Three down, four to go; two down, five to go. Such thoughts must hover in the minds of Djokovic and Sharapova as they pursue their quest for the career Grand Slam. On the last day of the first week, one of these 25-year-olds hopes to follow the other into the tournament’s more dramatic phase. Also aiming for the second week are two French men, two American women, and three former champions. We leave Nadal vs. Schwank to your imaginations while focuing on the more contested matches.
Tipsarevic vs. Benneteau: During a Roland Garros especially fertile for the French, the first week concludes with one of their aging heroes facing the eighth seed on Chatrier. In only one of eight matches on this major’s largest arena has a home hope fallen short, and Mahut greatly surpassed expectations in his defeat there by extending Federer to the brink of a fifth set. Six years ago, Benneteau defeated Tipsarevic at this tournament in their only previous meeting. But the Serb has evolved into a far more dangerous competitor, sharing the Frenchman’s strengths of bold, underestimated serving and a fierce backhand down the line. The highlight of Benneteau’s career to date came when he stunned Federer at the Paris Indoors, which suggests the emotional surge that he gains from playing on home soil. Confronted with another Frenchman in the previous round, though, Tipsarevic wasted little time in declaring his superiority as he eased through in straight sets. A mature, feisty character, he should let neither the scale of the venue nor the hostility of the crowd ruffle him.
Sharapova vs. Peng: After a total of 108 brutal minutes quelled her first two challengers, the world #2 faces an opponent somewhat more worthy of her steel. Dominant on serve so far, Sharapova faces an opponent with a crisper return who has earned success against her before. While Peng’s only victory came a day after the Russian survived a three-hour epic against Azarenka, she also won a set in their Indian Wells quarterfinal last year. Unable to sustain her momentum from a 2011 breakthrough, she lost more routinely when they met at Wimbledon and has not ventured deep into any significant draw this year. Meanwhile, Sharapova has become a model of consistency by reaching five finals in seven 2012 tournaments and the second week at six of her last seven majors. Unless Peng prevents her from stepping inside the baseline with deep groundstrokes, she will take valuable time away from the double-fister by striking the ball early and targeting the gaps created by her point-starting shots. Chatrier does offer retrievers more room to scramble than does Lenglen, where Sharapova played her first two matches, so she may need to focus a little longer as she requires an extra blow or two to finish rallies.
Li vs. McHale: Almost as dismissive as Sharapova, Li has surrendered just five games in her first two matches, which have lasted less than two hours. Any suspicion that the defending champion might crack under early pressure has proved irrelevant, for she has encountered no pressure at all. More likely to pose a modest threat is one of three Americans remaining in the women’s draw. Dropping her first set of the tournament, McHale has improved steadily thereafter on a surface that rewards her consistency. When she encountered an opponent of a similar playing style at the Australian Open, however, she lost decisively to Jankovic in a match that revealed her uncertainty when forced to take the initiative in rallies. Full of confidence against the leading contenders, McHale never has progressed past this round at a major. She should target Li’s forehand early in this match to test a stroke that can hemorrhage errors without warning. Outside exploiting that chronic weakness, few tactics can help her outlast a player more powerful and equally steady with each stroke.
Haas vs. Gasquet: In a clash between a sentimental favorite and a home hope, viewers can observe two of the ATP’s more graceful games. Both Haas and Gasquet craft rather than hammer winners, using placement and timing more than brute force. Having advanced through the qualifying draw, the German has won five matches already at this tournament, awakening memories of his improbable charge to the Wimbledon semifinals in 2009. Three years removed from that accomplishment, Haas has lost only one set in his first two main-draw matches, including a vintage effort against Stakhovsky. His stamina may fade as the week progresses and the grinding rallies accumulated, but fortunately for him his opponent does not fancy the protracted exchanges typical of clay. Not known for his patience or tenacity, Gasquet usually prefers the stirring winner over the high part of the net to the safer alternative. On the other hand, he has shown more tenacity in a different sense lately by rallying from one-set deficits to defeat Bellucci in Madrid, Murray in Rome, and Dimitrov here. More likely to mount a comeback than Haas, Gasquet perhaps can afford to let the veteran drain his energies early in the match—and then pounce once a lull descends.
Kanepi vs. Wozniacki: Although she lacks the sliding ability of a natural mover on clay, the former world #1 benefits from the defensive opportunities provided by the slower surface, as her two routine victories have illustrated. With just one Roland Garros quarterfinal appearance, though, Wozniacki struggles to muster the power essential to hit through it. Quite the opposite, her burly opponent can unleash the necessary pace to strike winners on clay but cannot maintain a similar consistency in rallies. Before she began the slide that has dropped her to world #9, the Dane could have handled erratic, one-dimensional opponents like Kanepi with ease. Less able to contain them over the past year, she split her two 2011 collisions with the Estonian. When Kanepi finds her first serve, she can make any court look small. If Wozniacki can lengthen points beyond three or four shots, the advantage shifts back to her.
Schiavone vs. Lepchenko: Almost overnight, the American burst onto the international scene by reaching the quarterfinals in Madrid, where she defeated none other than the 2010 Roland Garros champion. Not content to rest on those laurels, Lepchenko then battled for more than three hours to topple Jankovic, another player who has compiled impressive accomplishments on clay. Like Jankovic, Schiavone has endured a season filled with disappointments since reaching the semifinal at her first tournament of the year in Brisbane. The Italian can collect motivation from two sources here, however: her memories of this fortnight two years ago and the finalist points that she must defend to avoid a rankings plunge. When she reached the final two years ago, in fact, Schiavone had not excelled during the preceding weeks. As she eyes a berth in the second week, one must conclude that she becomes a different player on these courts, clinging to traces of her magic from 2010.
Giraldo vs. Murray: Even in the best of times, Murray tends to hobble around the court grimacing and looking generally at odds with the world. This week, recurring back spasms extended an injury that has nagged him throughout the clay season, nearly forcing him to retire early in the second round. Persevering much as he did last year with a similar injury, Murray has played some of his most assertive tennis in these situations, finding the sense of urgency that he lacks when his fitness allows him to outlast opponents. Many observers wish that the Scot could translate that urgency to his healthier moments, but for now the main question concerns his competitive status for Wimbledon and the Olympics. As those events of greater personal significance lurk in his mind, Murray might consider stepping back to evaluate his priorities. And yet a competitor of his stubbornness rarely operates so rationally, suggesting that Giraldo cannot expect too tepid a performance. Nor can he grow distracted by any medical intermissions or disturbing body language from Murray, for his ordinary playing style—crafted for long rallies and high mileage—seems well designed to test the Scot’s aching frame.
Monaco vs. Raonic: Vying for the unenviable reward of a rendezvous with Nadal are these two contrasting stylists who have showcased arguably their best tennis this year. After Monaco marched all the way to the Miami semifinals, an ankle injury paused his progress only briefly as a courageous three-set loss to Djokovic in Rome showed. A champion at two clay tournaments this year, he faces another serial titlist in 2012 who has achieved his best results on hard courts for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, Raonic imposed his fast-surface brand of tennis on clay in Barcelona, where he defeated Murray en route to the semifinals and there dragged Ferrer through two tiebreaks. His ability to compete so relentlessly against the personification of clay specialists will have emboldened Raonic as he prepares for a somewhat similar challenge. Like the Spaniard, Monaco will aim to pin the serving machine into his backhand corner with his inside-out forehand. In Miami, his passing shots frustrated the forecourt assaults of Roddick and Fish, so the equally aggressive Raonic will want to choose his approach shots carefully. For a neutral fan, the prospect of the Canadian’s massive power offers a much more intriguing fourth-round test for Nadal than does Monaco’s counterpunching. Not without reason, some have suggested that no pre-final opponent other than Raonic can compete with Rafa here, so one hopes that he can prevail if only to preserve the faintest hint of intrigue in the bottom half.