May 27, 2014

Stopped Short

Here's something you don't see very often -- with a full round of action just barely in the books at the French Open, both of this year's Grand Slam champions have already been ousted.

And it's not just them -- while the most experienced so far have advanced without drama, plenty of other favorites, and near favorites have faltered a little sooner than expected, proving once again how tricky the red clay of Roland Garros can be.

Caroline Garcia wasn't exactly a favorite in Paris, but the world #43 came to her hometown Major at her best ever ranking, having reached the quarters in Madrid and picking up her first career trophy in Bogota. She was one of my sleeper picks to reach the later rounds here, too, but that was before I knew she'd face off against 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic in her opener -- the barely hour-long match was much more one-sided than I'd expected, and while Garcia is sent home a round earlier than last year, the Serb reasserts her ability to make a run for the title. There will be challenges, of course -- former titleist Svetlana Kuznetsova and more-than-capable Simona Halep are both in her quarter -- but coupled with some big wins already this season, she might just have the confidence to keep her momentum going.

Grigor Dimitrov's loss earlier today might have been a little more shocking. Arguably one of the biggest threats in Rafael Nadal's section of the bracket, the young Bulgarian had made the semis in Madrid and picked up his first clay court crown in Bucharest -- and after making the second week in Melbourne, he was certainly high on my radar for potential breakthrough performance here. But the world #12 crashed out today at the hand of big-serving Ivo Karlovic. The Croat, who hadn't won a match at Roland Garros since 2007, fired off twenty-two aces over three sets and saved the only break opportunity he allowed. With so many seeds in this quarter falling -- Tommy Haas and Nicolas Almagro both retired during their first sets while tenuous #30 Vasek Pospisil dropped in straights -- the veteran Karlovic has a great opportunity to advance further. And after the win he already scored, I wouldn't put it past him.

Kei Nishikori's potential in Paris was a little more in question. Sure, with a couple titles this year and a run to the Madrid final, I thought he had the talent to really content for this trophy. But after losing his lead in Spain, retiring in the championship match and pulling out of Rome, whether he was well enough to compete was less clear. And facing tough-as-nails Martin Klizan, a Cinderella Down Under and the victor in Munich, his task was even harder. The Slovak survived a tough first set tiebreak, but then ran over his opponent in the back half of the match, capitalizing on a slew of errors and weak serving and winning almost twice as many points as Nishikori in the second hour. Klizan's never gotten out of the second round of this Slam, but next against Robin Haase -- a force, sure, but no clear favorite -- he might be able to change his luck this year.

The biggest shock on the men's side, though, by far, came at the expense of Australian Open champ Stanislas Wawrinka. The world #3 had some questionable results since his breakthrough run, but he did manage a solid campaign in Monte Carlo, notching wins over three top ten players, including his first over compatriot Roger Federer in five years. But last year's quarterfinalist had some bad luck in his draw -- his opening round opponent, Casablanca titleist Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, was one of my underdog picks for this title four years ago, and though he'd fallen a bit down the rankings, he had notched wins against Alexandr Dolgopolov and Tomas Berdych already this year. His win over Wawrinka, the third of his career, came when the Swiss was playing some of the best tennis of his career, and while he'd still likely face two-time Major winner Andy Murray if he makes the quarters this time, it's a job he might be up to taking on.

Like Wawrinka, Na Li was the only other person riding a perfect 7-0 record at the Majors this year, picking up a trophy in her third shot at the Melbourne final. And like Wawrinka, too, her momentum was halted before it even had a shot to resume. Li hadn't picked up another title since her time Down Under, but she made the semis in Indian Wells and the final in Miami. On clay, though, the surface of her first Grand Slam triumph, she was upset in both the Madrid and Rome quarters. And in her French Open return -- she lost in last year's second round to Bethanie Mattek-Sands -- she fell again, this time to world #103 Kristina Mladenovic, a winner of two mixed doubles Majors, but just five singles matches during her career. In a section of the bracket even more open now -- recovering Sara Errani and often-spotty Jelena Jankovic are the top seeds remaining -- the Frenchwoman could surely make a run for it while no one else is looking.

Whether the exit of the top players clears the path for others or indicates even more surprises to come is yet to be seen, but it certainly shows how fleeting momentum in this sport can be. And while there's no guarantee the players who caused these upsets will keep their own streaks going, these courts may provide the best opportunity for them to do just that. Hopefully they don't hit any brick walls themselves -- after all no one wants to be on the receiving end of the losses they've already dished out.

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