Last week, on the eve of the French Open, Roger Federer took part in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) at Reddit. It was fun and enlightening in the ways that these things are always fun and enlightening. We learned that he has a quick trigger on the happy-face emoticon, we learned about what he considers his toughest/greatest matches, we learned that he did read David Foster Wallace's amazing piece on him from 2006 (and that the piece was drawn from just a 20-minute conversation between Wallace and Federer), we learned his thoughts on Swiss superiority and we learned that dance and techno music own his heart. But one exchange in particular completely fascinated me:
Q: Roger, if you had an upcoming match against a 2007 Roger Federer, what would your strategy be to win and how do you think you would fare?
A: Well first, I hope I'm a better player today than I was back then. I feel like I'm a more complete player today. Although my game hasn't changed much, my experience would allow me fewer mistakes and the ability to deal with challenges a little bit easier.
That he considers himself a better player now, as he approaches 32, than he was six years ago was incredibly enlightening. The 2007 version of Roger Federer was wrapping up his eighth championship in the last ten slams (and his 12th overall). The 2013 version has won only one of his last 12 slams. If Federer really does think he's a better player now than he was before -- and let's be honest: That's something elite athletes will convince themselves of in the present tense whether they honestly, truly believe it -- then that means he must also feel that the game of tennis has caught up to him and not the other way around.
Federer still has all sorts of goals. (Per Reddit: "Any record is welcome. 8 Wimbledon would be great. I'd also love to win another ATP World Tour final. And getting back to World #1.") And it's clear that he still thinks he can achieve those goals. And hell, being that he was No. 1 in the world not even eight months ago certainly suggests that he isn't exactly done. But there's no question that if he hasn't regressed to the game, the game has progressed to his level.
The same could be said, at times, about Rafael Nadal. Nadal is, by any stretch of the imagination, as good on clay as he has ever been. And again, the odds of him winning this tournament are just staggeringly high. But on Monday, we learned that while he is playing at nearly the highest conceivable level, the game of tennis isn't scared of him. In two-consecutive slam matches (versus Lukas Rosol at 2012 Wimbledon and versus Daniel Brands on Monday), Nadal's opponent threw caution to the wind, started pounding shots hard and deep for as long as possible, and saw the strategy pay off. There is a blueprint for beating Rafael Nadal on any surface now, and while it is nearly impossible to pull off -- Brands could only keep it up for most of two sets, and while Nadal may have looked vulnerable at times, he has still won 35 of his last 36 matches -- it's still a blueprint, and it didn't exist a year or two ago.
The game catches up to you. Greatness usually begets more greatness. Young up-and-comers in the Top 100 think they know how to beat Nadal now, even on clay. And while they are almost certainly wrong, it's so much more fun watching these guys force Nadal into fourth or fifth gear to survive. It makes the early rounds of slams that much more enjoyable and entertaining.
Matches to Watch
Men's 2nd round (Ferrer Region): Gael Monfils vs. Ernests Gulbis (Match No. 3, Court Philippe Chatrier)
Advanced Baseline Clay ranking: Monfils No. 12 | Gulbis No. 23
Monfils' reward for taking out Tomas Berdych in one of his most impressive, sustained efforts to date is a second-round match versus another strong player. Monfils and Gulbis are two of the most tantalizing, frustrating players on the men's tour, capable of hitting a winner from anywhere at anytime and capable of going Tin Cup and making 17 mental mistakes on 17-straight points. One gets addicted to greatness, and once you see it in Monfils and Gulbis (and we've seen it plenty), we start to take it personally when we don't get to see it from them more often. But one of the two will reach the third round.
Men's 2nd round (Federer Region): Jo-Wilfried Tsonga  vs. Jarkko Nieminen (Match No. 2, Court Philippe Chatrier)
Advanced Baseline Clay ranking: Tsonga No. 16 | Nieminen No. 29
Tsonga, never an outright wizard on clay, looked strong, fit and confident in his first-round win. He will have to stay equally strong against the seasoned Nieminen, a 31-year-old from Finland who has spent time in the Top 15 and reached the fourth round of the French a decade ago.
Women's 2nd round (Williams Region): Serena Williams  vs. Caroline Garcia (Match No. 4, Court Philippe Chatrier)
Advanced Baseline Clay ranking: Williams No. 1 | Garcia No. 135
Because you like rubber-necking, right?
Men's 2nd round (Federer Region): Sam Querrey  vs. Jan Hajek (Match No. 3, Court 6)
Advanced Baseline Clay ranking: Querrey No. 58 | Hajek No. 44
Like quite a few other American males -- Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock, John Isner -- Querrey played at a level that belied his poor clay-court ranking in Round 1, cruising in straight sets past Lukas Lacko. Now he faces a player ranked higher than him in the Advanced Baseline clay rankings. The Americans had a surprisingly strong first round. Will we be saying the same about the second round?
Women's 2nd round (Radwanska Region): Madison Keys vs. Monica Puig (Match No. 4, Court 6)
Advanced Baseline Clay ranking: Keys No. 60 | Puig No. 77
Madison Keys is 18 years old and aiming for her second-straight third-round slam appearance. Monica Puig is 19 and, at this exact moment, undefeated all-time in slams (1-0, ahem) after a first-round upset of No. 11 seed Nadia Petrova. This could be entertaining from a "future of tennis" perspective. Well, that, and Keys has been making noise in the present tense as well in 2013.
Balance of Power
With each daily preview, we'll take a look at the top-ranked (according to AB clay rankings) remaining members of each region of the draw. The seeds don't really mesh too well with clay-court competence.
2. Novak Djokovic  -- advanced to second round
14. Tommy Haas  -- advanced to second round
17. Alexandr Dolgopolov  -- defeated in first round by Dmitry Tursunov 25. Pablo Andujar -- defeated in first round by Mikhail Youzhny
26. Philipp Kohlschreiber  -- advanced to second round
27. Janko Tipsarevic 
31. Fernando Verdasco -- advanced to second round
37. Grigor Dimitrov  -- advanced to second round
39. Mikhail Youzhny  -- advanced to second round
42. Victor Hanescu -- advanced to second round
This region got weaker with the elimination of Dolgopolov and Andjuar, who each looked far worse than their "Top 25 on clay" status in first-round losses. But Kohlschreiber and the slumping Tipsarevic each have decent opportunities to find a rhythm now.
Nadal Region of Complete Destruction
1. Rafael Nadal  - advanced to second round
7. Stan Wawrinka  -- advanced to second round
10. Richard Gasquet  -- advanced to second round
15. Benoit Paire 
18. Kei Nishikori  -- advanced to second round
21. Fabio Fognini  -- advanced to second round
22. Albert Ramos -- defeated in first round by Jerzy Janowicz
28. Jerzy Janowicz  -- advanced to second round
46. Florian Mayer  -- defeated in first round by Denis Istomin
48. Nikolay Davydenko -- advanced to second round
Paire was locked in a tough battle with always-salty Marcos Bagdatis as Day 3 ended -- the two were tied at a set apiece and will continue mid-day on Wednesday -- but for the most part this region has held shape. And yes, despite his first-round struggles, Nadal is still likely to dominate.
3. David Ferrer  -- advanced to second round
6. Tomas Berdych  -- defeated in first round by Gael Monfils
8. Nicolas Almagro  -- advanced to second round
12. Gael Monfils -- advanced to second round
13. Tommy Robredo  -- advanced to second round
23. Ernests Gulbis -- advanced to second round
24. Kevin Anderson  -- advanced to second round
30. Albert Montanes -- advanced to second round
32. Milos Raonic  -- advanced to second round
This region has held form, but it won't for long. Monfils and Gulbis duke it out on Wednesday, and the winner will likely get Robredo in the third round.
4. Roger Federer  -- advanced to second round
11. Juan Monaco  -- defeated in first round by Daniel Gimeno-Traver
16. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga  -- advanced to second round
20. Marin Cilic  -- advanced to second round
29. Jarkko Nieminen -- advanced to second round
33. Gilles Simon  -- advanced to second round
36. Jeremy Chardy  -- advanced to second round
43. Daniel Gimeno-Traver -- advanced to second round
44. Jan Hajek -- advanced to second round
Federer's path to the semifinals is not exactly littered with landmines.
1. Serena Williams  -- advanced to second round
10. Angelique Kerber  -- advanced to second round
15. Svetlana Kuznetsova -- advanced to second round
17. Ekaterina Makarova  -- defeated in first round by Svetlana Kuznetsova
21. Roberta Vinci  -- advanced to second round
23. Caroline Wozniacki  -- advanced to second round
27. Romina Oprandi -- defeated in first round by Elina Svitolina
28. Varvara Lepchenko  -- advanced to second round
47. Petra Vetkovska -- advanced to second round
52. Sorana Cirstea  -- advanced to second round
Will we see Good Kuznetsova for a second-straight match?
4. Sara Errani  -- advanced to second round
7. Agnieszka Radwanska  -- advanced to third round
9. Ana Ivanovic  -- advanced to second round
11. Simona Halep -- defeated in first round by Carla Suarez Navarro 12. Venus Williams  -- defeated in first round by Urszula Radwanska
16. Carla Suarez Navarro  -- advanced to second round
22. Nadia Petrova  -- defeated in first round by Monica Puig
25. Sabine Lisicki  -- advanced to second round
29. Julia Goerges  -- defeated in first round by Zuzana Kucova
31. Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor -- advanced to second round
60. Madison Keys -- advanced to second round
67. Mallory Burdette -- defeated in second round by Agnieszka Radwanska
Radwanska has dominated her first two matches and could face her sister, Urszula, in the third round.
3. Victoria Azarenka  -- advanced to second round
6. Na Li  -- advanced to second round
8. Kaia Kanepi -- advanced to second round
14. Maria Kirilenko  -- advanced to second round
24. Yaroslava Shvedova  -- advanced to second round
30. Flavia Pennetta -- defeated in first round by Kirsten Flipkens
32. Alize Cornet  -- advanced to second round
33. Anabel Medina Garrigues -- defeated in first round by Na Li
35. Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- advanced to second round
36. Paula Ormaechea -- advanced to second round
Azarenka finally saw the court early on Wednesday, three full days after the first round began. She didn't exactly look rusty.
2. Maria Sharapova  -- advanced to second round
5. Sam Stosur  -- advanced to second round
13. Petra Kvitova 
18. Jelena Jankovic  -- advanced to second round
19. Dominika Cibulkova  -- advanced to second round
20. Lucie Safarova 
34. Jamie Hampton
37. Shuai Peng -- advanced to second round
This region was most effected by the rain on Tuesday, which means Wednesday's winners will likely face a quick turn-around before tomorrow's second-round matches.