May 31, 2014

10 Things Update: About a Week In...

Didn't I tell you things were going to get crazy at the French Open?

Since Day One we've seen some shocking upsets, the exit of champions and the rise of some unexpected stars. And as the rounds progressed, the surprises continued.

All that action tore quite a few holes in my wish list for Roland Garros. But while I may have gotten some of the details wrong, a couple themes still hold, so I thought it appropriate, as we kick off the last day of the first week, to revisit the things I'd like to have happen this fortnight, and nominate a few new candidates that now seem to fit the bill.

10. A dubious seed proves his worth

Well this was a tricky ask from the start. Roberta Vinci lost her opener, bringing her record on the year to an unimpressive 7-15. And while Jerzy Janowicz's loss in the third round to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was expected, he certainly should be able to pull off those upsets. Sorana Cirstea has a slightly better shot -- though she'll technically be the underdog against Jelena Jankovic in today's third round, she's won both their meetings on clay and might be able to keep things in her favor.

Hopefully the same can be hold true for twenty-fourth seed Fernando Verdasco, who's survived through his first two rounds by the skin of his teeth. One of the few men who've defeated Rafael Nadal on clay, the Spaniard picked up his first title in almost four years in Houston, but had otherwise put together a middling 10-8 record on the year. This week he toughed it out against Mikhail Kukushkin in his opener, and had to come back after losing his first to sets to Pablo Cuevas late on Thursday. He'll have to raise his game higher versus Richard Gasquet in his next round, and if he does manage a win he'd likely face off next against Andy Murray -- no easy task. Still a few more surprises would do a lot to reinforce his ranking, and maybe even help him improve.

I've been even more impressed by Sloane Stephens, interestingly the only American woman left at the French. The world #19 was dead even in her 2014 record before Paris and had notched just one win over a top seventy player on clay this year. But she survived a test from Shaui Peng in her opener and only dropped serve once against Polona Hercog on Thursday. She'll be the higher seed when she meets Ekaterina Makarova today, but the Russian will be the biggest threat she's faced yet this week. It won't be an easy win, by any means, but if she gets it done, it could certainly right her career this season.

And John Isner, almost always a tenuous seed at the Majors, has so far lived up to his on-paper reputation. He's lost on dirt this year to the likes of Federico Delbonis, Jurgen Melzer and, most discouraging, then-#101 Dustin Brown, and with less than a fifty percent win record on this surface, I wasn't expecting him to do too much at Roland Garros. Admittedly he's been scraping by this first week -- in eleven sets he's played eight tiebreaks -- but he stuck it out versus veteran Tommy Robredo on Friday. The stakes get higher from here, of course, but even as the tenth seed here, the run to his first fourth round in Paris seems impressive. Even if he loses to Tomas Berdych next, I'll be happy with what he's done.

9. An underdog follows through

All my original picks in this section, unfortunately, have had to book their tickets home -- Jeremy Chardy and Dominic Thiem both won their openers, but ran into the two favorites in the second rounds, Novak Djokovic and eight-time champion Rafael Nadal, respectively. Camila Giorgi had a slightly better shot at advancing, facing totally beatable 2009 titleist Svetlana Kuznetsova on Thursday.

But others have so far kept their cool after exacting big wins. Kristina Mladenovic, who shocked 2011 champ Na Li in the first round, battled through an injury timeout to make her first Paris third round. While she faces a tough Andrea Petkovic for a spot in the sweet sixteen, the German struggled in her last match too and the Frenchwoman could take advantage. On the men's side, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez suffered little fatigue after ousting Melbourne winner Stan Wawrinka in his first round. He had a little hiccup on Thursday, but delivered a fourth set bagel to Adrian Mannarino to close out that match. And with a third round meeting with streaky Donald Young, I like his chances of making it into Week Two.

8. A breakout has a breakthrough

This one was also almost totally a farce. Caroline Garcia and Donna Vekic both lost their openers, and while Jiri Vesely lasted a round longer, he couldn't keep leads he had on Milos Raonic in their second round. Roberto Bautista-Agut, too, the group's best shot at delivering, didn't repeat his Indian Wells triumph over Tomas Berdych, falling on Friday in four sets.

Meanwhile, Garbine Muguruza seems to have recaptured the fire she had to start the year. After picking up her first career title in Hobart and defeating Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Melbourne fourth round, she went a little quiet during the spring. But she sure turned up the volume in Paris, shocking Serena Williams in an hour-long, straight-set victory on Wednesday, and following up by dismissing fellow upset-causer Anna Schmiedlova yesterday. She'll face unseeded Pauline Parmentier, playing her first ever Major fourth round, for a spot in the quarters, and maybe she can ride that momentum even farther.

7. A fish jumps out of water

South Africa's Kevin Anderson is the only one still alive among this bunch, so it'd be great to see him continue to keep one of my calls alive. To be fair, the nineteenth seed hasn't had the toughest couple rounds, opening against Austranlian Cinderella Stephane Robert and facing wildcard Alex Michon in the second round, but he hasn't dropped a set yet. And while he faces another big server in Ivo Karlovic today, he won the pair's last meeting in Delray and could get the momentum he needs to improve on his fourth round showing here from last year.

6. Hard work is paid off

While most in this section have also fallen earlier than I'd have liked, Fabio Fognini has been impressive in his first two rounds of play, against two very solid opponents -- Andreas Beck has picked up a couple Challenger trophies this year and Thomaz Bellucci, coming back from injury, has won all three of his titles on clay. Fognini, though, a quarterfinalist here in 2011 took care of them both and will face off against former top-ten player Gael Monfils next. He is the on-paper favorite in this match, and holds a winning 3-2 record over the Frenchman, so he should be able to advance. Whether he can repeat his Cinderella run from three years ago still remains to be seen, but I kind of like his chances.

5. A phoenix rises

I feel a little bad about this one -- my original wish list came out the morning before news broke of Caroline Wozniacki's split with that dude, and she of course did not rebound quite as quickly as he did. I'll put my money on her for next time though.

But my other picks are still alive and kicking. Former world #1 Jelena Jankovic dropped the first set she played here, but quickly recovered to take out Sharon Fichman and after a tight opener against Rio champ Kurumi Nara, she delivered a bagel in the second round. She's lost both of her meetings with third round opponent Sorana Cirstea on clay, though, so she might have to pick up her game a little. Meanwhile compatriot Ana Ivanovic is looking even stronger. She survived what could have been a big challenge from Caroline Garcia in her opener and handily dispatched Ukrainian teenager Elina Svitolina on Thursday. While Petra Kvitova is the favorite in her immediate section of the draw, and world #4 Simona Halep cannot be ignored, I wouldn't be surprised if the Serb really took this opportunity to make a statement.

4. A runner-up repeats (or goes one better...)

Dominika Cibulkova is so far the only one in this group who's been knocked out, though, to be fair she's also the only one who's played her third round.

But after a little blip in her opener, 2012 finalist Sara Errani came back strong to take out young American Madison Keys and advanced over Dinah Pfizenmaier with little drama. She'll meet Israel's Julia Glushko, barely ranked in the double digits next, and should be the heavy favorite. And last year's runner-up David Ferrer hasn't dropped a set in his first two matches, spending under three-and-a-half hours on court so far. He'll face Andreas Seppi on Saturday, a man who very nearly beat Novak Djokovic here two season's ago, but the Italian's game has fallen a bit and should prove little trouble to the world #5.

Whether either can ride early successes to another final in Paris -- well, I'm not sure. But with the draws clearing out so much over the first couple days, there's no reason not to hold out hope.

3. A first-time Major winner is crowned

Kei Nishikori knocked himself out of the running here early, but both Carla Suarez Navarro and Tomas Berdych have reached the fourth round already, the latter having avenged that shocking Indian Wells loss to then-unknown Roberto Bautista-Agut. And while the Czech has a little more experience on the big stage -- he made the semis here in 2010, just before stunning Roger Federer on his way to the Wimbledon final -- the Spanish seƱorita is in a wide-open section of the draw and could be the big beneficiary of that.

But perhaps Milos Raonic has established himself as another spoiler here. Somewhat surprisingly, the world #9 has never gotten out of the third round in Paris, and he barely did this time either -- after having to come back from breaks against upstart Jiri Vesely in his second round, he got down sets to hometown favorite Gilles Simon twice on Friday -- and nearly squandered a lead in the fifth -- before finally closing out the three-plus hour match. He's in the same section of the draw as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych, so even if he makes his first Major quarterfinal he'll have his work cut out for him. Still it seems inevitable the Canadian will eventually win a Slam, so why not get things going now.

2. MaSha doubles up

This was sort of a long shot when I first wrote it, but with Serena's exit in the early rounds, not only have Maria Sharapova's prospects in Paris improved, she might have just established herself as the favorite.

Sure, there are still a couple higher seeds left in the draw, but only Petra Kvitova has ever won a Slam before and Jelena Jankovic is the only other one to even play in a final -- and both those runs feel like they came decades ago. Meanwhile Sharapova is coming off wins in Stuttgart and Madrid, and her double bagel over Paula Ormaechea in her third round Friday shows she's far from tired. She'll meet Sam Stosur for a spot in the quarters, and the 2010 runner-up has been launching a comeback of her own in recent weeks. But Maria's only lost two of the the pair's fifteen career meetings, and something tells me she's not going to let that number change anytime soon.

1. Rafa takes home #9

After his performance during his first two matches I'm breathing a little easier than before. Rafael Nadal has only lost ten games so far at the French Open, fewer than anyone else in the men's field, and with the promise of facing no seeds until at least the quarters, he's unlikely to drop many more in the immediate future. Still with one major exception, the men's draw hasn't been nearly as decimated as the ladies' and big threats still loom from the likes of Roger Federer, David Ferrer and even Andy Murray.

Of course Novak Djokovic, with the career Grand Slam and a #1 ranking on the line, continues to hold the best odds of turning the world upside down. While he did drop a tiebreak in his Friday third round, he's faced noticeably tougher challenges -- barely unseeded Jeremy Chardy and always tricky Marin Cilic -- and he's set to meet last year's semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round. But he's got the stamina to power through these tests, and I fully expect to see him challenge Rafa come finals weekend.

With a little more than a week left at this year's French Open, there's still plenty of opportunity for my revised wish list to be dashed again. Still, we've seen some impressive results from the favorites and the underdogs alike, and as we enter Week Two at Roland Garros the titles really do seem up for grabs.

So let's hope the excitement we see over the coming days matches that we saw in early rounds. And that the eventual champions deliver performances that live up to the standards already set.

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