June 2, 2012

More Than Just Luck

We've gotten to that part in every Major where we really start weeding out the players who had some early good fortune from the ones who are the real forces. With the fourth rounds of both the men's and women's draws now set, there are of course a couple surprises, some perennial champions, and a few who might be on the verge of something great.

As is common the ladies have seen a few more upsets throughout their bracket -- though admittedly they may have been a little more shocking than usual. But the round of sixteen is stacked with likely favorite Maria Sharapova and five other Grand Slam winners still in the running. They're not entirely safe though, as some recent upstarts might be ready to make a push.

Among the longer shots is Arantxa Rus scored her biggest Slam win last year when she defeated Kim Clijsters in the second round in Paris. She's won just two main draw matches at the Tour level since then and got a bit of a break in her French Open return when Virginie Razzano precluded a second round meeting with Serena Williams. Still the twenty-one year old has proven herself strong, earlier today dispatching a strong-looking Julia Goerges in the late-night match. And Yaroslava Shvedova, a quarterfinalist here two years ago, dropped well off her once-top-thirty ranking thanks to injury and illness. After dominating her qualifying rounds, she's fought past some tough clay courters to make the fourth round. And young Sloane Stephens, one of the two Americans -- men or women -- remaining in the draw, has yet to drop a set in Paris. If any of these ladies is going to advance further they'll have to raise their games, but what they've shown so far gives them some hope.

At a slightly higher level is Sara Errani, three times a titleist already this year. Currently ninth in the race to the WTA Championships, she finally scored a win over a top-fifteen player when she took out 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic on Friday. She'll have to dismiss another former Roland Garros titleist if she's going to stay alive, but as the higher ranked player against Svetlana Kuznetsova, she may just have the advantage. And Kaia Kanepi, a quarterfinalist here four years ago, seemed to get her season back on track with a win today over former #1 Caroline Wozniacki. The Estonian, trying to come back from her own set of injuries, squandered a 5-1 lead in the second set and failed in her first four attempts to serve out the match. But after nearly three hours of play she was finally able to close it out. She'll meet Rus for a spot in the quarters, certainly less of a threat than she'd otherwise face, so she could have one of her greatest opportunities yet.

The men's draw has boasted slightly fewer upsets over the course of opening week. Sure tenth seed John Isner failed to win his second marathon and Major staples like Andy Roddick and Jurgen Melzer failed to make it out of the first round. But the true favorites are still alive -- all four players who've won every Slam since Melbourne in 2005 and most of the ones who've made the finals over that period. Even still a couple players have posted some strong results and might put up bigger fights than we expect going forward.

The only non-seeded player left in the draw actually has already lost in Paris this year. World #109 David Goffin dropped his last qualifying match, but gained entry into the main draw once Gael Monfils pulled out. He went on to take out Radek Stepanek in his opener and subsequently dismissed veterans Arnaud Clement and Lukasz Kubot in his first Slam appearance. It'll probably be as far as he goes, with a fourth round date with Roger Federer looming, but it's not a bad showing for the young German Belgian. It'll be also be tough for Marcel Granollers to keep up his own streak. The twenty-third ranked Spaniard has already spent nearly twelve hours on court to reach his first ever Slam fourth round, and the highest-ranked player he's faced so far was world #94 Malek Jaziri -- a far cry from countryman David Ferrer, whom he'll take on next. Still, he's gaining much-needed experience on the big stage, and it could bode well for his future. With neither likely to stick around much longer in Paris, it will still be important for them to turn their wins into an even more successful summer.

With slightly better chances of staying alive -- though maybe more like minuscule -- Juan Monaco could be flying a bit under the radar. The Argentine has already won two titles this year -- not surprisingly, both on clay -- and made a stellar run to the semis in Miami. His five-set slug-fest with Milos Raonic today allowed him into his first French fourth round since 2007, and though his reward is a meeting with six-time champion Rafael Nadal, he's shown he might be capable of throwing a few punches in too. And Nicolas Almagro, who himself added two clay court titles to his trophy case this year, has now won seven matches and seventeen sets in a row on the surface. He's the on-paper underdog against Janko Tipsarevic in the sweet sixteen, but with his confidence on dirt he might just be in the better position come Sunday's match.

Time may or may not be running out for these guys at this year's French Open -- some certainly have a higher chance of surviving than others -- but their performances so far show they have a little more on their side than just luck. Hopefully, whatever their prospects here are, they'll be able to take that with them the rest of the season. And one day we could see them really breaking into the sport's elite.

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