First Ball In, 5/26: First the Drizzle, Then the Fizzle
There will be days when I'll wish I were in Paris this year to cover the French Open live, and then...there will be days like this. Dark clouds, chilly wind, and buckets of rain are as much as a part of the city in spring as flowers, cafés, and those accordions you never actually hear when you're there. Here’s a look, from back in sunny, 80-degree, holiday New York, at how the tournament and its players muddled through on Monday.
The Aussie-French double: Have you ever heard anyone mention it? If not, there’s a good reason. In the last three decades, it has been nearly as rare as a calendar-year Grand Slam. Serena, Roger, Rafa, Novak, Justine—none of those future Hall-of-Famers have pulled it off. The last woman to do it was Jennifer Capriati in 2001; the last man was Jim Courier in 1992. The one year that Rafael Nadal won the Aussie, 2009, was the only year in the last nine that he failed to win at the French.
Courier’s record is safe for another year, as Stan Wawrinka went out—tepidly, lamely, in the end a little sadly—to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2, 6-0. Garcia-Lopez was a difficult draw; the 30-year-old Spaniard has been ranked as high as No. 23, and he’s had a strong spring on clay. But Wawrinka didn’t show any of the will and inspiration that he had shown in Melbourne and Monte Carlo this year. By the fourth set he had let a dispute with chair umpire Cedric Mourier—they’ve tangled before—agitate him unnecessarily.
Judging from this loss and his two recent early losses in Madrid and Rome, it looks like Wawrinka, despite his recent improvements, will remain an inspiration player. Unlike the other guys in the Top 5, the guys who have spent years there, Stan is fundamentally inconsistent; he committed 62 unforced errors today, often at the most crucial moments. This season, in beating Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer—opponents against which he had little to lose—Wawrinka played with a special sense of purpose. Today, against Garcia-Lopez, without a mountain to climb, and with virtually no fan energy late on a rainy day in Chatrier, Stan couldn’t summon anything like that sense of purpose again.
The upshot is that Wawrinka’s quarter has been thrown wide open; the three highest seeds after him are Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet, and Fabio Fognini. With so many players now seriously vying for the semis, this will make every match in that section feel important. As long as everyone forgets that the likely reward is a semifinal date with Rafael Nadal.
The day’s second biggest surprise, at least on paper, came in the Bullring, where Martin Klizan ousted ninth-seeded Kei Nishikori, 7-6 (4), 6-1, 6-2. Nishikori was injured in Madrid, and still appeared to be carrying the injury today—he said beforehand that he was “90 percent,” but afterward admitted that he “knew this would happen.” Klizan is a former member of the Top 30 and a guy with a 10-3 record on clay this year. But injury or no injury, tough draw or no tough draw, the 24-year-old Nishikori has now played 18 majors and reached the quarterfinals once.
Dealing with Success
Progress on tour these days is rarely a straight line upward. It’s more likely to be a long series of stops and starts—Grigor Dimitrov, rather than Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal, is the model of the up-and-comer now. Dimitrov's rise from junior phenom to Top 15 pro was predictable in the long run, but he's still not totally reliable.
On the women’s side, the same may be true for Eugenie Bouchard and Monica Puig over the next few years. Both are 20 years old, both won their first WTA titles on Saturday—Bouchard in Nürnberg, Puig in Strasbourg—and they both played their first-round matches on Monday.
They even played for the same number of minutes in those matches: 58. Though that's where their paths diverged. Previewing their opening rounds yesterday, I said Bouchard and Puig might react to their breakthrough wins either “with more confidence,” or “with a letdown." For Bouchard, who beat Shahar Peer 6-0, 6-2, it was the former. For Puig, who lost to Sam Stosur 6-1, 6-1, it was the latter.
Of course, their competition made a difference. Stosur is a Slam winner, while Bouchard was already 3-0 against Peer. Can Bouchard take a few more steps forward in Paris? Judging by her draw, it looks possible. She has Julia Georges next, and is in Angelique Kerber’s section.
The New Bag Man
That would be the memorably named Facundo Bagnis of Argentina, who won his first Grand Slam match today. He did it in style, too, 18-16 in the fifth set over Julien Benneteau. It was a gutsy performance by Bagnis, but how about for the rest of us? Long matches like this become hot topics on Twitter, but are they entertaining to watch? I submit, for at least the millionth time, that a fifth-set tiebreaker would have been the proper, sane, and more exciting climax to this one.
See Tuesday’s Order of Play here.
Ana Ivanovic vs. Caroline Garcia
Two of the dark horses of the women's draw will face each other right away—good for us, if not for them. Ivanovic has played great tennis this spring; can she keep it up in front of a Chatrier crowd that will be against her on Tuesday? Winner: Ivanovic
Richard Gasquet vs. Bernard Tomic
Let the post-Wawrinka scramble for the semis begin; these two are in the quarter he just exited. Tomic, inspired by his father’s ban from the grounds at Wimbledon, beat Gasquet on Centre Court last year. It’s hard to imagine the Aussie, now ranked 80th, repeating that performance here. Winner: Gasquet
Sloane Stephens vs. Shuai Peng
We love contrasts in style, but how about contrasts in attitude? That’s what we may get from the scrappy Peng and the often-sulky Sloane, whose first-rounder was postponed on Monday. Peng has won their two previous matches easily, but Sloane does get up for the big ones. She’s reached at least the fourth round at her last five Slams. She’ll need to do it again to avoid the start of a rankings slide. Winner: Peng
Nicolas Almagro vs. Jack Sock
Your side-court slugfest for the day. Almagro beat Sock in a tough four-setter at the U.S. Open two years ago. Winner: Almagro
Li Na vs. Kristina Mladenovic
Can Li shake the Melbourne curse that did Wawrinka in today? She'll start against an occasionally-dangerous Frenchwoman on Lenglen. Winner: Li
Caroline Wozniacki vs. Yanina Wickmayer
Because you won’t be able to avoid it. Winner: Wickmayer
For Further Reading
We hear a lot about court speed, but how do you measure it? Carl Bialik of FiveThirtyEight tags along with the ITF team that's assigned to do it for Davis Cup and Fed Cup ties. It’s a cumbersome, difficult process, but the technology has begun to make it a little easier than it once was.
The ITF doesn’t measure speed at tour events, and the people Bialik quotes say they don’t have enough data to say whether the courts have, as most people believe, been slowed down over the years. Most interesting to me is that the players often confuse a difference in bounce for a difference in speed—the lower the bounce, the faster the court is perceived to be. This may help explain why the pros say Wimbledon’s grass is slower than it once was, while the groundskeeping staff there maintains that it’s only the bounce, which is higher with the “new” all-rye turf, that has changed since the 1990s.
It’s Memorial Day in the USA, one of our more schizophrenic holidays. On one hand, it’s a day of somber remembrance of wars past and soldiers fallen; on the other hand, it’s a day of...barbecues.
Summer, unofficially, has begun.
Perhaps because of both things—the somber and the summer—I had the song below in my head for much of the day.