June 7, 2021

Some New Blood

With the quarterfinals for this year's Roland Garros now set, you might notice more than a couple newbies in the mix.

The women's draw, shredded from the start, has just two players remaining who've ever reached the final eight at a Major before, and only one of those still standing is ranked in the top fifteen. And while most of the favorites have survived so far on the men's side, outside Nole and Rafa, even the top seeds have relatively little experience this deep into a fortnight.

And all that might mean the fireworks have only just started.

The Women

We already knew things were going to be interesting on the ladies side of things, which so many withdrawals, upsets, and retirements in the early days, but that just makes the consistent performances we've seen so far that much more impressive. Defending champion Iga Swiatek, somehow the most accomplished of the bunch at just twenty years of age, pulled off a strong win today against eighteen-year-old Marta Kostyuk, who rode her first round upset over former titleist Garbiñe Muguruza all the way to the fourth round in a pretty impressive run. Meanwhile, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the relative veteran of the group -- she's not even thirty yet! -- has made it back to the quarters in Paris for the first time in a decade. But everyone else is charting new territory.

I've already extolled the performance of Elena Rybakina, who rebounded from a sluggish start to the year to pull off the biggest win of her career in the fourth round, dismantling Serena Williams as she went for that still-elusive 24th Grand Slam title. And I've also been a big cheerleader for Paula Badosa -- with her title in Belgrade and a win over 2019 French runner-up Marketa Vondrousova in the last round, she's now riding a nine-match win streak and could be hard to beat. But there's also Maria Sakkari, the highest ranked first-timer, who ousted last year's runner-up Sofia Kenin earlier today. She's had trouble backing up one big win with another, but she'll be trying to change that against Swiatek in the next round

But we can't count out Tamara Zidansek who is having a true coming out party in Paris. About 30 spots off her career high ranking at #85 in the world right now, she's never made it out of the second round of a Major, and though she did manage a nice run to the Bogotá final, I wasn't giving her much of a shot here. But she followed up a first round upset of sixth seed Bianca Andreescu with wins over Serena's Parma slayer Katarina Siniakova and Istanbul champ Sorana Cirstea. She's certainly the on-paper underdog, but we should know better than to count her out.

And, of course, there's the match I might be most excited for -- seventeen-year-old Coco Gauff, the youngest woman to reach a Slam quarter in fifteen years -- Nicole Vaidisova, on these courts -- will take on Barbora Krejcikova, whose won a couple of Major doubles titles but has only even entered a handful of singles draws, in a battle of players riding nine-match win streaks. Gauff has a huge opportunity here -- her win over Ons Jabeur helped secure her a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, while Krejcikova, who followed up an upset of fifth seed Elina Svitolina with a win over a resurgent Sloane Stephens, could get revenge for a doubles loss to Coco in Miami this year. But with a spot in her maiden semi on the line, it's great to see two unexpected superstars really stand out.

The Men

Things went a little more according to plan on the men's side, but that doesn't mean a total lack of drama -- or of fresh faces. Nineteen-year-old Lorenzo Musetti looked experienced well beyond his years when he took the first two sets off Novak Djokovic earlier today before losing steam and retiring in the fifth set, and fellow Italian teen Jannik Sinner got off to a strong start against Rafael Nadal, but the king of clay was able to do what he always does best to pull out the win.

The two favorites will take on two relative newcomers to the later rounds of Slams. Matteo Berrettini, whose ability to deliver I questioned for so long has happily proven me wrong, taking the title in Belgrade and making the final in Madrid. He got a little lucky with Roger Federer withdrawing before their fourth round match, but that extra rest could help him against a tested Djokovic. And Diego Schwartzman, who's turned around his clay court season in a big way, has yet to drop a set in his first four matches. Whether that gives him a shot at repeating his Rome revolution against Rafa -- well let's just say it's good to see him winning again.

The real surprise for the men has come in the bottom half of the draw, which, with the only Grand Slam titleholder in it eliminated in the first round, seemed to hold a huge opportunity for the next generation's leaders to breakthrough. And they've admittedly done well so far -- my favorite for the final, Stefanos Tsitsipas, is alive and well, dropping just one surprising set so far to John Isner, while Alexander Zverev has thrived after surviving an opening match scare and even Daniil Medvedev has found his footing on clay.

The standout, though, has been 21-year-old Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who's become a bit of a dark horse over the last few months. Outside the top fifty at the start of the year, he beat Berrettini in the second round of Monte Rome and took out Grigor Dimitrov in Rome. Playing just his third main draw in Paris, he stunned Casper Ruud, one of my favorites to go far, in the third round and followed it up with a win over sleeper Federico Delbonis. He's lost both his previous matches to Zverev, but whatever happens in the next round, this could set the stage for a lot more to come in his career.

Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that so many twists and turns have come out of the French Open. But it's truly encouraging to see so many players breaking new ground over the last ten days. For the women, there's an unprecedented opportunity to claim a first Grand Slam title. For the men, while the odds still lie with the most decorated of the bunch, we're really going to see which next gen star has what it takes to step up.

And there's no better stage than this on which to do it.

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