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First Ball In, 5/31: City of No Light

Saturday, May 31, 2014 /by

Paris was turned into both Epic City, and the City with No Light, on Saturday. Svetlana Kuznetsova, Gael Monfils, Guillermo Garcia Lopez, and Andrea Petkovic all went the distance, and then some, to survive. Andy Murray and Philipp Kohlschreiber went the distance and into the darkness, only to have to come back tomorrow to finish. 

For me, the men’s contests were proof again of the old-fashioned appeal of the five-set match. Like test cricket as opposed to its shorter, TV-friendly forms, a five-set tennis match has to time build, to wax and wane, to pass through phases, to start fresh again after three hours, to drive tournament referees bonkers as the sun sets. Rather than fitting into the fast pace of modern life, the format defies it.

Here’s a look back at Saturday’s marathons, and a look ahead at a few epics that may defy our personal schedules on Sunday.


Saturday Review

As I asked yesterday, has there ever been a more anticipated, and hyped, match between a 14th seed and a 23rd seed than today’s third-rounder between Gael Monfils and Fabio Fognini? La Monf vs. the Fog on Lenglen promised so much more than just a well-played tennis match. In fact, that may have been the last thing it promised.

Did it live up to its billing? Almost. The match went the requisite five sets, and the crowd favorite, Monfils, won by the appropriately baroque scores of 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, 0-6, 6-2. It took Fognini just four games to be handed a code violation for an audible obscenity, and later he gave someone in the crowd the finger. Monfils went airborne when possible, could hardly move by the end of the fourth, but rallied to win easily in the fifth. The play itself also lived up to expectations: For the most part, it veered between the dreadful and the exasperating, with a few moments of theatrical brilliance sprinkled in between. Fognini made 81 unforced errors, and their combined winner-to-error difference was -71. But the audience did the Wave, chanted for Gael all day, and was rewarded with a win, something that isn’t always the case in Paris.

Yet there was still something a little unsatisfying about this edition of Fog-Monf. We have such high expectations, and a routine 6-2 final set, with no explosions or breakdowns from either man, isn’t going to meet them. But it would have been fun to be there.


Enter the Matador

All I could think when I saw Donald Young drill his final forehand into the net at 4-5 in the fifth set was: “Welcome to DY’s world.” Frustration is a way of life for the former junior world No. 1, turned cautionary tale, turned possibly heroic reclamation case at 24. This time he put on one of the best performances of the tournament—64 winners, 57 errors—and came back from two sets down, only to fall short in the end.

If DY is a reclamation, his opponent, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, has been a revelation of late. Suddenly on the rise at 30, the lowest-key Spaniard was equally brilliant today, smacking 57 winners to 49 errors and keeping his cool in the fifth even after blowing a two-set lead. And when it was over, he stunned us with some charisma: GGL paid tribute to his surroundings—the Bullring—by holding his hand out in front of him and turning in a circle, matador style. 


City of Fading Light

If the fifth set of Monfils-Fognini left many of us a little flat, Andy Murray and Philipp Kohlschreiber were there to pick us back up. Murray, who earned more than a few comparisons to Monfils today, has a history of going berserk Court Suzanne Lenglen, and he was in rare form this time as well. 

Murray was up two sets to one and 3-0 in the fourth set, but he squandered the lead and, true to form, began grabbing his leg in the fifth. At times he appeared ready to pull the ripcord and get the grass season started early, but his competitor’s instincts wouldn’t let him off that easily. By the end he was at full, and I can only assume profane, roar.

Murray and Kohlschreiber actually got better as the last set went on and the sky darkened, before they were finally called off at 7-7. Drop shot was countered with drop shot, hammered winner countered with hammered winner. My two takeaways, neither of which is original, were (1) Murray, like Djokovic and Serena, must fight himself before he can fight his opponent; and (2) Kohlschreiber is among the most exemplary all-court ball-strikers in the game.

The two will come back tomorrow on Lenglen, after Isner vs. Berdych. That should give them plenty of time to recover, for what could be as little as two games.


Petko Doesn’t Dance

The courts were mostly monopolized by the men on Saturday, but Andrea Petkovic may have given us the day's finest few seconds. After ending what had been a dream week for her French opponent, Kristina Mladenovic, 6-4 in the third in front of a disappointed Chatrier crowd, Petkovic gave Mladenovic a hug at the net, and some consoling words as they walked to the umpire’s chair together. Even better, they looked completely heartfelt. 


OOP Analysis

See Sunday’s Order of Play here.

On Saturday, I wrote a post about how the women more than held up their end of the entertainment bargain during the first week. On Sunday, the focus in Paris will be on the men’s match that the French have been waiting for, Novak Djokovic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Two years ago, Jo let one get away against Nole after holding match points. Here’s a look at that and others to watch as the second week gets underway.

Eugenie Bouchard vs. Angelique Kerber

At the moment, you might call this angel vs. devil. Kerber won their only meeting, in three sets, at the U.S. Open last year. The winner here will be in the quarters, with a good shot at going farther.
Winner: Bouchard

John Isner vs. Tomas Berdych

Get up early for this one, the day’s opener on Lenglen. On second thought, considering who's playing, you might not need to. Berdych leads 4-2 in their head to head, but Isner finally seems to have found his feet in France. Winner: Isner

Andy Murray vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber

This will resume, when Isner and Berdych are done, at 7-7 in the fifth, with Murray serving. It’a a crapshoot, but I’ll go with the higher-ranked player.
Winner: Murray

Roger Federer vs. Ernests Gulbis

They played three times in 2010 and Federer won two of them, but each went down to the wire. Federer was testy in his last match, and Gulbis has been picking up steam in Paris. By all rights, he’s ready for a breakout win like this one at a major. But I’ll still take Federer, just because.
Winner: Federer

Novak Djokovic vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

Their 2012 quarterfinal on Chatrier was a classic and a heartbreaker, and Jo will want to avenge his cruelest defeat. But that's not the only time he's lost to him; Djokovic has won their last nine matches.
Winner: Djokovic

Maria Sharapova vs. Samantha Stosur

This could be a de facto final. Sharapova is the favorite now, but Stosur has been playing as well as anyone. One problem for the Aussie: She doesn’t like facing Maria, at all. Sharapova is 13-2 against her, and has won their last three matches in straight sets. Winner: Sharapova


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