Three To See, French Open: May 29
Emotive, explosive characters collide in what could be the most crowd-pleasing match of the day. They're both playing with plenty of purpose, are agile and quick around the court, can back up opponents with heavy first serves, and can punish the mid-court ball off either wing.
Gulbis is 25-5 over his last 30 matches and pushed Rafael Nadal to three sets in both Indian Wells and Rome. The Latvian, who hits with the vigor of a rugby player, will step up to the baseline and take his cracks—he won't be coerced into playing too many grinding rallies. If Gulbis sustains the controlled power he exhibited in blowing Rafa off the court in Rome, he will be very tough to beat.
Monfils is an acrobat and a blast to watch when he's inspired, but Sliderman's tendency to play passive, retrieving tennis under pressure undermines his talents. Still, the Frenchman has played his most passionate tennis in Paris, showed a lot of guts saving triple-break point late in the fifth set of his upset of Tomas Berdych, is serving effectively (26 aces against three double faults vs. Berdych), and has won 10 of his last 11 clay-court matches.
In 2008, Gulbis was a quarterfinalist and Monfils made it to the semifinals. I think the winner of this match will make another run at Roland Garros. It may be another tense thriller, but I see Monfils extending the magic.
The Pick: Monfils in five sets
Remember Rome? These two won't forget it. Two weeks ago, Jovanovski rallied for a memorable 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (5) win over Wozniacki in the Eternal City.
Jovanovski hits a bigger ball, and the experience of edging the former No. 1 on dirt should help her cause. Wozniacki often predictably plays her forehand cross-court—she'd be wise to mix some higher, heavier topspin forehands deep to try to back Jovanovski up. If the Dane gets dragged into that familiar pattern, she's got to be aware that Jovanovski can hurt her down the line when she hits her forehand short. Jovanovski's forehand is her favorite shot; Wozniacki's two-handed backhand is her best weapon.
I did not think Wozniacki was going to beat Laura Robson in round one, but she stepped up with a confident and energetic effort. She snapped a five-match clay-court losing streak and won't be over-confident on her least favorite surface.
Sometimes, players swing more freely and compete with a sense of liberation after snapping a skid. I'm not sure how Wozniacki's nerves will hold up if this is escalates to a three-set tension test, but she's always willing to run and usually does a good job of hanging around in matches to give herself a shot to win.
The Pick: Wozniacki in three sets
(25) Lucie Safarova vs. Jamie Hampton
Head-to-head: First meeting
Safarova tuned up for Paris by sweeping up in Prague: She won five straight matches to collect the title at the ITF event. When she's on her game, the left-hander is a clean ball striker who can create angles off her forehand and hammer her two-handed backhand.
The Czech showed her clay-court skills by reaching the Charleston final last year and winning doubles titles in Charleston and Madrid this spring. She has nice feel around the net, though she doesn't always close with urgency, and when her mind wanders, shots can scatter.
Hampton doesn't have one imposing weapon, but she can do a little bit of everything, and when she's engaged she competes with a feisty spirit. She's most at home on hard courts—Hampton took then world-No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to three sets at the Australian Open—but she's learning to translate her game to clay, beating 15th-ranked Italian Roberta Vinci en route to the Brussels semifinals last week.
Hampton can be a slow starter, and if Safavora gets out quickly, I can envision her rolling. Safarova is the shot-maker who can produce effortless winners, so Hampton must make her work for every single point. Admittedly, this is reach, but if Hampton can prolong the points, use the entire court and stretch Safavora, she's got a shot to surprise.
The Pick: Hampton in three sets