June 5, 2012

Bruised and Battered

Usually during the first week of my Grand Slam coverage, I tend to focus on the lesser-known players who get the opportunity to stand out. Whether it's due to some high-profile early upsets or the fact that their paths were cleared for them, we're bound to have a few underdogs hanging around longer than they should. By the time week two rolled around, though, we could be pretty sure the true favorites would still be standing, so there would soon be plenty of time to devote to them.

But after the battles we've seen so far at Roland Garros, we seem to have fewer of those favorites than we expected, and those that remain are a little more bruised than they've been in a long time.

Only a handful of seeded ladies made it out of the fourth round -- Serena Williams was of course stunned in her opener, world #3 Aggie Radwanska fell to 2009 French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova in a quick two sets and top-seeded Victoria Azarenka was summarily dismissed by Dominika Cibulkova, who avenged the heartbreaking loss to her Miami vanquisher. None of those those spoilers is still alive, sadly -- Domi's run ended earlier today with a straight-set loss to one-time runner-up Sam Stosur. She'll face red-hot Sara Errani, who notched her first-ever top-ten win by defeating Angelique Kerber this afternoon, for a spot in the final.

The bottom half of the women's draw was no less filled with drama -- former #1 Caroline Wozniacki and defending champion Na Li were both dispatched by arguably the longest shots left in the draw, qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova and world #23 Kaia Kanepi. And while most pundits suggested that left second-seeded Maria Sharapova as the heavy favorite to make the final, the Russian had her hands full in the fourth round. After losing just five games in her first three matches, the Russian's serve almost wholly failed her against Czech Klara Zakopalova on Monday. The pair traded serves for most of the first two sets, breaking each other a total of seventeen times. Finally after more than three hours on court, she finished off her opponent to make the quarters -- we'll see how well she's recovered when she takes on the crafty Kanepi on Wednesday. The two have never met, so there's no history to draw from, and if MaSha's wounds haven't yet healed it could be a harder-to-win battle than rankings suggest.

The men who have yet to play their quarterfinal matches have been surprisingly strong. There's no big surprise that neither six-time champion Rafael Nadal nor perennially tough clay-courter David Ferrer have dropped a set in their four rounds, and fans of Andy Murray may be relieved that early back problems haven't bothered the Scot in the latter stages of the event. But that doesn't mean everyone progressed so smoothly.

Sixteen-time Major winner Roger Federer may be one of the three men considered a contender for this title, but he's only won one of his first five matches in straight sets, the biggest fight he's had to put up this early at a Slam in nine years. Earlier today he got down two breaks to 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, a man he's beaten in all four of their meetings this year. Shortly after he lost his first set to the Argentine since the World Tour Final two-and-a-half years ago, and an hour later he was down two sets -- more than improbable, considering the world #9 had been battling a knee problem for more than a week. But that's when things turned -- DelPo's serve began to fade and Federer took advantage. In less than sixty minutes he had forced a decider, and after getting the only break in the fifth finally closed out the match. His reward will be a record-tying thirty-first Slam semi and his ninth Major meeting with one Novak Djokovic.

But the world #1, looking to complete a Slam cycle in Paris, hasn't had the easiest time either. After sailing fairly swiftly through his first three rounds, he found himself in an unlikely two-set hole to Italian Andreas Seppi on Sunday -- one that proved difficult to climb out of. He won only half his service points in the third set, needed more than an hour in the fourth to reach a decider, where he was finally able to capitalize on his opponent's fatigue. Two days later he was put to the test again against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a man against whom he holds a tight five-to-five record. After running through the opening set and getting a break in the second, Nole was suddenly down two sets-to-one. There were no breaks in the fourth and the top seed faced match point in the tiebreak, but he was able to hang tough and with the break in the decider, finished off his second straight five-setter. He'll have to rebound quickly against Roger if he's going to avenge his loss in the semis last year. His one comfort may be that his challenger could be as tired as he is.

It's been a while since these guys have been challenged so hard, so it'll be interesting to see if they can pull it together for their next matches. Experience and strength certainly lie in the favor of some over others, but with so many unexpected casualties already on the field, there's no telling what's to come.

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