Day 4 French Open blog: Paire & Herbert amaze; Dellien steals the show

Day 4 French Open blog: Paire & Herbert amaze; Dellien steals the show

Plus: At 28, Petra Martic and her subtly stylish game are finally having their moment. How long can she make it last in Paris?

On Day 4 at Roland Garros, Steve Tignor meandered through the schedule and wrote about the matches and moments that caught his eye.

Benoit Paire and Pierre-Hugues Herbert marched, exhausted, into the twilight together on Wednesday night at Roland Garros. But their shots never ceased to amaze

When the schedule was made for Wednesday at Roland Garros, some of us pointed to the closing contest in Court Suzanne Lenglen, between Benoit Paire and Pierre-Hugues Herbert, and said it was a five-setter waiting to happen. This was a match between two French veterans, each of whom has been playing well in recent months, at their home Slam. One of them, Herbert, had come back from two sets down to win in the first round, while the other, Paire, has never been what you would call a rock-solid closer, to put it mildly. How could it be anything other than an epic?

We were right—Herbert made another stirring comeback, even as Paire made an unbelievable but entirely predictable near-collapse. But I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the drama of these four hours and 33 minutes, or the level of play that the two friends reached together over the final three sets. For sheer number of jaw-dropping rallies, it’s going to be hard to top Paire’s 6-2, 6-2, 5-7, 6-7 (6), 11-9 win this season.

As the scores indicate, this one began as a blowout. Paire was coming off a title run the previous weekend in Lyon, and he picked up where he left off in Paris. With clutch serving, big backhand returns, and his usual array of did-he-really-just-try-that? drop shots, Paire completely dominated the first two and a half sets. This legendary hothead was so good, so consistent and so calm that one commentator, Jimmy Arias, referred to him as “methodical” and “relentless.” Those aren’t words that you hear in the same sentence with Benoit Paire very often, but they made sense today.

Until he reached the finish line, that is.

There had been signs of nerves from Paire: A double fault here—he would finish with 13 of them—and a strangely errant forehand there. But when Herbert received medical treatment in the third set, he appeared ready to throw in the towel. The only problem was that Paire couldn’t catch it. Despite numerous opportunities to go up a double break in the third, Paire couldn’t deliver the dagger—he missed one return on a break point at 4-2 by millimeters.

Those misses soon came back to haunt Paire: He was broken, out nowhere, for 3-4, broken again when he served for the match at 5-4, and broken a third time, at love, for the set. The fourth set went much the same way: Paire went up 5-3, but was broken again when he served for the match. He had no trouble opening the door to a win, but something in his mind wouldn’t let him walk through it.

Paire has been the source of amusement and occasional ridicule over the years, for his rampant racquet smashing, his “I hate Wimbledon” comments, his less than stellar efforts, his multiple hair colors. But there was nothing funny about this performance; to see him fight, futilely, against his nerves was painful.

The match, and Paire’s pain, reach twin peaks of ridiculousness and sublimity in the fourth-set tiebreak. First came the sublime: At 6-5, match point for Paire, Herbert was forced to hit a difficult forehand volley; what he came up with, a short-angle winner, was one of the best match-point-saving shots you’ll ever see—the ball simply died an inch inside the sideline:

Two points later, though, came the ridiculous: Paire tried yet another drop shot, and Herbert responded with a backhand pass down the line that ticked the tape, bounced over Paire’s racquet, and dropped inside the baseline. The match was square at two sets all:

When Paire went down 0-2 in the fifth, it looked as if the tennis gods had turned against him for good. Instead, he was about to be cast in a new role: The hothead would become the hero. Paire broke back, and the two men marched, exhausted, into twilight together. Five-all, 6-all, 7-all, 8-all, 9-all: the games went by with increasing swiftness, but the rallies never ceased to amaze. How many perfect defensive lobs, deft drop shots, crisply placed volleys, and long slides into the corners, did these two make? Between them, they hit 132 winners—84 for Paire, 48 for Herbert.

The only thing the match lacked was a fan favorite and a villain; two Frenchmen playing at Roland Garros always has the feel of a family affair, in which neither side wants the other to lose. In this case, that ambivalence just allowed us to enjoy the points themselves all the more. Paire began the 10-9 game with one more brilliant lob—he was at the door again. This time, Herbert couldn’t keep him out; his final forehand sailed a few inches wide:

When it was over, Paire and Herbert put their heads on each other’s shoulders at the net, and the crowd roared in response. Like the match itself, its end couldn’t be anything less than epic.

At 28, Petra Martic and her subtly stylish game are finally having their moment. How long can she make it last in Paris?

Petra Martic is a player fit for a tennis aficionado.

She doesn’t blast the ball at one speed. Instead, she guides it carefully around the court, changing pace, spin, and depth from one swing to the next.

She doesn’t hit a screaming winner into the corner on one shot, and then belt the next ball 10 feet long. Instead, she creates a rhythm to her rallies, with just enough variety to keep them interesting and unpredictable. At the same time, she’s not a preening drop-shot machine, either; everything Martic does has a subtle purpose, and isn’t simply for show.

She doesn’t pound her feet around the court; instead, she moves with subtle economy, especially on clay. Whenever possible, she finds a way to slide into the ball, even on regulation baseline shots. It gives her game a flow and makes one shot feel connected to the next.

All of Martic’s quietly stylish attributes were on display on Wednesday in Court Suzanne Lenglen, where she played circles around France’s Kiki Mladenovic in a 65-minute, 6-2, 6-1 win. An audience that began the match in high spirits, and ready to root for the hime favorite, was somberly silent by its end.

“I’m feeling good, I’m confident,” the 28-year-old Croat said with an easy smile that made her words sound entirely believable.

After a decade on tour, is Martic finally having her moment? It has been a long time coming. I can remember watching her make a run to the fourth round at Roland Garros in 2012 and thinking we were going to see much more of the same from her, and very soon. Injuries, including a back problem that seemed destined to end her career, kept that from happening. But even when she was ranked as low as No. 662 in 2017, Martic never lost faith in her ability, or doubted her future in the sport. In her mind, she had no choice.

“When I got injured, I really believed that my best years were still to come for me,” Martic told David Kane at last month.

“You have to believe because that’s all you have in that moment. Once you lose that, you’re basically done. I really love this sport, and I couldn’t accept that it was going to be over when I got injured.”

Martic’s faith, and a playing style that may have needed more time than normal to mature, has taken her from No. 662 in 2017 to a career-high No. 28 this spring. In April, she reached the semifinals in Charleston, won her first WTA title in Istanbul, and won the tour’s Player of the Month award. She followed that with a quarterfinal appearance in Madrid.

“From Charleston on, things really started changing,” Martic told “I’m living the best days of my career now.”

The biggest of those days so far will come on Friday, when she’ll face No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova. It won’t be an easy ask: Pliskova is also on a hot streak, she beat Martic in straight sets in Miami two months ago, and her power may be too much for Martic’s finesse, even on clay. But the Croat does own a win over the Czech, at Wimbledon six years ago.

“I’m playing well for a while now,” Martic said on Wednesday. “The pressure will be on Karolina.”

Martic has come a long way, and been through a lot, since she last won a third-round match at Roland Garros. Tennis lovers like me will take our chances to watch her when we can get them.

Stefanos Tsitsipas won the match, but Bolivia’s Hugo Dellien stole the show in the Greenhouse

It’s a good bet that most of the 4,000 or so fans who trooped out to the new Court des Serres (Simone Mathieu) at Roland Garros early on Wednesday were drawn by the chance to catch a glimpse of Stefanos Tsitsipas in action. The 20-year-old Greek, who has trained in Paris, has the kind of dramatic flair and self-regarding charisma that any French tennis fan could love. Seeing his wiry frame and well-whipped one-handed backhand on these courts can bring back memories of one of the city’s ultimate foreign-born fan favorites, Gustavo Kuerten.

But when the fans arrived at the Greenhouse, and Tsitsipas’ second-round match began, their heads slowly started to turn to the other side of the net. That’s where Hugo Dellien was standing, and where he was winning most of the early points with a game that was every bit as entertaining as Tsitsipas’.

Dellien cuts an unlikely figure. He’s 25, he’s only 5’10’’, and he’s from Bolivia, a country with no history of international tennis success; in fact, Dellien’s first-round win at Roland Garros this week was the first for a Bolivian since 1984. The idea of a Bolivian rising up the ranks on the pro tour had seemed so preposterous that Dellien himself quit the sport in 2016 to start an ice business with his father back home.

But business wasn’t great, and the dream wouldn’t die. When younger players from home asked him why someone with his talent had quit, he didn’t have a good answer.

“I was sending a message to the kids that it’s impossible, and nobody is leaving Bolivia,” Dellien told this week. “I set out to get where I had to go. It didn’t matter how.”

In 2017, Dellien began training again in Mexico. In 2018, he traveled the Challenger tour. In 2019, he was ready for the show, at least on clay; this year he has reached the quarterfinals in Rio, Sao Paulo and Geneva.

On Wednesday, Dellien won the first set from Tsitsipas. By the middle of the match, his enthusiastic mix of speed, touch—his forehand drop shot is a world-class weapon—and baseline power had turned him into the surprise crowd favorite. Even after Tsitsipas regained control in the second and third sets, Dellien didn’t go away. He went up 4-2 in the fourth, and saved three match points from 0-40 down at 4-5.

But if Dellien showed off his flash on Wednesday, Tsitsipas showed his substance. There are plenty of shot-makers among the younger ATP set these days, but when adversity strikes, they often struggle to respond, or to change tactics. With his comeback in the fourth set, Tsitsipas found a way to win without his best, and to stop Dellien’s seemingly unstoppable momentum.

The most important moment for Tsitsipas came when he was serving at 1-3, 30-40. Losing that point would have put him down a double break, and likely lost him the set. So Tsitsipas tried something different. He kicked in his serve, followed it forward, and crowded the net. Dellien, who hadn’t been missing much, put his return tamely into the net. Tsitsipas had lived to fight another game, and it was enough to secure him a 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 victory.

Yet the day, and the week, was a win for Dellien and his country as well. It’s not often that you see the loser of a match tear off his wrist-band and toss it into a cheering crowd of people. But that’s what Dellien did as he walked off to a loud ovation in the Greenhouse. He’d earned it, and he had made Tsitsipas earn it, too.