May 29, 2011

French Fires

It's been a long time since any Frenchman or woman has made much of an impact at a Grand Slam, much less the one in their homeland. But this year, with thirty-two singles players in the draw, a couple were bound to stick around -- and they're not the ones you might have expected to set off the fireworks.

Gilles Simon was a top-ten player not so long ago, but some spotty results and knee injury pushed him into the low double-digits at the end of last year. A win in Sydney and a quarterfinal showing in Miami helped him get back within a stone's throw of the elite, but he's never done particularly well at Roland Garros -- a third round exit in 2009 is his best showing -- and has only amassed a slightly better than fifty percent record on clay. With three of his countrymen seeded higher than he, I didn't expect Simon would be the one still around.

But the twenty-six year old has been solid in Paris. He dropped sets to both Michael Russell and Jeremy Chardy, but was unstoppable against American Mardy Fish on Saturday. Dropping serve just once in that match, he earned his first ever fourth round at the French Open, where he'll meet two-time finalist Robin Soderling. Simon hasn't beaten the Swede since 2008, well before Soderling made a name for himself, but something tells me the crowd will do its part to make sure this match is a good one.

Top-ranked Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli made it as far as the fourth round in Paris once in ten previous appearances -- she's had more success in both Wimbledon, where she was a finalist in 2007, and Melbourne. And though she's hovered among the top-twenty for some time, she hasn't won a title in almost two years. She made the finals in Indian Wells in March and in Strasbourg last week, but retired with a thigh injury, so her success at Roland Garros could have been in doubt.

But something seems to have clicked for the tenth seed. She hasn't had an easy time of it, but she's pulled out the big guns when she needed to. She lost her first set to both Anna Tatishvili and Julia Goerges, and battled back after dropping a tiebreak to Olga Govortsova in the second round. Earlier today she received a bit of a gift when Gisela Dulko pulled out of their match early, giving Bartoli entrée into her first Major quarterfinal in over two years. She'll face '09 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova next, so it won't be an easy task to improve her run, but she's probably never had a better opportunity to do it.

Probably most surprising has been the success of French showman Gael Monfils. A semifinalist here in 2008, he's more known for his on-court antics than his consistent play. He hasn't played a lot this year, with a wrist injury limiting his matchplay, and retired from tournaments in Madrid and San Jose. And with a sixty-percent record on clay I didn't expect him to really perform in Paris either.

When he lost his opening set to world #145 Bjorn Phau, I thought we might be in for an early upset. But Monfils came back and bagelled the German in the fourth set. He took another two-and-a-half hours to dismiss compatriot Guillaume Rufin and finally had an easy time against Steve Darcis to make the fourth round. When he met up with clay court specialist David Ferrer, though, I was sure his luck had run out. But somehow he found himself up two breaks in the first set and came back from a deficit in the third to take a two set to one lead. Play was suspended for darkness with Ferrer up a break in the fourth, but the rest may well serve to reinvigorate the Frenchman, never known for dealing well with high-intensity matches.

The three remaining French in the draws have certainly done their part to excite the home crowd, whether their campaigns continue or not. It's not impossible for them to stick around a little longer, though, and cause a few more surprises. And if they can light a few more fires, it could further turn this tournament on its head.

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