May 25, 2011

Pushed to the Limit

A couple of the sport's biggest stars were put to the test in their early rounds in Paris, and while a couple -- like Tomas Berdych and Flavia Pennetta -- came out on the wrong end, some others eventually prevailed. But their toughest tests might be yet to come.

Former top-twenty player Xavier Malisse isn't seeded at the French Open, but he's one of those floaters no one wants to see in their section of the draw. Since wrist injury sidelined him for much of 2008 and dropped him out of a double-digit ranking, he's been clawing his way back among the contenders and has pulled off wins over the likes of John Isner, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Novak Djokovic in the past year.

In his first round at Roland Garros, a tournament at which he's never passed the fourth round, he faced a tough test in Dmitry Tursunov, another player coming back from injury. They traded sets for about two-and-a-half hours before the Belgian was finally able to take hold and get the win. But with a second round date against Fernando Verdasco, he'll need to up his game even more. True, the Spaniard has had an up-and-down year, but he has won the pair's only meeting -- a Davis Cup rubber, in straight sets -- so Malisse can't afford to get too far behind in the count. But if he can pull it off, it could bode well for the rest of his year.

Dark horse Julia Goerges also found herself in trouble earlier today. Seeded at a Slam for the first time in her young career, the German came to Paris with a lot of pressure on her shoulders -- she'd beaten world #1 Caroline Wozniacki twice during the lead-up tournaments, once in the finals at Stuttgart, and was one of my favorite underdogs to take the title.

But in her second round against feisty Lucie Safarova, she found herself down a set and a break as the Czech's groundstrokes seemed to find all the lines. Goerges stayed strong, though, drawing even and finally getting a go-ahead break in the nearly hour-long second set. The momentum stayed on her side in the decider, as she won every one of her first serves and broke her opponent two more times to advance. Next up, she'll meet eleventh seed Marion Bartoli, a hometown favorite but certainly a beatable foe. If Julia can take advantage, she could set up an even deeper run at this Major.

Vera Zvonareva is used to the pressure of the later rounds at the Slams, but she was in for a surprise on Wednesday afternoon. Facing one-time world #22 Sabine Lisicki, she battled through one long set after another – the German pulled out some magical passing shots to break the third seed and take the first set and seemed to pull even whenever Vera took a lead in the second. The two traded breaks again in the third, but after an injury time-out, the Russian was able to secure a lead and the win.

It was heart-breaking to see Lisicki in so much pain, but you have to give Zvonareva credit for keeping her cool when she’s so often lost it in the past. She should have an easier third round against Anastasia Rodionova, the Australian who knocked out last year's quarterfinalist Nadia Petrova in the first round, and might be ready to put up his best-ever run in Roland Garros.

Of course the biggest story of this year's early rounds has been the ultimate test faced by five-time and defending champion Rafael Nadal in his first round. After taking the first set and a break from big-serving John Isner easily, the Spaniard found himself in trouble. Isner was able to force a tiebreaker and never squelched a lead in it. There were no breaks in the third set and when the American seized control of that breaker, we knew history was about to be made -- either the undisputed King of Clay would suffer his biggest upset, or he'd have to play his first ever five-setter in Paris.

Nadal's a fighter, though, and he was able to kick his game into high gear the second he found himself trailing. He didn't allow Isner another break chance in the next eighty-plus minutes, and after more than four hours of play he finally walked away the winner. For his efforts he'll meet rapidly improving Pablo Andujar, another Spaniard who won his first career title earlier this year in Casablanca. They've never met before, but Rafa should be sufficiently recovered to get the win. Even still, there could be some more unexpected fireworks in store for us Thursday.

Maybe it's a good thing all these guys were challenged so early in the tournament -- now that the tests are over, perhaps they'll see smooth sailing going forward.

Or else, it could be a sign that there's even more excitement down the road. And if these matches are any indication, you won't want to miss a beat.

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