May 27, 2011

The Sleepers

The top players have grabbed all the headlines in Paris this past week -- Rafael Nadal struggles in early rounds, Kim Clijsters stunned by a Dutch upstart, Nole keeps rolling.

But amid the high-profile stories at this year's French Open, some other contenders are quietly moving through their draws and could take us all by surprise in the second week.

It's strange to think of former world #1 Jelena Jankovic as being under the radar, but after upsets in Stuttgart, Madrid and Brussels, she's at her lowest seed at a Major since the 2007 Australian Open. But maybe that's where she likes to be -- in three matches she hasn't lost a set and has the second best percentage of first serve points won in the women's field. Earlier today she cleanly dispatched a tough Bethanie Mattek-Sands, committing just ten unforced errors, to make her fifth straight fourth round at Roland Garros -- arguably the Slam where she's most consistently successful.

The road gets harder from here, of course -- Jankovic faces defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the next round. She'd been slightly more successful in the tournaments leading up to Paris, but she didn't beat anyone ranked in the top thirty and probable wasn't really considered a contender to repeat. But the Italian has been relentless in her campaign, dropping just five games in her first two matches before benefiting from Shuai Peng's retirement on Friday. She's only won one match in her previous four meetings with JJ, though, so we could very well see an upset here.

A little further down the rankings, Jarmila Gajdosova is making her own statement in Paris. A solid hardcourt player, she's had a decent run on clay coming into the French Open -- no huge upsets, but no big disappointments either. She's seeded at a Slam for the first time in her career, and so was spared the most intimidating opponents early. But a straight-set win over Estoril champion Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round proves she can hit on the dirt. She'll next meet Andrea Petkovic, fresh off her own title in Strasbourg. The German is certainly a threat, but if Jarka can manage an upset, she could have even a few more wins in her.

On the men's side, David Ferrer has been quietly mincing his opponents, one by one -- and they've not been your typical pushovers. Veterans Jarkko Nieminen and Julien Benneteau have both pulled off some impressive upsets in the past, and Sergiy Stakhovsky is establishing himself as a real threat on Tour. Still Ferrer has battled through, winning a field-leading eighty-six percent of his first serves and saved all three of the break points he's faced. He'll meet the winner of the Gael Monfils/Steve Darcis match, but I don't expect either will be much of a challenge. And the win could clear the way for a few more wins.

A slightly longer shot for the title, Alejandro Falla finds himself in a pretty attractive section of the draw. The man that nearly ousted Roger Federer in the first round of Wimbledon last year had to qualify for Roland Garros, but knocked off Casablanca finalist Potito Starace, and my underdog favorite Florian Mayer in the main draw. There are no seeds left near him for at least two rounds, so he might be the biggest surprise quarterfinalist of this tournament in a few days time.

Any of these sleepers could sneak up on the top seeds in Paris -- clearly no one is invulnerable on the clay and a couple lucky shots could really make the difference. And with the way these guys are playing, it doesn't seem any of their opponents are safe.

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