Pause for a moment to consider what might have happened if Seppi and Goffin both had preserved their leads over Djokovic and Federer, respectively, on Sunday. While the former led the world #1 by two sets to love, the latter edged within two points of the same margin against the 2009 champion. Had the journeyman and the lucky loser prevailed, the men’s draw would have dwindled to nothing more than Nadal’s ceremonial march to the title. But Rafa likely would prefer the opportunity to play either of his mighty archrivals for the Coupe des Mousquetaires, for he relishes the glory of a fierce battle between two opponents of spectacularly high quality. We look ahead to the type of battle that he can expect in the next round, as well as the matches of his fellow #2 and the fourth-ranked players on both Tours.
Sharapova vs. Zakopalova: Of the four players who have dominated the WTA through the first half of 2012, only one remains in Paris. Surrendering just five games in the first week of Roland Garros, Sharapova has not yet faced an opponent capable of challenging her and has watched her status as title favorite grow as other contenders have fallen. In her first career match at a major, she lost to Zakopalova in the 2003 Australian Open, but she has defeated the Czech in straight sets twice over the past twelve months, including a victory at Madrid last month. After such a commanding start to the year’s first major in Melbourne, Sharapova relaxed her focus slightly in the fourth round against Lisicki and nearly paid the price. Here, she must maintain the disciplined ferocity that has seen her unleash nearly 70 winners on this slow surface while yielding only half a dozen unforced errors per set. Even more than her vintage serving so far, those low unforced error totals will prove essential to her quest for the only major outside her trophy collection. One should not underestimate Zakopalova, who reached the second week with ultra-consistent baseline tennis and occasional bursts of power from her backhand down the line. Tormenting Serena through a three-set marathon at Roland Garros three years ago, she specializes in offering her foes repeated chances to lose the match through their own erratic play. Unlikely to either outslug or outserve Sharapova, she will test the Russian’s patience and accuracy more than her movement or defense.
Gasquet vs. Murray: Long known for scorching starts and tepid finishes, the Frenchman with the game’s most gorgeous one-handed backhand has reversed that trend in recent months. In each of his last two matches here, Gasquet lost the first set to a similarly volatile opponent, turned the tide in a close second set, and then cruised through the last two sets. When he faced Murray in Rome, a parallel narrative unfolded when he recovered from dropping an epic first set to gradually reverse the momentum before ultimately steamrolling the Scot. Few could have found this altered version of Gasquet more surprising than did the man who twice has defeated him at majors after losing the first two sets. Widely considered a far sturdier competitor, Murray has slipped back into the negative body language that his partnership with Ivan Lendl seemed likely to curb. While clay never will bring out the best from the world #4’s tennis, he has regressed on the surface following a three-semifinal campaign in 2011. Losses to Raonic, Berdych, and Gasquet revealed how his weapons struggle to penetrate the surface, and a back injury has clouded his usually supreme fitness. Injured at Roland Garros last year as well, Murray nevertheless channeled the pain-fueled sense of urgency into more aggressive court positioning and shot selection. With a berth in his first Roland Garros quarterfinal at stake, meanwhile, Gasquet may feel the pressure of Chatrier’s pulsating atmosphere, where he sagged more characteristically against Djokovic last year. Not since Wimbledon 2007 has he defeated a top-four opponent or advanced past this stage at a major, so a triumph in this winnable match would represent a remarkable breakthrough for a man more associated with remarkable breakdowns.
Lepchenko vs. Kvitova: The last American remaining in either singles draw, the Madrid quarterfinalist hopes to outlast Christina McHale by two rounds and Sloane Stephens by one. Able to do what neither of her compatriots could, Lepchenko defeating a former major champion by repeating her victory on blue clay over Schiavone. Although she failed to serve out that match at her first opportunity, the understandable wobble preceded an unexpectedly determined second surge from the underdog. Just when the 2010 titlist at Roland Garros kindled hopes of a miraculous escape, Lepchenko snuffed out those sparks with ambitious but controlled tennis. Far from a raw teenager, the 26-year-old born in Tashkent has won nearly 350 matches at ITF and WTA tournaments. Her first career appearance in the second week of a major thus may awaken fewer nerves in her, especially since Kvitova has looked vulnerable over the last few months. Forced into a third set by the largely unknown Nina Bratchikova, the Wimbledon champion has shared Sharapova’s good fortune in avoiding an early opponent who can threaten her. Kvitova’s firepower can overpower Lepchenko swiftly, as it did in Miami last year, so the underdog will need to stay positive and within range as she waits for the tall lefty to falter. Illustrated by her high rate of three-setters this year, the Czech rarely has blasted from start to finish in thoroughly dominant fashion. With Li and Sharapova likely hovering on the horizon, she cannot afford to offer those surging opponents even greater cause for confidence.
Tipsarevic vs. Almagro: Nearly a decade after turning professional, these two men meet for the first time. A contender at a quasi-elite level for much longer than Tipsarevic, Almagro has amassed a dozen career titles to the world #8’s two but shares his unfortunate fate as a talent overshadowed by a superstar from his own nation. Since all of Almagro’s titles have come on clay, including two this year, a miniature upset looks plausible over an opponent who has tailored his game for hard courts. On the other hand, Tipsarevic has distinguished himself more than the Spaniard has at the most significant clay tournaments, reaching a semifinal in Madrid and a quarterfinal in Barcelona while defeating Berdych in Dusseldorf. Carving through the depleted draw in Nice last week, Almagro fell before the quarterfinals at each of the other European clay tournaments. His decision of playing a small tournament in the week before a major raises eyebrows, for those with greater aspirations generally use that week for rest and practice. With Nadal awaiting in the next round, a victory may seem hollow for either of these players, neither of whom ever has defeated Rafa. But spectators will enjoy watching the contrast between Tipsarevic’s functional, compact groundstrokes and Almagro’s florid, elegant swings. Neither man shrinks from cracking rockets down the line when well out of position, trusting their shot-making more than their movement. Compiling a losing record at Roland Garros until this tournament, the Serb would consolidate his vast gains of the last twelve months with an unprecedented quarterfinal appearance, well beyond his pre-tournament expectations. Conversely, Almagro seeks his third quarterfinal here and will feel confident that he can do again what he has done before.
Monaco vs. Nadal: In a list of the sport’s most efficient servers, the unassuming Monaco never would rank high. Through a five-set battle with Raonic and the routine victory that preceded it, however, the Argentine reeled off an unbroken string of service holds in a rare accomplishment for a player who wins points more by building rallies than with first-strike power. Against the far more imposing Raonic, the smaller man stood his ground firmly in breaking three times and eventually trusting his fitness to prevail in an encounter that lasted over four and a half hours. Recovery from that test of endurance will loom large if Monaco hopes to compete with the six-time champion, who as usual did not drop a set in the first week. Although he looked fallible at times against another Argentine, Eduardo Schwank, Nadal has lost only 17 games at a tournament that he twice has won without surrendering a set. After Monaco thoughtfully removed the only serious pre-final obstacle in his path, the time has come for Rafa to raise his level another notch in the second week and conserve as much energy as possible before next Sunday. Winning a set from Djokovic in Rome, the Argentine must continue to strike the ball early as he did then and use his cross-court backhand to open the court. A lesser version of Ferrer in playing style, he faces the daunting task of trying to either outhit Nadal from the baseline or try to outrun him along it. The first of those options would take him well outside his comfort zone, and the latter looks virtually impossible on clay. As his two leading rivals flirt with disaster against far inferior opponents, the Spaniard has kept his mind clear and his scorelines clean in an ominous hint at what may lie ahead.