First Ball In, 5/27: Puzzle Pieces
Whether it’s a real or a random phenomenon, upsets can seem to spread like wild fire at the Grand Slams. Last year we witnessed Black Wednesday at Wimbledon; this year it looked, early on, as if Roland Garros would respond with a Black Tuesday of its own. Li Na and Grigor Dimitrov kicked things off by following yesterday’s surprise victim, Stan Wawrinka, through the exit door. But to have a true day of upsets, you need players who can actually be upset to be in action. Fortunately for Serena, Maria, Rafa, Nole, and Roger, they weren’t on the bill on Tuesday. Here’s a look at a few of those who were, and how they fared.
The biggest news, as far as the wider sports world was concerned, was Caroline Wozniacki’s first-round, three-set defeat at the hands of world No. 64 Yanina Wickmayer. Wozniacki was the 13th seed and had won six of their seven previous matches, but no matter what anyone says or writes, this loss wouldn't have been a stunner, no matter what the circumstances were. Wickmayer has been ranked in the Top 20, and she won their last meeting, in Doha earlier this year.
This match, obviously, meant something more. It was the first one Caro had played since Rory McIlroy ended their engagement last week. There will likely be people who chalk some her defeat up to the emotional strain. And there have already been plenty of writers and fans who have gone in the other direction, citing her wrist and leg injuries as the primary factors and cautioning people not to make too much of the Rory factor. I didn’t see any signs of extra physical or emotional stress from Wozniacki today. She played with the same tenacity as always, throwing a fist-pump in her opponent’s direction even when she was well behind in the third set. But, as has often been the case in recent years, her tenacity wasn’t enough to overcome her bigger-hitting opponent.
Wozniacki said afterward that she didn’t want to answer personal questions, though she did admit that the breakup “came a bit as a shock”—so much for McIlroy’s revised claim that it was “mutual." (Neil Harman of the Times of London reported that McIlroy had broken up with her by phone.) Still, while it’s wrong to believe, automatically, that Wozniacki's personal life affected her play today, it’s just as wrong to believe, automatically, that it couldn’t have had an affect.
Athletes, like anyone else, react to all kinds of things around them. After his loss today, Dimitrov mentioned that he “didn’t have the best couple of days.” Novak Djokovic told the New York Times yesterday that he draws his inspiration and emotion from off-court events. Rafael Nadal has talked about the difficulty he had focusing during his parents’ separation. McIlroy himself won the first tournament he played after the announcement. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if he said his personal situation had played a role in his good performance in some way. Maybe the golf course was a refuge for him, or maybe he came to the event with very low expectations and was able to play well because of that.
Wozniacki did what she could today. Despite losing the first set in a tight tiebreaker, she shrugged it off and won the second. She handled her presser calmly, and even managed a joke at her own expense, comparing her injured body to a car after it’s been on the road for 10 years. Wozniacki may never be No. 1 again, but she’ll always be a pro.
Sloane Back on the Range
After her 6-4, 7-6 (8) win over Shuai Peng on Tuesday, Sloane Stephens was asked why she plays better at the majors. She said she had no idea. Yet the trend so far in her career is undeniable. Stephens struggles at smaller events—she admitted today that she’s had a “rough clay-court season”—but she has reached at least the fourth round at her last five majors. Her Top 20 ranking hinges almost entirely on second-week runs at last year’s French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open.
In her two previous matches with Peng, Stephens had lost badly, but that was all in the past today. What was the difference? First, there was effort from Sloane; anyone who witnessed her brutal loss to Wozniacki in Miami in March knows that it hasn’t always been there this season.
More important, there was calm and persistence in the face of disaster. Stephens served for the match and was broken; then, in the tiebreaker, she watched as Peng saved two match points by slugging backhand winners down the line. You might have thought that after her recent troubles, Stephens would assume the worst was coming again and bow to it. Instead, down set point, she slugged a forehand winner of her own, and gritted out the breaker 10-8. Next for Sloane is Polona Hercog. They’ve never played.
Off the Dirt and Onto the Couch
“It was not only the pressure,” Stan Wawrinka said after his loss on Monday night. “It’s a different story, it’s a different picture for my career. I have to put the puzzle back together. Since winning a Grand Slam, everything is different.
“Everything goes so fine when I practice that I’m probably too demanding during the match, and I’m not happy when there are some small things not going the way I want them to go.”
Those last couple of sentences seem revealing: Wawrinka is feeling the expectations, but they’re his own, and they’re unconscious. His big wins this year haven’t just given him more confidence; they’ve turned him into a perfectionist.
That will be Wawa’s next “puzzle,” as he calls it: How to go back to accepting imperfection, accepting all of the mistakes that he's always made, and winning anyway.
See Wednesday’s Order of Play here.
First, a note: Tomorrow is kids day at Roland Garros, so be prepared to wake up to the ever-ascending cries of “Alllleeeeezzzzz!!!!!” that Pete Bodo and I spent last week lamenting. They should be especially audible on Lenglen, where Serena Williams and Roger Federer have been exiled for the day.
Serena Williams vs. Garbine Muguruza
I might be tempted to say that the hard-hitting, 20-year-old Spaniard has a puncher’s chance of rattling the American; but Serena knocked her flat, 6-2, 6-0, last year in Australia. Winner: S. Williams
Roger Federer vs. Diego Sebastian Schwartzman
The world No. 4 from Switzerland has never played the world No. 109 from Argentina. Winner: Federer
Milos Raonic vs. Jiri Vesely
Here’s an intriguing match-up between young and youngish. Vesely, a 20-year-old lefty Czech, is the former; Raonic, a 23-year-old in the Top 10, is the latter. How much do we believe in the Canadian on clay? These two never faced each other. Winner: Raonic
Alize Cornet vs. Taylor Townsend
Teen vs. (drama) queen, on Lenglen. Winner: Cornet
Benoit Paire vs. Roberto Baustista Agut
Last year’s up-and-comer takes on this year’s. Bautista Agut has had the much better season, but Paire will have the Bullring crowd. Can he play the matador against the Spaniard? Winner: Bautista Agut
Novak Djokovic vs. Jeremy Chardy
Talk about owning an opponent: Djokovic and Chardy have played 19 sets and the Serb has won them all. Winner: Djokovic
Maria Sharapova vs. Tsvetana Pironkova
Sharapova is 4-0 in their head to head, but three of those matches have been close. Winner: Sharapova
For French Open previews and thoughts on Novak Djokovic's position in Paris—plus instruction, gear, and GIFs—read this week's edition of Tennis Tuesday.
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