Three To See, French Open: June 3
Some suggest seeing the one-handed backhand lighting up the terre battue is like watching the windmill twirl atop Montmartre—it evokes artistry, but may seem an artifact of another age. If you're one of those people, do yourself a favor and watch these two bend shots into obscure areas off their versatile and wondrous one-handers.
Both men are accomplished on clay and both are playing for their first French Open quarterfinal, as Wawrinka contests his fourth consecutive French Open fourth-rounder and Gasquet plays his third. The round of 16 has been a sticking point for the 26-year-old Frenchman, who is playing his sixth straight Grand Slam fourth-round match. Since reaching the 2007 Wimbledon semifinal, Gasquet has played 10 Grand Slam fourth-round matches—and lost all 10.
Such futility will add pressure, though if Gasquet gets off to a hot start quickly, he will generate rousing support from French fans. It will be interesting to see Gasquet will play with urgency, if he's content to drop back to familiar territory—behind the baseline—and engage Wawrinka in long rallies.
This should be an entertaining match with long baseline exchanges. Wawrinka has the broad shoulders of a rugby player and has been much tougher in five-set matches—he's 19-14 lifetime in the fifth set, while Gasquet is just 5-11. Although Gasquet has yet to surrender a set in the tournament, Wawrinka has played tougher opponents and owns four wins over Top 10 opponents this season. I picked Wawrinka as my darkhorse before the tournament began, and I'll stick with him to break through and reach his first Roland Garros quarterfinal.
The Pick: Wawrinka in five sets
Stephens confessed to a sweet addiction in Paris: She's eating Haagen Dazs daily. If she upsets reigning Roland Garros champion and candy-line creator Sharapova, you can envision a Sugarpova sundae as the celebration snack.
Sharapova has force-fed the opposition misery, winning 14 of her 15 clay-court matches in 2013, including a 6-2, 6-1 stomping of Stephens in Rome last month. Sloane is quicker around the court than Maria, though Sharapova has improved her movement in recent years and she can generate more spin on her shots, which can translate to sharper angles if she hits her spots. But the prospect of upsetting the defending champion may not seem so daunting for Stephens, since she toppled 15-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals.
The 6'2" Russian handled the high ball well in Rome, stepping into the court and blasting shots into the corners. Sharapova has used her wide reach to torment Stephens before, creating cross-court angles and drilling her two-handed backhand down the line. Still, Sharapova's flat serve can go kablooey at times—she hit eight double faults in a 6-1, 7-5 third-round win over Zheng Jie—and if she throws in a couple, I can see Stephens squeezing out a set. Sharapova's last loss to a woman outside the Top 10 was to No. 15 Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon last June.
I like Stephens' game, and if she can protect her second serve and extend the points, she could challenge here. But Sharapova has won 17 of her last 19 three-setters, is the power player who will be calling the shots, and if she's landing her serve to set up the first strike, I see her advancing to her seventh French Open quarterfinal.
The Pick: Sharapova in two sets
Jamie Hampton vs. (18) Jelena Jankovic
Head-to-head: Hampton leads 1-0
Three American woman are in action Monday, and the dynamic Hampton is the most likely to succeed. She handled Jankovic, 6-4, 6-3, on a hard court in Indian Wells, winning 54 percent of the points played on the Serbian's first serve and breaking serve five times.
The 54th-ranked Hampton is a fighter who has already taken down two seeds—25th-seeded Lucie Safarova in round one and seventh-seeded Petra Kvitova, 6-1, 7-6 (7), to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam for the first time. She has more juice on serve and tends to be more assertive from the baseline than the former No. 1. Hampton has hit the wide serve on the deuce side very effectively in the first week; look for her to use that serve to stretch the court against Jankovic.
You have to believe the spunky Hampton will be sky-high for this match with her recent run of success. Against almost any other woman not named Serena, I give Jankovic the advantage in athleticism—she's fast, fit, agile, and balanced—but Hampton can run with the best of them and I believe her running forehand is a more dangerous weapon. That could be key, as Jankovic's backhand down the line is her best shot.
I think this is a true toss-up, but give three-time Roland Garros semifinalist Jankovic the slight edge based on her experience (this is her 38th consecutive Grand Slam appearance; Hampton arrived in Paris with a 4-8 record in Grand Slam matches), her accuracy, and comfort covering the clay. Also, Hampton, who has won three straight three-setters, has yet to play on the larger show court. Jankovic can be a clever mid-match adjuster when controlling her emotions, she will be hungry to reach her first major quarterfinal since the 2010 French Open, and if she doesn't get too passive, I think she'll make it.
The Pick: Jankovic in three sets