Three To See, French Open: May 31
(1) Serena Williams vs. (26) Sorana Cirstea
Head-to-head: Williams leads 1-0
The world No. 1 revealed she’s a woman of many personalities, but she’s played this clay season as if one persona—Ruthless Serena—is calling all the shots. She rolls into the third round riding a career-best 26-match winning streak, has permitted just four games through two rounds, has not faced break point in the tournament, and is winning about 86 percent of her first-serve points and nearly 76 percent of her second-serve points, Oh, and she’s also speaking French in post-match interviews, painting in her spare time, and refurbishing the red clay with a variety of winners.
Though the 2002 Roland Garros champion crushed Cirstea, 6-1, 6-2, in the Stanford semifinals last July, I don’t see her overlooking the Romanian for two reasons: Williams looks determined to power through the first week minimizing drama, and she knows Sorana is a dangerous player when her flat drives are landing.
A 2009 quarterfinalist, Cirstea plays aggressive baseline tennis and likes to take the first strike. She’ll crack the ball down the line off both wings, can be particularly dangerous off her forehand, and goes after both first and second serves. But Serena is the better mover, is more dangerous on the run, extends points more effectively, and plays with more margin.
The Pick: Williams in two sets
(2) Roger Federer vs. (30) Julien Benneteau
Head-to-head: Federer leads 4-2
A smiling Federer spent a rainy day off peaking in Paris: He visited the top of the Eiffel Tower for the first time. Federer is well aware of the obstacle he faces in the 30th-seeded Frenchman, who has been difficult to downsize in the past. Benneteau took a two-set lead over Federer before losing in five at the 2012 Wimbledon, and he swept Federer in Rotterdam in February.
“It’s true when I play against him he makes it difficult for me. I have some problems and I have to find a solution,” Federer said. “Anyway, I like that kind of challenge.”
Benneteau has a solid serve and is very skilled at redirecting pace from his compact and powerful two-handed backhand. The direction of that shot seems to be tough for Federer to read, as Benneteau can create sharp angles cross-court and hit it down the line as well. Federer has done a fine job of mixing the pace and length of his own backhand through two rounds (albeit against over-matched opposition); look for him to drag Benneteau forward at times with the slice and try to pass off the forehand.
I don’t discount Benneteau—it would be nutty to dismiss his chances with his recent head-to-head history—however I think the surface works to Federer’s advantage here because he’s the smoother mover, tends to use more of the court, and his legs look fresh after a two-month break. Federer is playing for his 899th career victory and should play assertive tennis to prevent the home crowd from becoming a vocal factor.
The Pick: Federer in four sets
(32) Sabine Lisicki vs. (5) Sara Errani
Head-to-head: First meeting
First meetings can be interesting, and this match intrigues because it pits Lisicki’s power and baseline aggression against Errani’s consistency and counter-punching skills.
The 5’10” Lisicki will come out looking to land the deep drives, back the 2012 French Open finalist up, draw the mid-court ball and hammer it. The 5’4” Errani hits with heavier topspin and typically plays much cleaner tennis on clay. She’ll try to extend the points, working the angles to stretch Lisicki and bleed errors from the bigger-hitting German.
Lisicki’s laser first serve commands attention, and she’s comfortable on clay herself, having won the 2009 Charleston title and capturing her second Stuttgart doubles title last month. Lisicki has a history of coming up with inspired performances against Top 10 players in majors, has an immense edge on serve, and can rip the return.
Can Lisicki pull off the upset a day after 2011 champion Li Na failed to survive the second round? I can’t talk myself into it. Given the damp, slower conditions, I think it will be ever harder to hit through Errani, who can absorb the pace on clay and spit back high heavy topspin to buy time. Errani’s second serve is vulnerable, but I favor the Italian for a simple reason: Errani puts more balls in play.
The Pick: Errani in three sets
It's a red-clay reunion between hard-court practice partners. Haas is playing to become the first man over 35 to reach the third round at Roland Garros since Jonas Bjorkman in 2007, while 20-year-old Sock is aiming to become the youngest American man to reach the third round since Andy Roddick, another Haas sparring partner, did so in 2001.
Sock has a hellacious kick serve and can hammer his forehand. That's the pattern he will want to impose all day long. When he's relaxed and in full flow, Haas can be a wonder to watch, using his one-handed backhand to befuddle opponents and his all-court skills to open the court.
There are compelling reasons to pick Sock: He can play points on his terms if he's landing his go-to shots, especially if he can keep the ball high to Haas' one-handed backhand, which will diminish the German's options. He's played practice sets against Haas and should know what to expect and what patterns will work best. And as a 119th-ranked qualifier playing his second career Roland Garros main-draw match, Sock should swing freely against an opponent who's 15-years older and has had been plagued by injuries.
I like Sock's game and love his positive energy, but respect Haas' skills and the fact he still exhibits such strong desire after 522 career wins. Haas' temper scares me—when he barks at himself he sounds as scary as an over-caffeinated, sleep-deprived city cab driver on the verge of road rage—but if he can stay (reasonably) calm, use his variety to disrupt Sock and put enough returns in play, I think he'll advance.
The Pick: Haas in four sets
Slide marks arise in obscure areas when two all-courters with one-handed backhands and creative dispositions meet. If this match is anything like their last meeting—Flipkens prevailed 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) on a hard court in Hobart—expect shot-making fizz.
Neither woman blows you away with power, but both are skilled at changing spins. They're terminators at net; Flipkens won 21 of 28 net approaches in round one.
Tactically, it's not always about taking the first strike, it's hitting the sharper angle that is key. Look for 2010 French Open champion Schiavone to try to play high topspin to Flipkens' backhand early in rallies, push the Belgian back, and create space cross-court. Flipkens will use the short slice backhand as both an approach and to lure Schiavone forward.
The 32-year-old Schiavone looks sculpted, but she is 3-6 in three-set matches this season. Flipkens is 10-6 in three-setters and showed strength in the opening round, going the distance in a 2-6, 6-4, 6-0 win over Flavia Pennetta. The 27-year-old Flipkens has never surpassed the second round, while Schiavone knows how to make magic in Paris. If the Italian can use her kick serve wide to spread the court and attack Flipkens' second serve, I think she moves forward.
The Pick: Schiavone in three sets
Grand Slam veterans bring major experience into their first clay-court meeting. Verdasco is playing in his 40th consecutive Grand Slam tournament; Tipsarevic is contesting his 26th straight and is aiming for his seventh straight trip to the third round of a major.
It's disconcerting to see Verdasco, who was a few points from the 2009 Australian Open final before bowing to Rafael Nadal in a five-hour, 14-minute epic, look so fragile at times this season. He sometimes has the slumped shoulder disposition of a man who believes doom is right around the corner carrying an eviction notice. Tipsarevic can also be volatile, but the tattooed one tends to be the tougher-minded competitor, usually plays crucial points with more clarity, and owns the better five-set record.
Tipsarevic takes the ball earlier, but Verdasco plays heavier topspin better suited to clay: The 29-year-old Spaniard is a year older, but he's won 90 more clay-court matches than Tipsarevic.
Considering that the fretful Verdasco is on a six-match losing streak against seeded opponents in Grand Slams, is a lackluster 0-7 when losing the first set this year, and his No. 53 ranking is his lowest since July 2005, you'd have to be reaching to pick him, right? Granted, Verdasco can gag at crunch time and his second serve can be suspect under pressure, but his lefty forehand is a weapon. If he's landing his shots with depth and really commits to going after his second serve...he could still get beaten, but I'll ride with Verdasco in the upset anyway.
The Pick: Verdasco in five sets