May 31, 2012

While You Were Otherwise Occupied...

Grand Slams make for great headlines, don't they?

"Serena Williams stunned at French Open." "Murray beats Nieminen and the pain barrier." "Victoria Azarenka narrowly avoids shock exit." "John Isner is tennis's marathon man again."

And while all these matches were well worth watching, and perhaps have held some of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring moments of the French Open so far, there have been just as many players sneaking through there draws with little or no fanfare. And maybe their victories deserve a little more notice as the fields get narrowed.

Janko Tipsarevic comes to Paris with his highest ever seeding at a Slam, but he had been a little quiet since his stellar 2011. It wasn't as though he was losing to a lot of triple-digit players, but he didn't quite keep up the momentum that brought him his first two titles at the end of last year, and his best performance came only last week in Dusseldorf, where he and compatriot Viktor Troicki brought the World Team Championship home to Serbia. Tipsarevic started off slowly in Paris, losing his first set to Sam Querrey, but he came back swinging and improved his record against the American with a four-set win. Earlier today he rallied after an early service break to clay court specialist Jeremy Chardy and earned his ticket into the third round. Maybe the least-discussed player in the top ten, he's certainly shown he can be something to talk about this week.

Julia Goerges had possibly fallen even further off the radar in recent months. The #17 seed here last year, she's fallen out of the top twenty after failing to defend a title in Stuttgart or a semi showing in Rome. Though she's notched wins over Marion Bartoli and Caroline Wozniacki this year, she hasn't made quite the splash she did in 2011 and few pundits were considering her a threat at Roland Garros this go-round. But the German survived a tough opener against Madrid semifinalist Lucie Hradecka and barreled through her second round against young Heather Watson today. Her next round should have been played against heavy favorite Serena Williams, but with perennial spoiler Arantxa Rus taking out the woman who took out Williams, Goerges's prospects are looking a whole lot brighter.

Somewhat of a longer shot is thirty-four year old veteran Tommy Haas. Once ranked as high as #2 in the world, a diet of injuries and illnesses and "old"-age pushed him out of ranking territory by this time last year. But after reaching the semis in Munich and battling through three qualifying rounds in Paris he was back in the main draw. He dropped a bagel set to Filippo Volandri in his first round, but had relatively little trouble today against Sergiy Stakhovsky, where he pounced on weak second serves and converted on nearly sixty percent of his return points. Next up he faces hometown favorite Richard Gasquet, over whom he holds a two-to-one career record. Those matches were a long time ago, though, so it'll be tough against the seventeenth seed. But we should know better than to count anyone out.

I guess that means I shouldn't give up on my New Year's pick to win the ladies' title here quite yet. Like Tipsarevic, Dominika Cibulkova ended the 2011 season with her career high -- that elusive maiden title in Moscow -- and then promptly failed to deliver through the early part of this year, winning just four matches in her first eight events. She finally started to show some spunk in Miami, but after that heart-wrenching loss to world #1 Victoria Azarenka I worried she might not be able to pick herself up. She finally started to turn things around on the clay, though, making the final in Barcelona and beating Yanina Wickmayer in Brussels. And so far at Roland Garros she's been on point, losing literally just a handful of games in making the third round. Tomorrow she'll face unseeded Maria Jose Martinez who earlier vanquished Lucie Safarova and won both the pair's previous two meetings -- ironically, both in Moscow. But if the diminutive Slovak plays up to her ability, she could make a real push for Week Two.

It's been a while since Fernando Verdasco got that far at a Major. Somewhat surprisingly seeing the most success at the hard court Slams, he hasn't reached as far as the fourth round since Australia last year and saw his ranking fall out of the top twenty in the latter half of 2011. The Spaniard started to pull things together in the late winter, though, pushing to the final in Acapulco and stunning Rafael Nadal in Madrid. So far in Paris he fought off an early break to Steve Darcis and stayed tough after losing the first set to Gilles Muller on Wednesday. On Friday he meets Belgrade champion Andreas Seppi, a man who may have momentum on his side. But Verdasco has won all six of their previous matches, in fact losing just one set in their eight-year history, so it might be his opportunity to really make a statement again.

But maybe the player with the best opportunity at the French is 2010 runner-up Sam Stosur. Like so many recent Grand Slam winners, she hasn't followed up successfully on her U.S. Open crown -- she lost the first round in Melbourne and only made the semis at two events this year -- and though still seeded sixth in Paris, she was mostly overshadowed by higher profile names. But she's been quietly making quick work of her opponents so far -- Stosur handed Elena Baltacha a bagel in their second set and took out rising American star Irina Falconi in just over an hour on Wednesday. Tomorrow she'll have her eighth career meeting with Nadia Petrova, often a spotty player, but one who's put up some thrilling three-set battles against the Australian in their last two matches. They too have never met on clay, where Stosur is arguably more comfortable, and a win on Friday could do wonders for her the rest of the tournament.

With so much attention being paid to the big stories of the week, it's been easy to miss some of the more quiet players as they methodically do their jobs. Who knows? It might just work to their advantage as the hard-fought struggles of their potential foes keep the pressure off them. And while we're all too busy looking elsewhere, any of these guys could take the opportunity to really surprise us.

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