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.

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