meetings in finals, fittingly was his final foe.

Certainly, “the soldier” felt a sense of relief and satisfaction to have vanquished the antagonist who spoiled the party for him in those seven previous finals.

Three of the those losses were in slams. Had Nadal won those, he would now have 13 to his credit putting him within three slam wins of tying the great Roger Federer who owns the most grand slam singles titles of any male in the open era.

No wonder Federer has been so antsy over the last year or so. He can see “the soldier” relentlessly marching towards his precious record. Federer’s stature in tennis is like a holy grail and Nadal wants it.

Nadal’s onslaught continued at the Barcelona Open where again, he crushed the opposition without dropping a set en route to his seventh victory in that event.

The only interruption in his otherwise perfect season occurred on the quirky blue clay in Madrid. Nadal had adamantly voiced his aversion to the new surface as had others. It did not, as had been proclaimed, play the same as red clay. It’s slippery nature hampered movement.

Though both Nadal and Djokovic lodged complaints, they still played. Interestingly both lost to their countrymen, Nadal to Verdasco and Djokovic to Tipseravic.

As if to prove a point, “the soldier” immediately vindicated the Madrid loss by demolishing the field of the BNL d’Italia in Rome. That marked the sixth time he’s won that tournament. Again, his final victim was none-other-than, Novak Djokovic.

But even with, an almost impeccable record on clay this year, and surely being a solid favorite to usurp Bjorn Borg’s record six wins at Roland Garros, Nadal must go out and do it against quite possibly the most highly motivated group of male players of the open era.

In interviews, Federer has not wavered in his assertion that he believes he can and will win another slam. I too believe. He’s been playing great ball. There seems to be both a glint in his eyes and a renewed air of confidence if not an outright on-court swagger.

But that’s not all. He’s even had the audacity to say he feels that he can again reach the number one ranking in the world.

I have to interpret that as throwing down the gauntlet.

One might think that at the advanced age of 30 (comparatively speaking of course), maybe a bit of senility has taken hold of “The Fed” and he’s suffering from delusions of grandeur.

Without equivocation, neither Nole nor Rafa is thinking that. They both know how dangerous Federer is…still.

As for Djokovic, I’m certain that he is feeling an immense pressure. He’s number one and he wants to preserve that ranking. Additionally, the French presents a unique opportunity for him to win four slams in a row. Oh the pressure!

Sure, being in that position is enviable. It says so much about what you have accomplished, that you’ve reached a pinnacle of excellence that scant few others have.

But, oh man, the pressure.

I needn’t say anything about Rafa. He has proven beyond any doubt that he relishes the big stage and the oppressive pressure that goes with it.

Can he break Borgs record of six French Open titles?

Three words from the Isaac Hayes hit song “Shaft” recorded in 1971 spring to mind, “You’re damn right.”

Yes, for sure, he can win. Will he? Well…

Let’s not forget that there are players with the potential to upset the three guys getting the bulk of attention.

From my vantage point, I see those guys as being Andy Murray, who with new coach Ivan Lendl, has shown some glimmers of maturity with which comes an added sense of calm, Del Potro, Berdych, Ferrero (a past French Open champion), Nalbandian (one of best players to have never won a slam), the ever consistent Ferrer, “big John” (Isner), Tipsarevic, and Raonic.

And there’s always a surprise player or two that, for whatever reason, plays the most inspired match of their career to maybe knock off a “big guy” and change the entire complexion of the tournament.

The elimination of a top guy, not necessarily one of the top three, but of any of, say eight or ten men, can tilt the scales heavily towards one player or another.

There’s a dynamic in all slams and a shift in that dynamic can often have cataclysmic consequences.

I’m saying that this French Open of 2012 appears to have a strong possibility of just such an unforeseen shift.

Gentlemen, let the pressure, um, games begin!

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