May 31, 2011

The Wildcard Quarters

For a long time we've been saying that this year's French Open is truly up for grabs. With Novak Djokovic dominating every court this year, even the undisputed King of Clay Rafael Nadal isn't necessarily a favorite. And as seed after seed was upset in the women's draw, the eight ladies remaining all have a real chance to take home the title.

Some are obviously more experienced than others -- at the start of day, three on each side had won Majors before -- but in both draws there has emerged one section where neither contender has claimed a Grand Slam, and this could very well be their opportunity.

Li Na stunned the world when she powered through her draw in Melbourne to reach the Australian Open championship match. She even ran away with a set-and-break lead over Kim Clijsters before the veteran took charge of the match.

Li was flying under the radar again in Paris -- she won only one match in three months after Australia -- but seemed to get her footing back in Madrid and Rome, both of which yielded semifinal runs. And after losing the first set to Petra Kvitova on Monday and getting down a break in the third set, she showed just how resilient she can be, battling to her fifth Major quarterfinal in two years.

Next up she'll face fourth seeded Victoria Azarenka, one of my original favorites to win the title. She's disappointed me in the past, though, and susceptibility to injury and frequent retirements made me a little nervous she'd do so again.

But so far she's been solid, losing serve just a handful of times and winning more than seventy percent of her first serves. She has a surprisingly bad record against Li, only defeating her once last year in Montreal and getting fairly trampled in the fourth round at Melbourne. But if she can keep her head on Wednesday I expect she might reach her first Major semifinal.

On the men's side a couple unseeded players fought their way to the quarters, but veteran Juan Ignacio Chela really took advantage of his draw. The former world #15 had a rough start to the 2011 clay court season, but turned his luck around in Dusseldorf, winning all four of his matches for Argentina at the World Team Championships.

He hasn't had the biggest on-paper challenge in Paris, facing only one seed in his first four rounds. But he survived a nearly four-hour slugfest against fellow south American Alejandro Falla on Wednesday, and has the added benefit of having today off -- something his next opponent won't get.

Andy Murray was questionable when he came into the fourth round, having rolled his ankle pretty badly against Michael Berrer a few days earlier. And when he dug himself into a 0-5 hole against Viktor Troicki late in Monday's play, it looked like his Roland Garros campaign was soon to end. Troicki served out the first set on his third attempt and managed to hang onto a lead in the second, but it was quickly apparent that Murray had worked out his kinks.

He took just over an hour to even the set score before play was called for darkness, bringing all the momentum with him into today's continuation. He got down a break early, but came back again, stopping the Serb as he tried to serve it out and finally closing out another four-hour match -- the fourth time he's successfully rebounded from two sets down. You have to like Murray's chances against Chela in the next round, and whatever the result after that, he's more than shown he shouldn't be discounted on this surface.

Of course there is plenty of potential for other first-time Major winners to continue through the draws. Robin Soderling has a chance to again take out Rafael Nadal in their quarterfinal match. And both Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, currently in a third set with defending champion Francesca Schiavone, and Andrea Petkovic, who beat her next opponent Maria Sharapova in Melbourne, are legitimate contenders.

But for these four players in particular, their chances to bring home the big prize have never looked better.

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