May 26, 2015

How the Mighty Have Fallen

We really shouldn't be that surprised when top players are caught off guard at the French Open -- after all, the clay doesn't suit everyone, and just last year we saw plenty of players who usually thrive on the surface stumble right out of the blocks in Paris. And with one round of play in the books so far at Roland Garros, that trend seems more than alive and well in 2015.

In my preview pieces leading up to the year's second Grand Slam, I almost regretted omitting Venus Williams as a potential dark horse. The former world #1 has been staging quite a comeback over the last several months, kicking off the season with a title in Auckland and climbing to her highest ranking since 2011. But the American champion has never really fared that well on the French clay --since finishing runner-up to her sister in 2002, she's only made it past the fourth round twice. And this go-round she struggled again -- against an unseeded Sloane Stephens yesterday, she put up a fight in the first set, narrowly losing the tiebreak after more than an hour of play, but then crumbled in the second, winning just fifteen points. For Sloane, it could be a huge opportunity -- she's reached the Round of Sixteen the last three years -- but she'll likely face big threats from the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Venus's younger sister, who she hasn't beaten since that amazing campaign in Melbourne two years ago. Still after taking down another giant, she might just have a little more confidence for the rest of her run.

Feliciano Lopez never rose quite as high as Venus, of course, but after a stellar 2014 season, he was still holding close to his highest career ranking. He reached the quarters in Indian Wells with a win over Kei Nishikori and took out an on-point Nick Kyrgios a few weeks back in Rome. And though he's got plenty of first and second round losses at the French Open, with a #11 seed, you might have thought he was ready to change that. But he was stunned yesterday by fellow veteran Teymuraz Gabashvili, a Russian he'd only met once before, way back in 2006. The world #76 has lost his opening round at sixteen Majors, but didn't seem intimidated by the heavy favorite -- on the heels of two clay Challengers titles, he kept his momentum going, earning the only two breaks of the match and setting up a second round against dirt specialist Juan Monaco. It won't be an easy task -- Gabashvili has lost their two previous matches -- but he did put up a fight in their last one at Indian Wells and after the tight match the Argentine endured in his opener, could be the more rested and ready for this battle.

Aga Radwanska has been a little more of her game recently than these guys, but the one-time Wimbledon finalist has had a rough couple months -- she failed spectacularly to defend runner-up points at Indian Wells and lost early at lead-up events in Madrid and Rome. She came to Roland Garros at a #14 ranking, her lowest in four years, looking to reclaim the momentum that saw her through to the quarters in 2013 -- she was upset last year, you may remember, by then-#72 Ajla Tomljanovic in the third round, but to no avail. Against an often spotty Annika Beck -- the twenty year old picked up her first career title last fall in Luxembourg but had won just three matches this year before coming to Paris -- Aga had a shot. After dropping the opening set she fought back to force a decider, but with a pathetic eleven winners to the German's forty-one, she stood little chance of clinching the comeback. It was her first first-round loss at a Slam since 2009, but perhaps during her traditionally lackluster clay season, it wasn't such a big deal. For Beck, on the other hand, who's never made it out of a Major second round, the opportunity could be huge -- she'll meet qualifier Paula Kania in the next round and there's no reason she won't be able to go even farther after that.

And as surprising as these upsets were, things got even more interesting today. Bulgaria's Grigor Dimitrov, who'd established himself as a threat at most of the big events last year, has had a slightly less impressive season in 2015. Though he's still just a hair outside the top ten and has notched a couple wins over former Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka, he's also been upset by the likes of Pablo Cuevas, Gilles Muller and triple-digit ranked Ryan Harrison. He didn't have a lot on the line in Paris -- he got beat in last year's opener by then-unseeded Ivo Karlovic -- but he surely wanted to set things right. But in an ugly match against American Jack Sock, he couldn't seem to find his groove. After a tight first set, he let loose twenty errors and dropped serve three times, handing the U.S. men their first win over a top ten seed since 2000. The barely unseeded Sock has a good chance at staying alive a bit longer -- he next faces world #61 Pablo Carreño Busta and then either young Borna Coric or veteran Tommy Robredo. But the Houston champion's shown he can hit hard on this surface too and could establish himself as a real force this fortnight.

But as surprising as Dimitrov's early exit might have been, perhaps we should be a little more shocked at what we saw from a 2014 semifinalist. Genie Bouchard was riding high at this time last year, having just picked up her first career title in Nürnberg and riding her momentum all the way to a second straight final four at a Major. But the world #6 has struggled mightily in the last few months, winning just one of her last seven matches heading into Paris, and notching embarrassing losses to little-known Andreea Mitu and on-the-rebound Alexandra Dulgheru at Fed Cup. To be fair, she was dealt a pretty tough draw at Roland Garros, opening against Strasbourg finalist Kristina Mladenovic, one of my sleeper picks for the event. The Frenchwoman had already established herself as a giant killer at this event before, and on Tuesday she was even more impressive -- taking advantage of weak serving from her opponent, she won more than half her return points and broke the Canadian five times. Pressure will be on Kiki to keep her momentum going from here, of course, but she won't face another high seed for a few more rounds, and after her performance the last few weeks she looks well-poised to make a real splash now on the singles circuit.

Of course these won't be the only upsets we see over the next two weeks -- nor will they likely be the biggest -- but it sure seems like a lot of the recent heavy hitters took a couple of real blows in the early days of the Open. They'll need to regroup quickly to make sure their slides don't go much further, though.

And as for those who vanquished them, they'll have to celebrate their victories quickly and get straight back to work. After all, there's a lot more ball left to be played.

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