PARIS—There’s been a lot to follow: top-tier upsets, second-tier moonwalking, and stretcher-assisted exits on the women’s side; on the men's, we've had twilight battles, diet secrets, and the first possible case of fake non-cramps in world history. Now it’s time, after all the watching and the writing and the running around of the last 10 days, to look at the draw again, to get back to fundamentals and find out what the heck is happening in in this tournament. Who are we? How did we get here? What’s in store for us? The quarterfinals seem like a good opportunity to find out the answer to these and the other deep questions that are perplexing Roland Garros at the moment. Let’s slow it all down and take it match by match.
Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Marion Bartoli (Head-to-head: Kuznetsova leads 3-1)
I guess with the WTA we should just do our best to forget current form when we get to a Slam. Not only are the top three seeds and last year's runner-up gone, but so is Julia Goerges, champion in Stuttgart and leading potential breakout story in Paris. Meanwhile, Svetlana Kuznetsova, who has had a disastrous 2011 since sending Justine Henin out of the sport in Australia, is alive and blasting in the final eight.
There she’ll play another surprise, France’s Marion Bartoli, the madly determined, and perhaps just plain mad, conqueror of Goerges. Bartoli is the higher seed, Kuznetsova is the more accomplished player. Kuznetsova won their first three matches, Bartoli won their last one easily in Key Biscayne in 2010. Kuznetsova has won this tournament, Bartoli wants it more than anything. The only prediction I’ll make is that Bartoli will make it interesting, provided that she doesn’t wake up and realize that she’s a French player playing in France.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Francesca Schiavone (Head-to-head: Schiavone leads 2-1)
This is especially intriguing. On the one side, you have the defending champion, who is starting to look like she could repeat what had seemed sure to be an unrepeatable run in Paris last year. On the other, you have a hard-hitting ex-junior No. 1 and ex-cinch for the Top 10 coming off the biggest win of her young yet undeniably disappointing career. As with Goerges, clay may help the offensive-minded, defensively challenged Russian by giving her just a little more time to catch up to the ball. But Schiavone knows these courts, and in her last match she looked like the gutsy, resourceful, snarling, finger-snapping, seize-the-moment competitor that she transformed herself into at Roland Garros in 2010.
Li Na vs. Victoria Azarenka (Head-to-head: Na leads 3-1)
These two faced off in the round of 16 in Melbourne in January, and Li Na was too good, blistering her backhand across the slow hard courts there for a routine 6-3, 6-3 win. Azarenka has been the better player since. She won in Key Biscayne and has been playing some of the best tennis on the WTA, while Na has mostly fumbled her way out of Australia. Na hits bigger, and in her last match she fought her way back from a first-set deficit against trendy Paris pick Petra Kvitova. Azarenka has built up a lot of confidence this year and is playing with a tough-skinned, fast-paced, buoyantly aggressive efficiency. She can’t knock the ball past you like Na, but she can build a rally and defend. Na on the right day is the better player, but the athletic Azarenka seems the more likely winner on clay.
Maria Sharapova vs. Andrea Petkovic (Head-to-head: Sharapova leads 2-1)
Did you know that the veteran Sharapova is only four months older than Petkovic, breakthrough story of the last year? That’s enough to remind you of how much more accomplished the famous Russian is than the upstart German. Petkovic won their meeting in Australia, and annoyed Sharapova with her celebration shuffle. So Sharapova got her revenge in the semis in Key Biscayne. Petkovic is still dancing, and still playing well, but this is starting to feel like Maria’s major—those happen every couple of years, you know (Wimby 2004, U.S. Open 2006, Melbourne 2008). Sharapova hits with more pace and, despite some very rough patches against Garcia and Radwanska, she's been clutch in this event so far, clutch enough, anyway, to let her opponents self-destruct. Still, in 2011 Maria has had a tendency to play well for a time before throwing in an unmitigated bomb (Indian Wells semi, Key Biscayne final).
Rafael Nadal vs. Robin Soderling (Head-to-head: Nadal leads 5-2)
Wow, this one already. Nadal and Soderling split their two matches here the last two years. In the grand scheme, of course, all signs point to another Nadal win. He’s won their last two matches, after losing the previous two, and he ground Soderling into the red dust in last year’s Roland Garros final. But if you go by the form of the moment, Soderling has a chance. He’s been way under the radar so far, but he has advanced smoothly. Once again, clay gives him a little more time to haul off and bludgeon his ground strokes. Is Nadal struggling, is he getting better, is he up one day and down the next? No one knows, including Rafa, who says, rightly, that the future could go in a number of directions. Nadal seems to feel little pressure at the moment (he says he’s won the French five times and has no “obligation” to do it a sixth), but he’s also experiencing dips in his play, especially on his serve, that we’ve never seen before from him on clay. In the 2010 final, he was too consistent and speedy for Soderling—a dirt fortress. He hasn’t been as consistent this year so far. If Nadal hits short and moves poorly, the way he did in the first set and a half today, he could lose. If he opens up the court and moves with confidence, as he did for the second set and a half, he should be OK.
Gael Monfils vs. Roger Federer (Head-to-head: Federer leads 5-1)
These two have played twice at Roland Garros, with Federer dropping just one set in two victories. Monfils’ only win in their series came last year at the Paris Indoors, in a three-tiebreaker epic in which he saved five match points.
So Federer is starting with a major historical advantage—will that one extremely tight win really leave Monfils convinced that he can beat Federer again? I doubt it. Federer has been as good and smooth and efficient and in control as ever over the first week. From what I’ve seen, the shanks have dissipated and the movement is where it has always been. With the crowd pushing, I could see Monfils firing away to a first-set win, the way he did against Ferrer. But even then Monfils came down to earth rapidly after the initial burst of adrenalin. His best shots are just too difficult and low percentage to be automatically repeatable. Federer is adept at pushing Monfils back in their rallies. That’s not where the Frenchman is going to want to be on Tuesday. With all of his options, Federer is one guy who can make him pay for his poor court positioning.
Those are the six quarters we know. Novak Djokovic, always a step ahead this season, is already past his, thanks to a walkover, and into the semifinals—he’ll meet the winner of Federer-Monfils there. The other Top 4 seed, laggard Andy Murray, has yet to arrive in the quarters. He and Viktor Troicki will play a fifth set on Tueday for the (highly desirous) right to play Juan Ignacio Chela for a spot in the semifinals.
It’s been a somewhat strange ride so far. On the women’s side, it could get stranger, and we could crown a new and highly unexpected Slam champ—I'd love to see it. On the men’s side, we could get one step closer to the assumed three-man Armageddon between Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal. But you know what they say about making assumptions, right? You might say the same for predictions.