May 27, 2009

Going the Distance

It was quite a marathon day for some of the best players in Paris. Andy Murray took two and a half hours before dismissing Potito Starace, and while Victoria Azarenka may have gotten by in straight sets, she needed nearly two hours and more than a hundred and fifty points before sending Kristina Barrois home.

But others had even tougher times earning their right to advance.

David Ferrer faced former top five player Nicolas Kiefer in his second round match. The fourteenth seed seems to have gotten his game back on track this year after what must have been a frustrating 2008, while Kiefer has struggled. Though he's ranked 37th in the world, he hasn't put together back-to-back wins all year, even losing three first round matches on clay. Ferrer should have been confident coming into play.

The two split the first four sets, with Keifer easily being the more aggressive player -- he marked seventy-one winners during the match compared to Ferrer's fifty and whizzed fifteen aces by his opponent. When David was unable to capitalize on his two set to one lead, it looked like he might make his earliest French exit since 2004.

But his serve really came through in the final set. He won more than ninety percent of his first attempts and Nicolas could barely get his raquet on the ball. After more than two hours -- including a sixty-nine-minute third set -- it took barely thirty minutes for him to get through the fifth, earning the luxury of meeting Robin Soderling in the third round.

On the women's side all eyes were on the high-profile match-up between compatriots Maria Sharapova and Nadia Petrova. Though eleventh-seed Petrova came to the match as the technical favorite, Maria had won five of their last six meetings. Sure, she's still testing the waters after a nine-month absence, but Sharapova clearly wanted to win this match to prove her committal to her comeback.

The two traded breaks to start the match before Maria rallied to take the first set 6-2. Nadia retaliated with a quick 6-1 win in the second and took the early lead in the third, running to 5-2. But then Sharapova broke back and forced extra innings by getting to six all.

As we all know there are no tiebreaks in the final set at Roland Garros -- Maria had to hold on to a break lead to score the 8-6 victory. The seventy-one minute last set was ten minutes longer than the first two combined, and Sharapova's perseverance clearly showed that she had come to Paris to compete -- and that maybe she could be a contender in these games. Even still, while she may have a few easy rounds coming up, there's a long ways to go if she hopes to win her fourth and final Major.

As impressive as Maria's win was, though, certainly the biggest match of the day came when Marat Safin, playing his last French Open, took on wild card Josselin Ouanna. Veteran Safin was obviously the favorite, as Ouanna had only played one Grand Slam event in his career, losing in the first round in Paris last year.

But the first two sets both went to tiebreaks, both lasted over an hour each -- and both went to the #134 Frenchman. Marat dug deep though and fought back to level the match. By the time the fifth set began the casual observer would assume both momentum and experience were on the side of the Russian.

The crowd, however, which included eleventh seed Gael Monfils, was clearly behind their countryman, and the cheers must have done a lot to boost Ouanna's confidence. He struck the ball well, went after amazing shots and withstood twenty-four winners and six aces in the fifth set. After seventy-nine minutes Ouanna pulled off the biggest upset of his career, dealing an often-volatile Marat what must have been a devastating blow and prompting one commentator to point out:

"If you're gonna lose, you wanna lose to somebody high-ranked. He doesn't want to lose to a wildcard Frenchman"

It was Josselin's second straight five-set victory of the tournament. And though he must be tired, he's going to have to rest up and get back into focus if he's going to get past Fernando Gonzalez in the third round -- the twelfth-seeded Chilean will definitely be a tough nut to crack.

But I'm sure Ouanna has never been more sure of himself than he is today.

So here's hoping the action over the next week and a half is as exciting as it has been these last few days! With so many strong talents in Paris anything can happen!

And I, for one, can't wait to watch it!

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