June 6, 2021

Quite the Turnaround

The draws this year at Roland Garros have gotten shaken up for a lot of reasons, the most recent of which being the sudden withdrawal of Roger Federer earlier this morning. But as disappointing as that news was, it's honestly not the most shocking -- Fed had long said the goal of his comeback was not the French, but Wimbledon in a few weeks time. So whatever he needs to get ready for the Major where he's reached the final twelve times -- as opposed to the one he's missed four of the past six years -- seems prudent.

But outside of the withdrawals, the upsets, and the retirments, there's been unexpected pockets of strength, where even players who've struggled recently, or on these courts in particular, have pulled out big wins and erased opportunities for those who may have hoped to take advantage.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the success of world #2 Daniil Medvedev, who has made no secret of the fact that he's no fan of the red clay. He's lost almost two matches for every win he's had on the surface and before this year had never gotten out of the first round at Roland Garros. Facing a barely unseeded Alexander Bublik in his opener, I wasn't giving him much of a shot at changing that, but he got the win and went on to defeat 2015 French Boys' champ Tommy Paul and big-serving Reilly Opelka, who was coming off a semifinal run in Rome. Today, Medvedev got revenge for his Madrid third round loss to clay specialist Cristian Garin, firing off fourteen aces and winning more than 80 percent on his first serve. He's got a much tougher task in the quarters against Monte Carlo champ and Barcelona runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, but the young Russian may have finally found his footing on the dirt and could use that to his advantage.

Diego Schwartzman, on the other hand, has always thrived on clay but was starting to show some signs of rust this year. After his stunning win over Rafael Nadal in Rome last year and a trip to his first Slam semi in Paris, he should have been in peak form coming into this season, but he hadn't been much of a force on clay in 2021. Though he picked up a title in Buenos Aires -- his biggest test in that run was world #42 Miomir Kecmanovic -- he lost his first rounds in Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome, and Lyon. But he's seemed to have recovered his magic a bit in the first week of the French, advancing through his first three rounds without losing a set. For a spot in the quarters he'll face off against Jan-Lennard Struff, a man who beat Andrey Rublev in his opener and wünderkind Carlos Alcaraz yesterday, so his ticket is far from booked. But a win would certainly go a long way in putting his year back on track.

Also finding her groove again in Paris is veteran Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Though she burst onto the scene over a decade ago, beating then #2 Jelena Jankovic and Aga Radwanska in Indian Wells in 2009 and reaching the quarters at the French and U.S. Opens in 2011, she went a long stretch with middling results at the Majors and little success there outside of Australia. She didn't play much on clay before Roland Garros this year, but she started to make a statement in Madrid -- ranked #41 in the world, she upset four top 25 players, including sixth seed Karolina Pliskova and eleventh seed Jen Brady on her way to the semis. And this week in Paris she not only avenged that loss in Spain, taking out one of my favorites for the title, Aryna Sabalenka, but went on to defeat former semifinalist Victoria Azarenka, who had also been putting together quite a comeback the first week.

The upset earned Pavs a quarterfinal date with a woman who is staging her own turnaround in Paris -- one who also happens to be her doubles partner here. Elena Rybakina was one of the young standouts of early 2020, reaching one final after another and barely taking a week off in between. She slowed down a bunch after the shutdown, losing early in New York and Paris, and while she made the quarters to start this season in Abu Dhabi, she didn't win more than one match at any event after that. That's changed in a big way this week, though -- after ending the comeback of Elena Vesnina in the third round, today she pulled off the win of her career, dismantling Serena Williams in straight sets in just over an hour, doubling her on aces (albeit only four to two) and breaking serve five times. It'll be her first Major quarterfinal, her best performance by far, and couldn't have come at a better time, given her slow start to the year.

Of course, there's still a long road to go for any of these players to get the big win in Paris, and their biggest tests still lie in front of them. It'll be a lot to ask any of them to come away with the titles, but their performances so far sure suggest they're ready to take on the challenges.

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