After seeds prospered on Sunday almost without exception, Monday would seem to offer scarcely more suspense. On such days, one should scan the outer courts for unexpected pairings that may deliver more suspense, although the defending champion and one of the leading home hopes face intriguing tests to open their campaigns on Chatrier.
Li vs. Cirstea: For the second time in three years, Cirstea opens against the Roland Garros defending champion. Comfortably dismissed by Kuznetsova two years ago, the Romanian reached the quarterfinals here in 2009 past such clay luminaries as Jankovic. While she never has fulfilled her initial potential, she can pound her forehand through any surface when she measures it accurately, which she did in a straight-sets upset over Stosur in Melbourne. Falling just short of the Rome title, Li has not won a tournament since she left Paris a historic champion last year. The pressure clearly corroded her game for most of 2011, but this veteran’s composure has stabilized together with her ranking in 2012. Having found her form at just the right time, she brings momentum to Roland Garros necessary to compensate for the pressure that will accompany her from the outset. Li has remained vulnerable to early-round upsets throughout her career, however, so Cirstea could unsettle her with a torrid start.
Simon vs. Harrison: Meeting in Davis Cup this spring, they engaged in a moderately entertaining four-setter during which the Frenchman’s experience played the decisive role. A champion in Budapest and semifinalist in Monte Carlo, Simon has excelled on a surface where his game usually looks the least impressive. Unlike many of his compatriots, he seems too firm of mind to crumble under the expectations of his compatriots, although the sprawling stage of Chatrier could trigger a few nerves. Rarely showcased in such a majestic setting, Simon can expect feisty resistance from a rising American star whose progress has slowed somewhat in recent months. Far from a subtle shot-maker or a natural mover on clay, Harrison will rely on grit and a steady diet of forehands to challenge the Frenchman. He almost certainly cannot win three sets from the tenacious Simon, but he did force Murray to a fourth set at the Australian Open and can consider this match a similar learning experience.
Troicki vs. Bellucci: Not as fond of clay as his nation’s #1, Troicki has faded to the periphery of the Serbian tennis scene just a year and a half after his fifth-rubber victory clinched Serbia’s first Davis Cup title. Nevertheless, he won the first two sets from Murray here last year before fading, and the down-the-line backhand that remains his best shot could trouble Bellucci. Starting the clay season in stunning fashion with an upset over Ferrer, the lefty has accomplished little else since then on a surface where he has accumulated above-average proficiency. Like Troicki, the Brazilian struggles to hold leads and often finds his worst tennis at the most pivotal junctures of his matches, such as a three-set loss to Federer at Indian Wells. This parallel flaw should lead to an evenly balanced, if not especially picturesque, encounter. And serving connoisseurs should appreciate the contrast between Troicki’s bombs down the center, produced by an oddly arrhythmic motion, and Bellucci’s classic lefty hooks that open the court.
Makarova vs. Stephens: When she reached the Australian Open quarterfinals, Makarova spurred speculation about whether she could become the next great Russian contender. Having veered between the brilliant and the banal (or worse) repeatedly, though, she failed to capitalize upon the momentum of that breakthrough. Makarova recorded her finest career performance to date, an Eastbourne as a qualifier, on a grass surface antithetical in most respects to the clay of Paris. A formidable doubles player, she often relies on imposing serves and a capacity to finish points at the net with crisp volleys. This attacking style diverges from the counterpunching of her opponent, who just reached her first WTA semifinal at Strasbourg a few days ago. Known for smooth movement and a fluid backhand, Stephens should defend her baseline effectively but may struggle to hit through the slow surface. While the match will rest on Makarova’s racket, her teenage opponent will hope to use her keen court sense and precocious poise to ruffle the volatile Russian.
Lisicki vs. Mattek-Sands: With a bulging bundle of grass points to defend on the horizon, Lisicki needs matches to recapture her rhythm. So does her opponent, who has enjoyed more success on clay than one might imagine in view of her first-strike, high-risk style. Both women aim to construct points around overpowering serves or penetrating returns, and neither will want to venture into extended rallies. For that reason, a thoroughly atypical clay match should unfold in which two players struggle against the surface as much as each other. Before injuries most recently enforced her absence, Lisicki had developed a habit of squandering one-set leads en route to three-set defeats. Surely depleting her confidence, that demoralizing pattern sketched a competitor who lacked either the physical stamina or the mental willpower to wins wars of attrition from her opponents. One thus might favor her veteran opponent in a three-setter here, but simply reaching a third set will count as a significant achievement for the even more battered Mattek-Sands.
Giraldo vs. Falla / Dolgopolov vs. Stakhovsky: Whenever two players from the same nation and of a roughly comparable skill set collide at a major, an intriguing dynamic ensues. This dynamic should become even more intriguing when the two players essentially constitute the scope of professional tennis in their nation, as Giraldo and Falla do for Colombia and Dolgopolov and Stakhovsky do for Ukraine. Whereas the Ukrainians probably would prefer a faster court, the Colombians both have evolved into the type of clay specialist regularly produced by South America. With excellent movement and minimal power, both often falter when finishing points and look more comfortable retrieving or rallying than when they take the initiative. Much more at ease in offensive mode are Dolgopolov and Stakhovsky, all-court players who share powerful serves and a tendency towards counterintuitive, sometimes counterproductive shot selection. When the dust settles, who will rule each of these peripheral tennis powers for the day?
Seppi vs. Davydenko: Not the finest men’s match of the year from an aesthetic perspective, the Italian’s 201-minute epic victory over Wawrinka in Rome certainly ranks as one of the most dramatic. Two weeks after winning the Belgrade title, Seppi saved a match point in the second-set tiebreak, two more when Wawrinka served for the match in the third set, and three more consecutively in the third-set tiebreak. Contrary to national stereotypes, his gritty effort followed an equally resilient comeback against Isner a round earlier, when he stayed positive despite never breaking serve until the only break that he needed late in the third set. A former semifinalist at Roland Garros, Davydenko has subsided towards obscurity as age has undermined his timing, which must sparkle for his game to have any effect at all. A loser to Robert Farah and Brian Baker on clay this year, he must hope for an emotional hangover from Seppi to have a hope of outlasting him in a best-of-five format, more favorable to the patient Italian than the erratic Russian.