First Ball In, 5/25: Straight-Set Sunday

Sunday, May 25, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

Tennis on the first Sunday at the French Open reminds me a little of tennis at the Olympics. What was once categorically decried has, at least grudgingly, come to be accepted. Looking back, maybe it was just us journalists who complained about having to work an extra day—life’s tough, after all, when you're forced to spend springtime in Paris. This year the schedulers at Roland Garros offered their fullest first Sunday yet. Here’s a look at how it went, and what’s in store on Monday.

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Sunday Review

French officials gave us plenty of matches and plenty of big names today, but one thing they couldn’t manufacture for us was drama. It was a less-than-surprising first session on the show courts: All of the seeds in Chatrier—Agnieszka Radwanska, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and Jo-Wiflried Tsonga—won in straight sets, as did all of the seeds—Milos Raonic, Venus Williams, John Isner, and Angelique Kerber—on Lenglen. 

The closest thing to a surprise was probably 19-year-old Anna Schmiedlova’s win over the veteran Jie Zheng; or Maria Kirilenko’s quick exit to Johanna Larsson. Schmiedlova will play Venus Williams next (See my Racquet Reaction on Venus’ impressive win over Belinda Bencic today). Among the high seeds, I did expect Radwanska to have a harder time with Shuai Zhang, who just missed the cut-off to be seeded. Perhaps that’s a sign of good things to come for Aga, who has a manageable path to her first semifinal here.

An Imperfect 10

That’s what Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz, who had lost nine straight matches, was going for today against 33-year-old Dominican Victor Estrella Burgos, a grinder’s grinder and a grunter’s grunter. Janowicz, despite spending a fair amount of the last two sets sailing balls all over the arena, won his first match since February. I know Janowicz has been in the Top 15, has reached the semis at Wimbledon, and owns his share of big wins, but I can’t say I’m surprised that he lost nine straight. “Steady” is not a word that I ever expect to come to mind when I contemplate the life and times of Jerzy Janowicz. By which I mean, I also wouldn’t be surprised if he turned around and made a run back up the rankings again soon. He plays Jarkko Nieminen next, and is near Novak Djokovic in the draw.

Too Soon to Panic

Watching John Isner when he’s playing well, you can imagine him saying those four words to himself over and over. The big-serving, little-returning Isner plays his tennis, and makes his living, on the razor’s edge—if he stops winning tiebreakers, he can start looking for another line of work. Isner won two of them today over Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert; there were some tight moments, and the crowd was thoroughly against him, but the American never looked anything other than relaxed. It helps when you can hit a second-serve kick that the opponent doesn't even attempt to reach.

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Fashion No:

It’s possibly that I could, with time, come to accept a Hawaiian-style shirt on a tennis court, even if doesn’t make much sense in dank Paris. But I cannot also accept two, even more nonsensical, white stripes across the middle of it.

Fashion Yes:

The ball's in your court(s), Leo and Lenny.

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OOP Analysis

See Monday’s Order of Play here.

What stands out on this OOP, of course, is the sight of Rafael Nadal, the eight-time champ, on the schedule in Court Suzanne Lenglen, rather than in the main stadium, Chatrier. This has caused something of a firestorm, especially, but not exclusively, among Nadal fans. Even Isner seemed incredulous when he was asked about it: “What do you have to do to play in Chatrier?” he asked on Rafa’s behalf. 

The answer is: Play somewhere other than Paris. This isn’t the first, second, third, or even fourth time we’ve had this discussion at Roland Garros. “Lenglen-gate” is an annual feature of the French, because the tournament typically sends all of the top players to that smaller-but-not-small stadium at least once during the two weeks—Rafa was out there twice last year, and he played his opening match on that court in 2010. The reason he’s there again tomorrow may have less to do with who he is, than with who he’s playing. Schedulers will almost certainly put him in Chatrier for his second-round match, which will be against either a Frenchman, Paul-Henri Mathieu, or one of the game’s up-and-comers, Dominic Thiem. Nadal’s first-round opponent, 31-year-old Robby Ginepri, gives the schedulers a chance to get his tour of Lenglen (or one of them) out of the way early.

I like that the French mixes up the courts, gives other players a chance to experience Chatrier, and lets fans get closer to the stars in Lenglen. And it’s not as if Rafa has been adversely affected by the move in the past—the only match he has ever lost at Roland Garros came on Chatrier; he’s never even been to a fifth set in Lenglen. 

The question in this case, though, is whether a defending champion shouldn’t get to kick off the next year’s tournament in the central stadium. We have this notion because that has always been the tradition at Wimbledon. The previous year’s winner officially opens the fortnight on Centre Court; gentlemen on Monday, ladies on Tuesday. I wouldn’t mind if they let the ladies go first some year, but otherwise it’s a worthy tradition, and it gives Wimbledon’s first two days a festive sense of ceremony. The French would do well to imitate it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

As for the match itself, Nadal won his only meeting with Ginepri, on indoor hard courts in 2005. He should make it 2-0, and 60-1 in Paris, tomorrow.

Others to watch:

Novak Djokovic vs. Joao Sousa

On paper, and possibly on clay, this isn’t the easiest of first rounds for the No. 2 seed. Sousa is ranked No. 44 and can play on dirt. But in their only meeting, last year at the U.S. Open, Djokovic lost four games in three sets. Even more ominous for Sousa: He’s lost six straight first-round matches. The state of Nole’s right wrist might provide more intrigue than the score. Winner: Djokovic

Monica Puig vs. Sam Stosur

Puig is coming off a title in Strasbourg, while Stosur likes Paris, where she’s 24-10 lifetime. This should be a slugfest to see on little Court 2. The two have never played. Winner: Stosur

Dominic Thiem vs. Paul-Henri Mathieu

Talk about slugfests on little Court 2. These power-baseliners won’t pull any punches. The atmosphere around the 32-year-old Mathieu of France, and the 20-year-old Thiem of Austria, could be the day’s best. Take cover, linesmen. Winner: Mathieu

Sloane Stephens vs. Shuai Peng

We know how much everyone loves contrasts in style, but what about contrasts in attitude? We should see one here, as the scrappy Peng takes on the often-sulky Sloane. Peng has won both of their previous meetings easily, but Stephens does come to play at the majors. She has reached at least the fourth round at her last five Slams. A loss in this match could begin a tumble in the rankings for Sloane. Winner: Peng

Kei Nishikori vs. Martin Klizan

After his near-title in Madrid, Nishikori took his place among the Grand Slam contenders in many people’s eyes. We’ll see if the back injury he suffered there lets him contend in Paris. Nishikori has reached just one quarterfinal in the 17 majors he's played, and Klizan, who has been ranked as high as No. 26 and took a set from Nadal here last year, will be a test. Winner: Nishikori

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Shahar Peer

How will Bouchard react to winning her first career title on Saturday, in Germany? "With more confidence" is one possible answer; "with a letdown" is another, equally possible, answer. But she’s 3-0 against Peer. Winner: Bouchard

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For Further Reading

The New York Times comes out of the gates with “Two Extra Sets, Little Added Drama,” an article about how three-out-of-five-set matches, contrary to the opinion of some, “have little effect on outcomes in men’s tennis.”

“In the first week of [majors],” Stuart Miller of the Times writes, “when the players ranked highest are pitted against those ranked lowest, the player who wins the first two sets almost always wins the match.”

“It seems smarter to me,” Billie Jean King tells Miller, “to have all tournaments using the same format—and not to extend the time on the court four times a year. The bottom line is the way we do it now is shaving time off a guy’s career.”

Is it? As King says, the Slams force the men to play extra sets just four times each season, with days of rest in between that they don’t get at other events. And while there are injuries, we also know that players are performing better at more advanced ages than they ever have. If we're going to make a time-shortening change, I'd institute tiebreakers in all final sets at all of the majors. Matches don't get more exciting after 6-6 in the deciding set.

To drop to three-of-five on the men’s side would make the majors feel like mini, made-for-TV versions of the tournaments we’ve always known—they would lose some of the gravitas that makes them special. The Slams are by far the most popular events in the sport, so they must be doing something right. And now that we’re paying the players more, we’re also likely going to be charging fans more. Do we want to give them less tennis, too?

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