May 27, 2014

The Young(-ish) Guns

The early rounds of a Grand Slam are often a great opportunity for young talent -- either in terms of age or experience -- to catch some of the favorites a bit off guard, and this year's French Open is no exception. But while many of the top seeds have so far fallen to tried-and-true veterans, plenty others have been taken completely by surprise. And the victors in those matches could last even deeper into the draws in Paris.

There was some early promise from a couple youngsters on the men's side. Jiri Vesely had a solid win over one-time giant-killer Lukas Rosol and even had a chance to serve out the first set versus Milos Raonic before falling in straights. And Madrid stand-out Dominic Thiem won his first match at Roland Garros over hometown favorite Paul-Henri Mathieu but was cursed with a second round against eight-time champion Rafael Nadal -- he lost today in a little over two hours.

But while both those guys ultimately fell to big, legitimate threats, a couple others have sneaked through. Twenty-three year old Dusan Lajovic, who started the year at #116 in the world, qualified for his first Major main draw in Australia and took sets off both Alexandr Dolgopolov and Stan Wawrinka this year. He began his French campaign with a win over Nice finalist Federico Delbonis -- a man who'd himself beaten both John Isner and Gilles Simon just last week -- and followed up today by taking out Jurgen Zopp in straight sets. He'll face another upstart next in American Jack Sock, once the surprised mixed doubles champion at the U.S. Open. He benefited from the retirement of Nicolas Almagro in his opening set but earlier today took out compatriot Steve Johnson, who'd barely survived his own first round. Sock is technically the favorite in this match, ranked seventy-fifth to Lajovic's #83, but something tells me not to trust the numbers. The Serb has won four Futures and two Challengers titles on the clay, and might just be the surprise Cinderella hanging around the second week.

On the women's side, a couple ladies with some impressive seasons have been continuing their success. Spain's Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor lost a bit of her momentum since picking up her first career title in Marrakech -- she'd won just one match after that. But she took out thirtieth seed Klara Koukalova in her opener and stayed tough against Magdalena Rybarikova to reach her first Slam third round. She'll face world #4 Simona Halep next, though, so it's tough to see her going much further. Countrywoman Silvia Soler-Espinosa, who broke back into the top hundred last week with a run to the Strasbourg final, might have a better shot at advancing. She started this week dispatching Chanelle Scheepers and earlier today handed a one-sided loss to former world #12 Yanina Wickmayer, known more these days for adding to the pain of Caroline Wozniacki. She's got a third round date with world #148 Kiki Bertens, certainly someone who can cause troubles, but an opponent that should be more than manageable.

And as impressive as all these performances have been, it's the young ladies in the top half of the draw who've really shone in the early rounds. Eighteen year old Taylor Townsend, the 2012 Juniors champion in Melbourne, made a successful debut in France's adult competition with an upset of homeland heroine Alize Cornet on Wednesday. And nineteen year old Anna Schmiedlova, who picked up a couple ITF titles in recent weeks and climbed to a career high of #56 in the world, improved on her second round showing last year. After taking out one-time Wimbledon and Aussie semifinalist Jie Zheng in her opener, she then stunned multiple-Major winner Venus Williams on Wednesday morning. That was followed quickly, of course, by the biggest shock of any Slam match this year, the loss of defending champion Serena Williams, who was coming off a title in Rome and an 8-0 clay court season. Garbine Muguruza, who'd cooled off some since her red hot start to the year, recorded the biggest win of her career, a straight set victory over the world #1 in just over an hour. And with no seeds in her way for at least two rounds, she's got a pretty good shot at turning around her underdog status.

The slew of upsets we've seen in the first few rounds of action in Paris may have made the draws a little less intimidating for the favorites, but wins by some players way below the radar prove they might just be in contention too. If their momentum continues into the coming rounds, the coming tournaments or the coming years, any one of them could establish themselves as forces way beyond just Roland Garros.

And the way they're playing, any one of them deserves it.

No comments: