June 25, 2015

Blogcast: 2015 Wimbledon Preview

After a French Open that saw kings dethroned and champions struggle, who knows what can happen this year at Wimbledon? While the favorites will be battling to keep -- or reclaim -- their spots at the top, a few upstarts will be clamoring to make a name for themselves too.

June 23, 2015

2015 Wimbledon: Ten to Watch

Even with that extra week between the end of the French Open and the start of Wimbledon, it still doesn't quite feel like enough time to really prep for another Major. But here we are on the verge of perhaps the biggest fortnight in tennis and you know all the stars will be out swinging.

But as always, it's not just about the players who ultimately walk away with the trophies -- some who seem far removed from their career bests and even those who haven't yet come close to their peaks also have a lot on the line at the All England Club. And whether they're out to recapture former glory or shake up the draws with some of their first big wins, all of these guys and gals might deserve a little extra notice over the next few weeks.

And maybe a couple will defy expectations in London and surprise us all.

The Women

Eugenie Bouchard

Oh, Genie, Genie, Genie. How high our hopes were for you! Last year's breakthrough runner-up at the All England Club was riding a massive wave of success on the way to her first Grand Slam final, but has slowed down significantly since. Already this season she's lost her opening match at seven events, including a stunning defeat by Kristina Mladenovic in her Roland Garros first round. On grass where she should be more comfortable -- the young Canadian won the Juniors championship here in 2012 -- she hasn't fared much better. As the top seed in Den Bosch, she couldn't win a match, dropping to an admittedly tough Yaroslava Shvedova in three sets and lost her opener again to giant-killer Kristina Mladenovic in Birmingham. She did win her opener in Eastbourne this week, but if she manages to keep going, it'll mean a lot of match play before she makes a similar run in London. Now ranked #12 in the world, ironically not far from where she was at this time last year, she has a decidedly different momentum profile than she had in 2014. While an even further fall after this event might be her most measurable problem, it seems even more important she gets her game back together soon and proves her meteoric rise last year was no fluke.

Agnieszka Radwanska

The former world #2 has been struggling herself the last few months. Also a finalist at the All England Club, what seems like ages ago now, the long-time fan favorite is at her lowest ranking in years. Though she started off the year with a huge win over Serena Williams in Hobart -- her only one in nine meetings -- she's really struggled since, dropping points from Indian Wells and falling in the first round of the French Open, notching her earliest Slam exit since 2009. Aga started to get her game back together on grass though, riding her top seed to the semis in Nottingham, losing to a strong Monica Niculescu, and dropping just two games in her Eastbourne opener. She's under slightly less pressure than Genie this fortnight in London, having been ousted relatively early in the fourth round last year. But at the Major where she's seen by far her biggest success, this could be the best opportunity she has to put herself back on the map.

Dominika Cibulkova

The former top ten player has fallen a bit since reaching her only Grand Slam final to date, falling early in Brisbane and Sydney and just reaching the quarters this time in Melbourne. She missed a lot of action in the spring, undergoing foot surgery in March, and skipped the French Open which pushed her ranking well out of seeding territory. But she made a winning start in Eastbourne, dropping just four games in her opening round and then stunning French Open finalist Lucie Safarova on Tuesday. Domi's had success at Wimbledon in the past, too -- in 2011 she beat then top seed Caroline Wozniacki in the fourth round -- and though at her (hopefully temporarily) depressed ranking she could face a big favorite earlier during her run at the All England Club, she's more than capable of holding her own against the sport's elite and, if she gets a good draw, could end up dealing out more than a few on-paper upsets.

Ana Konjuh

It's not just about those looking for redemption, of course, and the much more interesting stories at any Major are of those players who're able to outshine expectations. Perhaps this year, it's Konjuh's turn. The seventeen-year-old Croat hasn't had a lot of experience on Tour, but has had some of her best results on these grounds -- she made it all the way to the Girls' final a few years back before losing to Bouchard and, as a qualifier in 2014, managed two tough wins en route to the Ladies' third round. Now ranked #55 in the world, she's playing just her second Slam without having to qualify but is coming off her first WTA title on the grass of Nottingham, where she beat two seeds -- Casey Dellacqua and lawn specialist Alison Riske. One of my players to watch this year, young Konjuh may have the best opportunity to make a statement here than she has on any other big stage, and with the momentum she's got now, she could just do it.

Katerina Siniakova

The nineteen-year-old Czech hasn't had as much experience on the big stages -- after all this will only be her fourth Major main draw, and she's only won one match so far. But the nineteen year old has scored some impressive wins over the last year, reaching the semis in Moscow last year as a qualifier, and beating 2014 Wimbledon Cinderella Barbora Zahlavova Strycova in Prague and always tough Kristina Maldenovic in Rome. Most recently she pulled off a solid win over recent Roland Garros semifinalist Andrea Petkovic in Birmingham, losing to eventual champion Angelique Kerber in the quarters. Just off a career high ranking at #67, she's still got plenty of room -- and time -- to grow, but everyone has to have that first breakthrough and there's no reason this can't be hers.

The Men

Milos Raonic

Bouchard isn't the only Canadian with a lot on the line at the All England Club. The world #8, who arguably got a slightly earlier start in his rise to the sport's elite, made his only Grand Slam semifinal to-date here last year and earned his first non-alternate ticket to the ATP World Tour Finals. He started this year off strong too, barely losing to Roger Federer in the Brisbane final and then putting up a fight against eventual Melbourne champ Novak Djokovic Down Under. Raonic had to take a little break in the late spring, though -- foot surgery kept him out of the French Open -- but he got back on court last week and, though he dropped sets in early rounds, did manage to make the quarterfinals at Queen's Club. It might not be quite the result he wanted heading back to the Major where he's had the most success, but we know better than to count him out. Last year, after all, he lost the only match he played on grass before heading to London and got right back to work at the All England Club. It might be a little tougher this time, on the recovery trail and all, but he could still pull off a few surprises.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

It's been a few more years since the fiery Frenchman reached the semis at Wimbledon, but it might not be that big an ask to see him get back. He is, after all, coming off a surprise final four showing at Roland Garros where, at #15 in the world, he beat two top five players and managed to take a set off eventual champion Stan Wawrinka in the process. That's quite impressive for a man who'd only played five events so far this year -- sidelined with an arm injury, he'd skipped the Australian Open and didn't get started on the season until late March. He's scored some big wins here, too, notching an upset over David Ferrer and stunning Roger Federer in five sets in 2011. Of course, he'll have some challenges -- an abdominal strain he suffered in Paris forced him out of Nottingham this week -- but he seems to do his best when little is expected of him. Ranked just inside the top twenty during that miracle year, and at #12 now, if he is recovered he could certainly catch a couple of the favorites off guard again.

Nicolas Mahut

Tsonga's compatriot hasn't had quite as much success during his long history at the All England Club, but despite a losing record at this event he's probably spent more time on court than many others out there. And even though he's only made it out of the second round in London once in his last nine appearance, he's actually done better on this surface than he has anywhere else -- all three of his titles, each won after his thirtieth birthday, have come on grass and he has an impressive sixty-three percent win rate overall. Just a few weeks ago as a qualifier in 's-Hertogenbosch, he scored wins over 2014 breakout Roberto Bautista Agut and comeback star David Goffin to pick up his latest trophy. He's now back at a respectable #65 in the world, significantly better than the triple digit ranking he had at the start of the year, but could be in a position to outperform his position. And maybe, even at this late stage of his career, he could finally make his first big run at a Slam.

Alexander Zverev

The eighteen-year-old German, on the other hand, is making his first ever appearance in a Major main draw, having lost during qualifying rounds in his last three attempts. He did reach the Boys' final at the French Open in 2013 back and he took the Juniors' title in Melbourne last year, though, and at his best ever ranking, he'll finally get his shot to play with the big guys. While he's mostly clocked time on the Challengers' circuit in his short career, he has been able to get in a few punches on the main Tour over the last few weeks -- he took sets off Viktor Troicki and Ivo Karlovic at warm-up events and finally scored a true upset this week with a win over veteran Thomaz Bellucci in the Nottingham second round. Still ranked well outside the top fifty, he could very well get dealt an unlucky draw from the get-go, but like with any young buck looking for his first big break, he'll have to start somewhere. And, as they say, there's no time like the present to do exactly that.

Lleyton Hewitt

On the very other end of the spectrum is a man who, far from playing his first Wimbledon, is actually playing his last. The veteran Australian, who will retire next year in Melbourne, received a wildcard entry into the main draw as part of his farewell tour. With just one win on the year and a drop out of the double-digit rankings, it's hard to expect him to do too much damage this year. Still he carries quite a legacy at the All England Club -- the 2002 champion is the only man in the field outside the Big Four who's ever made a dent at the All England Club. And, even though he hasn't made it past a Major fourth round since 2009, you can never count him out -- on his third shot in the Newport final, last year he finally walked away with the title, and earlier in the season defeated Roger Federer for the Brisbane crown. Besides, champions like Hewitt seem to get a second wind at the end of their careers -- Andy Roddick, you may remember, put up a more than admirable performance when he announced his retirement at the 2012 U.S. Open. And I expect the former world #1 will make a similarly valiant attempt to savor his last moments on these courts.

Of course the top seeds will be out in full force at the All England Club over the next two weeks looking to squash any potential these guys have. Be sure to check back in a few days for my full preview of what to expect in London this year -- something tells me that it could be even more exciting than usual!

June 21, 2015

Time and Again

The last few weeks -- whether at warm up events like Den Bosch or on the big stage of Paris, we've seen some unlikely players break through the ranks and make a name for themselves on court. But this weekend a couple of repeat champions reminded us that not everyone is willing to cede control of a tournament to the upstarts -- and showed us why they're still at the top of their games.

Roger Federer was making his thirteenth appearance at the Gerry Weber Open in Halle and going for a record eighth title there. But as formidable as the world #2 always is, at this point in his career, he's more than capable of notching some surprising losses. He did drop a set to Philipp Kohlschreiber in his opener and got pushed to two tiebreaks by big-serving Ivo Karlovic in the semis, after all. And meanwhile, Andreas Seppi, the man who'd stunned Fed just a few months ago in their Australian Open third round, was way more rested coming into Sunday's final. The veteran Italian, down at #45 in the world now, had seen both Gael Monfils and Kei Nishikori retire in his last two rounds, so he hadn't played a full match since Thursday. Perhaps, then, he was a little rusty in this weekend's championship -- though he kept it tight in the first set, saving all three break opportunities he faced, he was dominated in the tiebreak. And Federer came out swinging in the second, firing off another seven aces, dropping just two points on his first serve, and closing out the match in two sets. Roger's trophy is just the latest in a long list of records he already holds, but as he heads to the place where he first started racking them up, he might just have the momentum to pick up one more.

As usual, there was plenty of talent on the field in London too, but not everyone fared too well. Defending champion Grigor Dimtrov, struggling a bit over the last few months, only managed one win before falling to Gilles Muller in his second round. And second seed Stan Wawrinka, fresh off a historic win at the French Open, fell to familiar foe Kevin Anderson in two tiebreaks. Anderson would ride that win all the way to the final, but would ultimately run into the force that is Andy Murray. His tenure at the Aegon Championships may not be quite as long as Federer's in Germany, but going for his fourth title at the Queen's Club, the Scot has nevertheless established himself as something of a force. And he didn't seem too troubled by his heartbreaking loss in the Roland Garros semis either; despite facing a double header on Sunday -- rain suspended his match versus Viktor Troicki after six games -- he withstood ten aces from his opponent and broke serve on both opportunities he was given. The win earned the twenty-eight year old his third title of the year, but could have set an even more important precedent -- if he's as relentless as he was in reclaiming this crown, imagine how he'll be when he goes back after the slightly more illustrious one he got at the All England Club a few years back.

June 18, 2015

On Firmer Ground

It's no big surprise that the clay court season can wreak havoc among tennis's top palyers, but this year's French Open took a toll even on those who had been going strong on the dirt this year. So maybe the change of surface was especially welcome to the ladies taking the court in Birmingham this week -- as early results show a couple making big strides to erase the memories from Paris.

Angelique Kerber was one of my dark horse picks at Roland Garros, but after a couple easy rounds, she was knocked out by twentieth seed Garbiñe Muguruza in her third match. But the one-time Wimbledon semifinalist seems to have her game back at the Aegon Classic, ousting another All England Cinderella Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener and then dealing a straight set defeat to former world #1 Jelena Jankovic earlier today. If she can get through unseeded Katerina Siniakova in the next round, she'll likely get a rematch with 2013's finalist in London, Sabine Lisicki. Her fellow German has struggled a bit more in 2015, making what could be called significant runs only in Miami and Indian Wells. Now ranked just #19 in the world, she could be poised to regain ground in Birmingham -- she's taken out Den Bosch runner-up Belinda Bencic, firing off an astounding twenty-seven aces, and grass specialist Magdalena Rybarikova. While her next opponent, veteran Daniela Hantuchova, can be tricky, you have to give Lisicki the odds to make at least the semifinals.

There's just as much at stake on the top half of the draw. Simona Halep isn't exactly having a bad season -- she's picked up titles in Shenzhen, Dubai and, most impressively, Indian Wells, and even reached the semis in Stuttgart and Rome. But the world #3 is still looking to redeem herself after a tough second round exit in Paris -- a far cry from her final run from 2014. She's been on point again in Birmingham, but faces her biggest test next against Kristina Mladenovic, one of those players you have to keep an eye on. And even if she passes that test, she could be in for an even tougher one down the road. Karolina Pliskova won the Juniors championship at the all England Club in 2010 and at a #12 ranking, is at her career high. A runner-up in Sydney and Dubai, she picked up a title in Prague, but was stunned in her French Open second round by then-#100 Andreea Mitu. After dropping her first set to Johanna Konta, she's had little trouble this week, and though she's the on-paper underdog against third seed Carla Suarez Navarro in Friday's quarterfinal she might be the favorite on grass. And that could give her a lot of confidence for the possible rematch against Halep in a couple days.

Of course only one woman can walk away the ultimate champion in Birmingham this weekend. But their performances so far have put them back on course to show everyone else just what they're capable of. And with a little more than a week before the start of the year's next Major, there's no better time to do it.

June 14, 2015

Getting an Early Start

The grass court portion of the tennis season always seems a little strange to me -- with less than a month of prep before the big guns come out swinging at Wimbledon, it's easy even for players who are well-suited to the surface to lose their momentum before it really starts. But the extra week added to the schedule last year may give this weekend's champions in 's-Hertogenbosch a little buffer -- with two players who generally see their best results on the lawn putting their names on the map as we get ever closer to the year's next Grand Slam.

Nicolas Mahut may be best known for a match he lost on this surface, but the fact that he could go three days/eleven hours/a hundred eighty-three games against the biggest server on Tour should speak volumes about his potential. The thirty-three year old Frenchman got a little bit of a late start, but scored the first two titles of his career in 2013, both on grass, and climbed to a career high #37 in the world a year ago. He's fallen a bit since then, dropping well into triple digits by April, and despite a solid showing at Roland Garros -- he took Gilles Simon to five sets in the third round -- he still had to qualify for the main draw in Den Bosch. But the underdog powered through, dismantling perennial powerhouse Lleyton Hewitt in his opener and then stunning third seed Roberto Bautista-Agut a round later. In Sunday's final against David Goffin he was similarly relentless -- after a tight first set he rolled over the young Belgian, breaking three times in the second to score the win. Of course, warm-up success hasn't often helped Mahut when he heads to the All England Club -- his best performance was a third round showing nine years ago -- and with a ranking that still promises to be well outside seeding range, he could get some tough matches right off the bat. But the big wins he pulled off this week in the Netherlands could at least give him some confidence to push through early challenges.

Camila Giorgi hasn't been around quite as long, and so hasn't had as much opportunity to make her mark yet. Still, the young Italian has had some solid results at Wimbledon -- three years ago as a qualifier, she made the fourth round after taking out Flavia Pennetta and then-#20 Nadia Petrova. She's since had some ups and downs, reaching the final in Katowice the last two years, but also losing six first round matches so far this season. Still, she managed a climb to #35 in the world, and after her run at the Topshelf Open she's got a shot at being seeded at the All England Club this year. She had some obstacles during the week, needing to come back after dropping sets to Michaela Krajicek and always-tough Yaroslava Shvedova early in the tournament. But in the last few days she managed to up her game -- against fourth seeded Belinda Bencic in Sunday's final she didn't allow a single break opportunity and easily avenged the loss the Swiss teenager had given her a year ago on the Madrid clay. It was Giorgi's first career title, and on a surface where she seems most comfortable, it might have come at the perfect time. And if the draw shakes out in her favor, there's no reason she won't be able to put up her best performance yet at a Slam.

With just two weeks to go before the start of Wimbledon, both these champions may have been smart to get in a couple early blows. And while the competition will certainly be stiffer once they make it to London, they might just be able to surprise us all with how well they perform.

June 11, 2015

A Fresh Start

After a long and grueling clay court season -- successful for some, of course, but devastating for others -- we've finally made the transition to grass, and a couple players who've been struggling over the last few months may be happy for the switch. They may not all traditionally fare best on this surface, but with a couple of brand new events to herald in the change, this might be just the opportunity they need to turn things around.

The Aegon Open in Nottingham got a nice upgrade this year, climbing from the ITF circuit to the WTA Tour, and with the higher profile attracted some higher-level players. Former Wimbledon runner-up Agnieszka Radwanska takes the top seed, but after a first round exit in Paris and a tumble to #13 in the world, she'll be under pressure to raise her game. She's looked good so far, taking out a qualifier in her opener and then ousting former top-thirty player Christina McHale today in just over an hour. Set next to meet Lauren Davis, who's coming off two straight three-setters, she should be well poised to reverse her recent string of disappointing results. So too could one-time U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, now dangerously close to exiting the top hundred for the first time since 2008. She started her Nottingham campaign with a win over fourth seed Karin Knapp and dropped just four games to Bojana Jovanovski earlier today. She's only made it as far as the fourth round at Wimbledon once before, but if she can get a little traction now she might be able to turn things around even past the grass court season.

Stuttgart isn't technically a new stop on Tour, but the men's tournament made the switch from clay to grass for the 2015 season, and that certainly helps some players more than others. Sam Groth really launched his late-career breakthrough on this surface last year, making the final of a Challenger event before qualifying for Wimbledon and then reaching the semis in Newport. He lost in the first round at Roland Garros, but rode a smaller title in Nottingham to his highest career ranking, #66 in the world. So far at the Mercedes Cup he's come back from losing opening sets to both one-time giant-killer Sergiy Stakhovsky and lawn-specialist Feliciano Lopez. And with a fairly open bottom half of the draw, there's no reason his road should get too much harder from here. Of course, the real story in Stuttgart is that of Rafael Nadal, who's second ever loss at the French Open knocked him down to his first double-digit ranking in ten years. He's not generally strong on grass, to be sure, but with two Wimbledon titles to his name, you know he can find a way to thrive -- and after his clay season, maybe the new surface will be a nice change. He was pushed in his first round, needing three sets and two tiebreaks to get past Marcos Baghdatis. But hopefully now that he's shaken the cobwebs off he'll be even stronger and more ready for his next challenge.

With a couple weeks left before the next Grand Slam, it's important that all these guys pull themselves together and rebound from recent results. They might not be able to ultimately walk away with the titles -- this week or, even less likely, at the All England Club -- but with a few more solid results, they might just be able to finish their year off on a high note.

June 7, 2015

Erasing the Past

A couple years ago I marveled at the performance of Italy's Francesca Schiavone, who'd lost her first round match at Roland Garros in 2009 only to come back and win the whole thing twelve months later.

And this year, perhaps more impressively, we saw two champions pull off similar feats and, maybe, create a little bit of history that's worth even more.

Maybe we shouldn't have been too surprised by what we saw in the women's final Saturday. After all Serena Williams was playing her twenty-fifth Grand Slam championship match compared to Lucie Safarova's first. Still the American powerhouse hadn't been her best over the last fortnight, losing opening sets in three straight matches and having to power through again in the semifinals against Timea Bacsinszky to get a shot at playing for a third crown in Paris. It was the most she's ever been tested at a Major -- and especially after her second round exit here last year, you couldn't help but think she might be in trouble again.

And Safarova took whatever opportunity she could -- from a set and a break down the suddenly-thriving Czech, who'd already taken out defending champion Maria Sharapova and former titleist Ana Ivanovic on the way, came back again to force a third set. She would ultimately fold, though -- Serena, as she so often does, found her best game when she was most under pressure and rolled through the decider to complete her own Grand Slam triple crown. Of course, as the top seed she was the on-paper favorite, but with the French Open being, by far, where she's had the least success, her triumph was even more significant. The win, moreover, gives Williams her twentieth Major trophy -- meaning she could tie Steffi Graf's record twenty-two by the end of the year. And the way she's playing it's hard to put that past her.

Stan Wawrinka's comeback over the last two weeks may be even more surprising -- not only did the world #9 lose in the first round last year, but the former Junior champ had never made it out of the quarterfinals in the Paris main draw. Even after his surprising win over Roger Federer this year, he was by far the underdog in Sunday's final. Novak Djokovic, after all, had dethroned the king of Roland Garros just a few days earlier and surved a squeaker against Andy Murray in the semis. Add to that, Nole had the motivation of a career Grand Slam on the line and a more-than-intimidating 17-3 record against the Swiss #2.

But Wawrinka did not flinch -- after losing the first set he was actually able to raise his game, taking advantage of a seemingly tired opponent to grab a late break in the second and then pulling off some of the most amazing shots of the tournament to race ahead. Even when Djokovic looked reinvigorated in the fourth set -- he'd won the first three games of the set -- Wawrinka managed to draw even and then saved a handful of breakpoints and eventually pull ahead. After a little more than three hours of play, he converted his second championship point of the match and won his second Major title against a hugely favored foe. His win not only keeps him a perfect 100% in Grand Slam finals, but may have established a Rafa Curse, suggesting that whoever beats Rafael Nadal in Paris, cannot ultimately win in Paris. But for Stan himself, he certainly proved he's no one-hit wonder.

Maybe the crowning of some of this weekend's champions was more surprising than that of others, but seeing two players who had such disappointing showings here just last year come back oh-so-much-stronger in 2015 is pretty darn impressive. And in case anyone allowed themselves to let their guard down against either -- they've all been served notice that both are back and better than ever.

June 3, 2015

The King Is Dethroned

It's the end of an era at the French Open.

Much as many thought/feared, Rafael Nadal's record thirty-nine match win streak at Roland Garros came to an end at the hands of Novak Djokovic today, with his quest for a historic tenth title in Paris stopping in the quarterfinals.

It was just Nadal's second loss at the French -- since he first hit these red clay courts in 2005, he's racked up a more-than-intimidating 70-1 record, falling only in 2009 to then-unknown Robin Soderling.

Wednesday's defeat may not have been quite as shocking -- the Swede was ranked just #25 in the world at the time, a far cry from Nole's top spot. And Djokovic did win the pair's last meeting in Monte Carlo last April, as a famously struggling Rafa, with just one tiny trophy this year, put together one of his least prolific seasons to date.

But that doesn't make the Spaniard's exit any less significant.

Nadal had won more matches at this tournament than any other man in history and, winning better than ninety-seven percent of his matches here, outstripped all players at any Major. His nine titles are more than anyone -- including legends like Pete Sampras, Ivan Lendl or Bjorn Borg -- had ever claimed at a single event. Even when he wasn't a favorite, he somehow managed to pull through. And this year, as the sixth seed -- easily his lowest position since he first took the trophy a decade ago -- many still expected he'd come away with a championship.

But even more important might be what Rafa's departure means for the rest of the field. His loss six years ago paved the way for Roger Federer to complete the career Grand Slam -- and this year might very well be Novak Djokovic's turn. The top-ranked Serb has lost on these courts three years in a row to the King of Clay, and after finally turning the tables on him there seems to be no stopping him.

As for everybody else -- they've certainly been served notice that there's a new man to beat at Roland Garros. And when Nadal comes back next year, you can be sure he'll be hungrier than ever to reclaim the crown.

June 1, 2015

Nose to the Grindstone

With just about a week left to go at this year's French Open, we're getting to the point where the stakes are at their highest. Favorites have been tested and many have gotten through, young upstarts have kept their streaks going despite the odds -- but with just a few more matches for each remaining contender, this is exactly when they need to dig deep and bring their best.

The ladies' top seed Serena Williams has certainly been pushed during her first few matches in Paris -- she dropped the opening set to young Anna-Lena Friedsam and got down a set and a couple breaks to rival Victoria Azarenka in the third round. And while she so often finds a way to turn up the juice in the back half of the Majors, there are nevertheless a few wildcards in her half of the draw that could cause some trouble. Sloane Stephens, of course, who stunned her a few years ago in Australia and took out her sister here, is the most immediate threat, and Petra Kvitova who gave Serena her only loss of the year so far in Madrid seems to have recovered well after an early struggle. Even Timea Bacsinszky, who's had a pretty nice run this year could pose some trouble to the elite. But the bigger stories in this half may be the lesser-knowns -- young Belgian Alison Van Uytvanck who'd only won one match at a Slam in her short career had a solid win over my dark horse Kristina Mladenovic in her last match, and completely unheralded Andreea Mitu, barely in the top hundred, stunned both red-hot Karolina Pliskova and former champion Francesca Schiavone already. The two meet for a spot in the quarters today, easily the biggest moment of either of their careers so far -- and an amazing opportunity to really make a statement.

The bottom half of the women's draw has also seen its share of upsets, starting with the shocking loss of last year's finalist Simona Halep in the second round. But it didn't stop there, of course. Earlier today defending champion Maria Sharapova, fresh off her third title in Rome took out thirteenth seeded Lucie Safarova, whose best performance on clay this season was a quarterfinal showing in Madrid, where she didn't beat anyone in the top forty. But the #2 Czech brought her A-game against Sharapova, and in just under two hours pulled off one of the biggest wins of her career. And she's far from the only surprise quarterfinalist in this section -- Garbiñe Muguruza, who pulled off the upset of this tournament last year, and former Junior champion Elina Svitolina have both outplayed their rankings. And maybe, encouragingly, the even bigger surprise is the performance of long-ago titleist Ana Ivanovic, who'd lost early in most of her warm-up events this year. Despite some tests, she's survived even a challenge from a strong Ekaterina Makarova, and with a 6-0 record against Svitolina has a good shot at her first Major semi since 2008.

The men's draw, expectedly, has seen fewer big upsets, but with four Grand Slam champions in the mix, it sure seems like things are about to get combative. Nine-time champion Rafael Nadal may not be the on-paper favorite this year, but even as a low-for-him sixth seed, the rest of the field has to be nervous. He hasn't dropped a set yet during his first three matches, even taking out fellow clay specialist Nicolas Almagro in just over two hours. Later today he'll face doubles star Jack Sock, who's playing his first Major singles fourth round ever -- and while the young American has already pulled off quite an impressive upset this event, you have to give Rafa the edge here. That could set up a surprising quarterfinal showdown between the Spaniard and world #1 Novak Djokovic, who's lost to Nadal in his last three outings at Roland Garros. It would be the earliest meeting between the two rivals since 2007 and given their recent history, might just change the entire course of this tournament. Nole isn't the only one who could take advantage of that, though -- former finalist David Ferrer and even Andy Murray, riding a nice two-title streak on clay himself, have both been impressive in their early matches. Both are leading their opponents so far today and could very well give even the heavy favorites trouble down the road.

And with so much in-fighting going on in the top half of the men's bracket, it could be the relatively less intimidating bottom group that thrives most. That's not to say there are no threats in this part of the draw, of course -- U.S. Open runner-up Kei Nishikori has been pretty surgical in his wins so far in Paris, not dropping a set yet, albeit without having faced a seed either, and Stan Wawrinka last year's winner in Melbourne has had a similarly easy time, yesterday dismantling a talented Gilles Simon in straight sets. But you can't help but feel it's the rest of the players in this section who have the bigger opportunity -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who missed the early part of this season with injury, cemented his return with a dismantling win over fourth seeded Tomas Berdych and now faces Nishikori for a chance to return to the semis. And Roger Federer, currently trying to survive what could turn out to be another massive battle with Gael Monfils, seems well motivated in his quest for a second title here. He is the only other man in the field with a French Open trophy, after all, and is hungry to end a long -- again, for him -- Major-less streak. But the feisty Frenchman is certainly putting up a fight, and with wins in their last two meetings certainly has what it takes to come back from his current two-sets-to-one down. And any of these guys could stand a real opportunity at putting up a fight when they reach the final.

As we come down to the wire over the next few days, each shot these guys and girls hit becomes so much more important. And with so much on the line in Paris, they better make sure they're focused on the goal. After all, even the underdogs have the chance to make history here. And this year, maybe more than ever before, could be their best chance to do it.