Like every year, on the eve of the French Open, one hundred and twenty-eight players will dream of a better tomorrow, all seeking to prevent Nadal becoming a seven-time champion, or Nole’s 'Djoko Slam'. Among them, five young prospects - and as many uncertain bets - dreaming of making royalty bite the dust and shining in the Parisian spotlights.
1- Albert Ramos (24 years old, Spain, 42nd worldwide)
The Catalan is, lo-and-behold, a fan of FC Barcelona and prefers clay. Since 2007 he’s been growing to finally make it to the top fifty worldwide this year. Finalist in Casablanca, semi-finalist in Sao Paulo, he has victories against Verdasco, Gasquet and even Chela. Even if his record in 2012 (16 wins, 12 losses) is nothing sensational, one feels that this season could be the one. He just needs to make the breakthrough. For now, the skinny left-hander, the son of a dentist, is still looking for a big performance in a 500 tournament, a Masters Series event or a Grand Slam. More than his performance in Morocco, it is his recent outings in Acapulco and Barcelona that inspire our intuition. Untied, tough guy, yet another product of the Spanish nursery, Albert Ramos can be expected to do some damage at Roland Garros. He just has to keep it up for five sets...
2- Milos Raonic (21 years old, Canada, 23rd worldwide)
Someday soon, an editor will make a book on all the players who emerged from the former Yugoslavia to make the top 100 worldwide. Born in Montenegro, Milos Raonic grew up in Canada and really exploded onto the scene last year. Three titles on hard courts (including two in San Jose), Milos hardly set the world alight at the Grand Slams. The "Crazy Canuck" looks like a basketball player (he’s a fan of the Toronto Raptors) being 6.5 feet tall. In a way, he embodies the modern giants like Dirk Nowitzky, the Dallas Mavericks basketball player or John Isner, the U.S. Gulliver: He has the same on-court movement and technique, the same gestural skills. As the man who put the French team to the sword in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas, Milos Raonic should do some damages this year at “the French” with his service and his forehand... His performance in Barcelona last month proves it…
3- Kei Nishikori (22 years old, Japan, 17th worldwide)
Quite tiny (5.8 ft., 10.7st), Kei Nishikori is an alien on the international tour. The man who left his family home very young, he joined the Bollitieri Academy through the Morito Foundation, named after the former boss of Sony. Welcome to the global village. Managed from afar by Brad Gilbert, Nishikori stroked a decisive blow at the last Australian Open (1/4 beaten by Murray), three months after reaching the semi-final at the Shanghai Masters Series and the final in Basel against Federer (having defeated Djokovic in the semis). He has made the breakthrough that Ramos and Raonic are still waiting for, the proof that one belongs with the big boys, albeit without necessarily finding out how long for. A Jack-of-all-trades, Kei has cut his teeth in Buenos Aires and Barcelona (reaching the quarter-finals at each). Is he ready to shine in Paris?
4- Marin Cilic (23 years old, Croatia, 22rd worldwide)
We could have played it easy and chosen next the Bulgarian Dimitrov or the Australian Tomic, or even the Ukrainian comet Alexandr Dolgopolov. We prefer Marin Cilic, a name that means something to everyone but that no one really understands. From his 6ft 5in, the Croatian seems made for grass and hard courts (where he has won his six titles) but he can, and must, perform at Roland Garros. Just to flout the laws of gravity and movement on clay. Exactly like a mountaineer could climb an unlisted mountain pass of the Dolomites on the Tour of Italy with the agility of an elf...
5- Ernests Gulbis (23 years old, Latvia, 84th worldwide)
The dark horse. Hardly anyone will bet on him on the eve of Roland Garros. And yet... the little prince has all the talent in the world and we just can’t believe that a diamond like this can let his career pass him by. This almost-perfect mix of Richard Gasquet and Miroslav Mecir is a mentally-soft gem. Last summer, he had the good sense to hire Guillermo Canas as coach and won the Farmers Classic in Los Angeles soon afterwards. Despite this victory, and given his potential, the Latvian still languishes in the depths of the rankings. A quarter-finalist in Paris at only 19 years old in 2008, Gulbis should never-the-less learn a lot from a coach who has everything he lacks: the grinta, the vice, the tactical sense and mental toughness - things that actually can be learned. The rest, the essential, the glowing talent, Ernests already has it. And this is still not for sale.
By Rico Rizzitelli