PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 23: Novak Djokovic of Serbia hits a backhand during the men's singles first round match between Thiemo De Bakker of Netherlands and Novak Djokovic of Serbia on day two of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 23, 2011 in Paris, France. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
An occasionally irresponsibly hyperbolic preview of 20 Roland Garros players whose names you'll hear a lot over the next couple weeks, arranged from most to least likable. (It's OK, Marin Cilic. You weren't on our list anyway.)
Good morning, ugly Americans, and welcome to Roland Garros 2011, where all U.S. tennis players are almost certain to be out of the draw well before the final. You don't have Andy Roddick to holler for. You don't have a Williams sister making fashion history on the murky clay. You have four American players in Nadal's quarter, and one of them will surely fall to him today. You are going to need some help if you want to enjoy this thing.
The following is an occasionally irresponsibly hyperbolic preview of 20-odd players whose names you'll hear a lot over the next couple weeks, arranged from most to least likable to the uninitiated fan based on a complicated metric of actual win probability, recent Grand Slam play and ease of pithy talking points to drop to make you sound fancier at parties.
1. Novak Djokovic (Serbia)
Roland Garros History: Two straight seasons in the semis, in 2007 and 2008
The Case For: Djokovic is on, if not the mother of all hot streaks, at least the randy maiden aunt of them. With 39 straight victories in 2011, he can break John McEnroe's all-time straight wins record before the season is out if he stays toasty. He's beaten French Open inevitability Rafael Nadal in their last two consecutive finals, Madrid and Rome, both on clay. And every time he wins, there's the better-than-even chance he'll say something inappropriate on live television.
The Case Against: While Djokovic's already through to the second round, he has a steep draw ahead of him to reach the finals, and he hasn't even made the semis at Roland Garros since that 2008 run.
2. Kim Clijsters (Belgium)
Roland Garros History: Finalist in 2001 and 2003
The Case For: On what's thought to be the last leg of a mighty comeback tour (Clijsters has openly considered re-retiring after the 2012 Olympic Games), the reigning U.S. and Australian Open champ could wrap up a calendar Grand Slam by summer's end, and a for-real Grand Slam if she puts on a repeat performance at Flushing Meadows this fall.
The Case Against: Has not played at Roland Garros since 2006, and is already walking wounded, fresh out of rehab that's kept her sidelined for more than a month with multiple injuries.
3. Virginie Razzano (France)
Roland Garros History: One appearance in the fourth round, in 2009
The Case For: You want a story you can get behind? Razzano's coach, who also happened to be her fiancé, died a week ago today of a brain tumor. She's playing in his honor. Have you a pulse? Does it beat through a human heart? You are physically incapable of rooting against her.
The Case Against: Where to begin? There's no comparable distraction to what Razzano's going through right now.
4. Gael Monfils (France)
Roland Garros History: Semifinalist in 2008
The Case For: If you're looking for a hometown player to stake your flag behind, do not seek further. Monfils' high-velocity play and excellent hair make for a diverting spectacle.
The Case Against: Apart from the abovementioned run in '08, has never made it past the quarters of any Slam event.
5. Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark)
Roland Garros History: Quarterfinalist in last year's Paris hoedown
The Case For: For a World No. 1, has shown a surprising amount of personality off the court.
The Case Against: The knock against her is a perpetual one and a valid one: Wozniacki is a top-ranked player who's never won a major.
6. Li Na (China)
Roland Garros History: Has never cleared the fourth round in Paris
The Case For: Li won our allegiance with her fierce play on the court and charming interviews off it at the 2011 Australian Open. By even reaching the finals of the Aussie, she's already the most successful Chinese tennis player in history.
The Case Against: Was her Down Under run a blip? It's far too early to tell.
7. Robin Söderling (Sweden)
Roland Garros History: Has been to two straight finals here, in 2009 and '10
The Case For: See above; plus, he has the distinction of actually having beaten Nadal at Roland Garros, which you might have heard doesn't happen all too often. Frequently shows up to majors looking as though he's slept under a bridge before laying waste to unsuspecting opponents.
The Case Against: There's really not one. He played poorly in the Aussie Open, but if you're looking for a hipster pick who's not one of the Big Three in the men's draw and won't choke on his own tongue in an early round (we'll get to you, Andy Murray), here you go.
8. Roger Federer (Switzerland)
Seed: 3 (quel horreur!)
Roland Garros History: Three straight losses in the finals from 2006-2008 and a championship in 2009
The Case For: Is Roger Federer. Knows a little something about doing well in Paris. Has amazing hair and his own Nike crest.
The Case Against: Hasn't made it to the finals of a Slam event since winning the 2010 Australian Open, which for him counts as a horrific streak of playing. After defending him against charges of neglecting tennis in selfish favor of his hot wife and twin daughters for over a year now, however, we're about ready to see him start winning matches again.
9. Maria Sharapova (Russia)
Roland Garros History: Three quarterfinals berths and a run to the semis in 2007
The Case For: A victory at Roland Garros could seal a career Grand Slam for Sharapova, who's been playing lately like she'd rather be known for her tennis more than her endorsements for once.
The Case Against: She shares a quarter with Clijsters, robbing viewers like you of the best possible finals matchup by virtue of cruel, cruel math.
10. Rafael Nadal (Spain)
Roland Garros History: [deep breath] The 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010 French Open champion
The Case For: Do you simultaneously root for the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys, and Duke basketball, all with a straight face? Love the lamestream? Here's your guy.
The Case Against: The hair. The predilection for manpris. The inevitability. Thank the tennis gods on your knees that Djokovic has come around to make things interesting for Rafa on clay this season.
11. Lleyton Hewitt (Australia)
Roland Garros History: Quarterfinalist, 2004
The Case For: Doesn't have to play Marin Cilic in Round 2 after the latter's ignominious upset! And the only thing better than seeing Hewitt's crowd of hooligany hangers-on horrify fancy ladies in Paris is seeing them try to keep straight faces at Wimbledon.
The Case Against: Too late. Withdrew from the tourney Sunday with an ankle injury, and was coming off surgery anyway, so who knows how useful he would've been for your rooting interests. Rest up for the All-England Club, big guy.
12. Kimiko Date-Krumm (Japan)
Roland Garros History: Cracked the semis in 1995; has only played in one French Open since resuming her playing career in 2009
The Case For: We will never, ever tire of mentioning that Kimiko Date-Krumm is playing professional tennis, making money playing professional tennis, and doing it while being older than Michael Chang. This is our favorite tennis factoid of all time. We stand in perpetual awe of this woman.
The Case Against: First-round opponent: Caroline Wozniacki. Aww, Krumms.
13. Bethanie Mattek-Sands (USA)
Roland Garros History: Has never cleared the second round
The Case For: U-S-A! U-S-A! Has perhaps her best chance ever to clear this second round, owing to her would-be opponent No. 18 Flavia Pennetta's first-round upset loss at the hands of Varvara Lepchenko.
The Case Against: Finds herself in a truly crazypants quarter, with with Vera Zvonareva, Jelena Jankovic, and a whole buncha -ovas. Oh, and defending champ Francesca Schiavone. Now has to beat Lepchenko.
14. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France)
Roland Garros History: Two fourth-round berths in each of the past two French Opens
The Case For: A good homer pick, and a native of Le Mans, which means he's fast. Is sporting a bizarro Star-Trek-via-Adidas outfit that's weirdly endearing, somehow. Won his first-round match in straight sets.
The Case Against: None. A safe pick for those of you who already find Monfils too mainstream, maaaan.
15. Samantha Stosur (Australia)
Roland Garros History: 2010 finalist
The Case For: One half of last year's unlikeliest of finals pairings, along with Francesca Schiavone. The second-best run in her career was to the semis on this same court in 2009.
The Case Against: Hasn't got much else to show for her efforts in Slam play, apart from one U.S. Open quarters berth in 2010.
16. Mardy Fish (USA)
Roland Garros History: Has won three first-round matches at the French Open, including this year's. Has yet to make it past any second-round opponent at Roland Garros.
The Case For: U-S-A! U-S-A! Named like he stepped straight out of a lost Douglas Adams story; Fish is America's answer to Robin Söderling in terms of personal grooming habits. U-S-A!
The Case Against: See "Has yet to make it past any second-round opponent at Roland Garros."
17. Andy Murray (Great Britain)
Roland Garros History: 2009 quarterfinalist
The Case For: Has an absolute cakewalk of a draw, and is ranked fourth in the world! That means he's pretty good at tennis!
The Case Against: Except when it comes to the French Open, where he's played the poorest of all his Slam matches. Playing injured already and had to withdraw from a warmup match last week. Just looks flat miserable all the time. If you could hear his interior monologue, it'd probably say, "I hate tennis."
18. Sam Querrey (USA)
Roland Garros History: Four first-round losses from 2007-2010
The Case For: U-S-A! U-S-A!
The Case Against: As if never having won a match at Roland Garros wasn't unhelpful enough, he's also in Nadal's quarter.
19. Melanie Oudin (USA)
Roland Garros History: Won her first-round match at her first and only other French Open appearance last year.
The Case For: The shoes!
The Case Against: She drew 2010 champ Schiavone in the first round, and fell in straight sets on Monday morning. We can't really fault her for this one.
20. John Isner (USA)
Roland Garros History: A run to the third round in his second French Open, in 2010
The Case For: SEC! SEC! The Georgia native and UGA alum is certainly capable of miracles ...
The Case Against: ... and he'll need one here (and not just because it would be nice to have some other story to tell about him). We hate putting all these fine Americans down at the bottom of the list, but the luck of the draw is not with us this year, and Isner is scheduled to face No. 1 Nadal in a first-round match that will surely send him packing from Paris. Godspeed, kid.