May 28, 2015

Their Big Chance

The upsets sure haven't let up much at the French Open, have they? After twelve seeds dropped out in their opening rounds, we saw even more make their exits over the last two days. And that's left a couple unexpected names left in the draws and, with so many underdogs seeming to come into their own the last several months, a few have a real shot at making a break for it.

Jeremy Chardy has had some success at the Majors in the past -- the perennial second-tier player made it to the quarters in Melbourne two years ago -- but only made it to the fourth round of his homeland Slam one time. He could change that this year though -- after a string of unimpressive results, the world #48 scored his first big win of the season today, knocking out sixteenth seeded John Isner in four sets. His road doesn't get much easier from here -- he'll next face 2014 comeback kid David Goffin, but the twenty-four year old Belgian has had a little trouble keeping his momentum going, losing his first or second match at eight events this year. Goffin did make his first big run at this event a few years back -- but this time it may be Chardy's chance to shine.

Steve Johnson is only just starting to make a name for himself on Tour, and while he may still be a bit off his career high ranking, it seems like the #5 American is gathering some steam this year. He reached the quarters in Auckland, Memphis and Delray and has notched wins over big-serving Ivo Karlovic and doubles champ Marcel Granollers. In Paris, where he'd only won one match before, he opened with a huge upset of my dark horse Guillermo Garcia Lopez and then came back from a set down to oust one-time giant-killer Sergiy Stakhovsky on Wednesday. He's up against 2014 Australian Open champ Stan Wawrinka next, but the eighth seed has stumbled here in the past, and perhaps Johnson can take that opportunity to score his first ever top-ten win.

But perhaps the man who's been most impressive in the early days of this tournament is one who's barely a man at all. Nineteen-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis has seen his ranking climb from sub-#300 at this time last year to #84 in the world now and, while he still has to qualify for most ATP-level events, he did notch wins over then-#13 Ernests Gulbis in Melbourne and former top-tenner Juan Monaco to make the Indian Wells fourth round this year. In his first Roland Garros main draw, he's already been tested, dropping his first set to qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili and earlier today having to come back from two sets down to take out former Wimbledon quarterfinalist Bernard Tomic, 8-6 in the decider. His next test is tougher still -- fresh off a Challengers' title, he'll take on Novak Djokovic, who's riding a slightly more formidable twenty-four match win streak going into the third round -- but if he can get even a few good hits in, the two-time Boys' Major finalist could gain loads of experience to carry him even higher the rest of the year.

Not surprisingly the ladies' draw has seen a few more favorites fall out early -- six, in fact, of the top fifteen seeds -- so maybe that gives young Donna Vekic extra hope for her next match. Last year's champion in Kuala Lumpur, the Croatian teenager has won just two Tour-level main draw matches this year and, at #165 in the world now, has had to qualify for ITF events. She seems to be turning things around this week though -- she opened with a stunning upset of clay powerhouse Caroline Garcia for her first win at the French Open and followed up by taking out Bojana Jovanovski on Wednesday. She's set to meet 2008 champion Ana Ivanovic tomorrow, and while the former world #1 is actually now coming off one of the best years of her career, she's been struggling a bit of late. She's lost three times in a row to Garcia and is coming off another first round loss in Rome -- and after having to come back for wins in both of her rounds so far, she might be a little vulnerable to Vekic's potential.

On the other end of the experience-spectrum is veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, who's been playing at Slam on and off since 1997. The winner of one of the most impressive matches in 2014, she's been a little spotty this year, reaching the quarters in Acapulco, but also losing first rounds in eight main draws. Now ranked #70 in the world, the thirty-three year old pulled off the biggest surprise so far in Paris, taking out reigning runner-up Simona Halep yesterday in straight sets -- marking a scoreline shockingly similar to her 7-6(6), 6-2 victory over the former Junior champion at the U.S. Open last year. She next faces off against Alizé Cornet, a talented player of course, but not one who's unbeatable, and another win could kick Lucic into a gear we haven't seen from her in more than a decade.

But it might be someone else who really takes this opportunity to get her career back on track. Julia Goerges had soared into the top fifteen after a standout performance in 2011 -- she was my underdog pick at Roland Garros that year -- but she had trouble staying among the elite and for some time last year fell out of the top hundred. She's never done particularly well on the French clay, but now at just #72 in the world, she might be poised for her deepest run yet -- after getting pushed by Coco Vandeweghe in her opening round, earlier today she was relentless, dominating two-time Major finalist Caroline Wozniacki in their nearly two-hour battle. She'll go up versus American Irina Falconi, who hasn't yet faced a player in the top hundred this week. A win would put Goerges in her first fourth round on these courts, and could put her on the road to get back into the top tiers of the sport.

After their performances so far in Paris, all of these players have an opportunity not just to push even further through their brackets, but also to change the entire trajectory of their careers. And while the challenges some face will be much tougher than others, there's no telling what any of them will be able to do.

1 comment:

Alex H said...

Very nice article and very helpful. Timea Babos will meet Simona Halep in today's game played in Us Open tournament. In their last H2H meeting played at Guangzhou Open, Halep won the match with 2:0. I wonder if Babos prepared us with a surprise today. Based on the past results of the two players, I would expect Halep to perform well during this game and go for a victory. It should be interesting to see if Halep will win by 2 sets difference as his/her last head to head meeting.