October 7, 2020

Something Old, Something New

What an eventful week and a half it's been! Now I know the more consequential stuff has been happening way, way off the tennis courts, but there have been some truly exhilerating and dramatic moments on the clay of Paris that deserve to be celebrated. And with the final four now decided on both the men's and women's side of the draws, you can't help but notice a marked differnce between the experience levels of the remaining contenders.

Let's start with the men's draw where, not terribly surprisingly, top seeds Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have largely sailed through their halves. Of course, after what we saw in New York and to a lesser extent in Rome, we could take nothing for granted, and things didn't go exactly according to plan at every turn. Rafa, still the odds-on favorite to win the title, despite coming into Roland Garros without a single clay court title this year, wrapped up his quarterfinal match at 1:30 in the morning Wednesday. And Nole, in a rematch of the U.S. Open fourth round against Pablo CarreΓ±o Busta which ended in a default, dropped the first set again today, but this time kept his cool -- it is, after all, cold this time of year -- and pulled out the win. With a combined 36 Grand Slam titles between them, it should be no shocker that they know how to bring the heat when needed.

Their opponents, on the other hand, are much less familiar to this scene, but are really making their own statements this season. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who seems like he's been at the top of this sport for much longer than his 22 years would realistically allow, had actually only made one Major semi before this year, beating Roger Federer last year in Melbourne before dropping to Rafa two rounds later. And while his performance was a little disappointing at the start of the year, he managed a title in Marseille just before the shutdown and then rebounded from early exits in New York and Rome to make the final in Hamburg. Earlier today, he avenged his loss in that championship match with a decisive straight-set win over a talented Andrey Rublev. He's never faced Djokovic on a stage this big, but he does have a couple Masters wins over the world #1, and he could give us a great show as he looks to make his first Slam final.

And then there's Diego Schwartzman, my dark horse pick to make the semis. He'd never made it out of quarters at a Major before, but had been showing signs of brilliance for the better part of two years. He notched what was by far the biggest win of his career two weeks ago, stunning Nadal on his way to the Rome final. And while he didn't face a real challenge in his first few rounds in Paris, he was well-tested by two-time defending French finalist, and recently-crowned U.S. Open champ Dominic Thiem in Tuesday's first men's match, coming back from one set-to-two down to defeat arguably the second best clay courter on tour right now. It will be a lot to ask him to make it a second straight against Rafa too -- especially after that five-hour slugfest. But the veteran Argentine has certainly pulled out surprises before and might just be able to do it again.

Turning now to the ladies, where in one half we have two seeded Grand Slam champions and in the other two players on wildly untrodden ground. Reigning Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin roundly quieted the detractors (which included me) after a lackluster post-shutdown performance (which included a double bagel loss to Victoria Azarenka in Rome). While she's certainly been tested -- she's been pushed to three sets in four of her five matches -- she's held tough and found what she needed to win. She'll face off against two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, who's made her first semi here after eight years. She's won her only two meetings with Kenin, and while the young American -- who overcame a 0-3 history against Danielle Collins earlier today -- won't let that bother her, it does feel like Kvitova has regained the form she needs to make another final.

In the other half of the draw, nineteen-year-old Iga Swiatek has incredibly emerged as the favorite -- not just to make the final but, according to oddsmakers, to win the whole thing. It shouldn't be that surprising she's finding success though -- with wins over Carla Suarrez Navarro, Donna Vekic, and Veronika Kudermetova this year, she's far outplaying her #57 ranking. And she's only continued to impress at Roland Garros. She took out last year's runner-up Market Vondrousova in the first round and absolutely drubbed heavy favorite Simona Halep in the fourth round. She's been an absolute beast in all her matches actually, losing exactly zero sets in both singles and doubles -- she and U.S. Open finalist Nicole Melichar are in the semis together, too -- and while I might worry that all that court time could exhaust her, she's showing no signs of letting up any time soon.

But we absolutely can't count out her net opponent, qualifier Nadia Podoroska, who's already played eight singles matches in what's only her second Major main draw (her only other appearance was at the 2016 U.S. Open where, as a qualifier again -- she'd beaten Donna Vekic in the prelims -- she lost to Annika Beck in the first round). Don't let her ranking, all the way down at #131 in the world, fool you, though -- she won an ITF title on clay in Saint-Malo, France, at the start of September and made the final the week prior in Prague. In her run here, she survived a volatile Yulia Putintseva in the second round and then crushed an in-form Elina Svitolina in the quarters. She's far exceeded any expectations she could have had for herself this event, but what a story it would be if she managed to go even one round further?

By the way, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention how happy I am that three of my four men's semifinal picks did make it as far as I hoped, although my gloating must be tempered by the fact that none of the ladies I expected lived up to expecatations. Still, I'm sufficiently satisfied with that record. I'll be back with another gimmick for next year's Slams -- and, of course, for more coverage of all the action that's left this season...and at this Major.

And if what we've seen so far at the French is a signal of what that'll look like, we've got a lot to look forward to!

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