October 1, 2020

Wide Open Spaces

We're now at the point in a Grand Slam when, if things had gone exactly according to plan, we'd have gotten rid of all the qualifiers and wildcards, everyone would have beaten an oppenent only if they were ranked lower than them, and we'd be left with a draw that pitted one seed against another.

Of course, things never go exactly as planned, and this year at the French Open, a couple early upsets and literal luck of the draw seem to have created some big swaths of land that could allow some unexpected players to run free.

Let's start with the men, who admittedly have a much narrower path than the women, but who nevertheless have created a couple opportunities. The bottom quarter of the draw may be the most open, with the early exit of Daniil Medvedev and today's stunning loss by my semifinal pick Denis Shapovalov at the hands of world #101 Roberto Carballes Baena. While Hamburg champ Andrey Rublev and sith seed Stefanos Tsitsipas remain real threats here, someone like Marton Fucsovics, who beat Medvedev, might be able to take advantage. He made the fourth round in Australia this year, and with his next match against Thiago Monteiro, he's got a good shot of at least matching that. He'd likely face Rublev a round later, and while their only previous meeting was three years ago when Rublev was a much less formidable foe, it was on clay, and he did win. It did also go five sets, but at the very least this could be a nice fight.

Fewer favorites have survived the second quarter of the men's draw, and while one of those still standing is twelve-time champion Rafael Nadal (who, I'm told, has never lost a match at Roland Garros when seeded second), that doesn't mean all hope is lost for the others. Qualifier Marco Cecchinato stunned the world two years ago when he beat Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals here, and while he's since dropped out of the top hundred, his performance over the last week or so may suggest he's back on track. He opened with a win over Alex de Minaur and then took out Juan Ignacio Londero in four sets. He'll be tested by U.S. Open finalist Alexander Zverev in the next round, of course, but the German had to battle through a four-hour five-setter in the last round and could be taken advantage of.

Things could get even more interesting for the ladies, where a couple sections have opened up wide. Patricia Maria Tig, who'd lost her first round match in four of the five Majors she'd played before Paris -- she lost in the second round of this year's U.S. Open -- quietly won her first career title on the clay of Istanbul while the rest of us had our eyes glued on New York. She hasn't had to do anything spectacular yet -- her last opponent took care of Karolina Muchova and her next one, Palermo titleist, dispatched Elena Rybakina -- but with Sofia Kenin struggling a bit, she may not have to for a few rounds yet.

And then there's 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko, who before this year had never won a match at the French before or since that title run. She seemed to be getting her form back last week in Strasbourg, though she was broken six times in her quarterfinal match against Nao Hibino, but a decisive straight set win over second seeded Karolina Pliskova today could be what she needs to really get her confidence back. The now twenty-three year old will next face Paula Badosa, who also got the better of 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens today, and with my very meh pick Petra Martic lurking in this section, I could see either of them surviving a few more matches.

But perhaps the biggest opening was created in Serena Williams' quarter (actually, I guess, Elina Svitolina's quarter) -- not necessarily because the American was a favorite to win here (as we know this is her worst Slam), but because of all the other craziness that happened there. Yes, the top half of this section is stacked -- the only non-seed there is Caroline Garcia, who is hardly an underdog -- but the bottom half is wide open.

Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, who first hit my radar with a win over Venus Williams here in 2014 and stunned red-hot Victoria Azarenka yesterday will face Nadia Podoroska who, ranked #131 in the world, had never won a match at a Major before this week, but really got under the skin of Yulia Putintseva in their second round. And U.S. Open feel-good story Tsvetana Pironkova, the immediate beneficiary of Serena's withdrawal, will take on doubles specialist Barbora Krejcikova, who beat Barbora Strycova in the second round. It just seems incredible that one of these long shots is guaranteed a place in the fourth round.

Then again, isn't that what's so great about sport? And in a year like the one we've seen, it's those stories that can really stand out for the good -- whether they're comebacks or breakthroughs, it's great to see new talent shine -- and maybe just give us all something to celebrate.

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