ROLAND GARROS: French Open week one in review – ATP Version

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Rafael Nadal’s La Decima quest has got off to a brilliant start.

I’ll call it a round-up, although this is more a feature on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s shocking first round loss with a few extra comments on those men who are performing well. Kind of. Still, it should give an overview of how things are looking.

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LEADING CONTENDERS OF THE WEEK

RAFAEL NADAL [4] may have lost to Dominic Thiem in Rome after three tournaments of clay-court dominance, but the King of Clay still began his search for a record 10th Roland Garros crown as the strong title favourite. And all he has done in his first three rounds – as breezy as flying through space – is consolidate this status. Benoit Paire was a tricky opener – a home player with the ability to play knockout tennis – but Nadal rolled past him with only the briefest of wobbles in his opening match. Robin Haase may have taken more games off him in round two (eight), but the Spaniard never looked in danger. Nevertheless, his utterly ruthless dismissal of Nikoloz Basilashvili to reach the last 16 was one of his most fantastic Parisian displays ever. Almost netting a triple bagel, Nadal set up points meticulously and flashed devastating forehands to finish them. His flat cross-court backhand proved that this shot is indeed growing stronger by the day, and his defence was effortless. Even on the few occasions he was on the back foot, Nadal looked well in control of proceedings – despite Basilashvili’s beautiful and powerful ball-striking. The 6-0 6-1 6-0 win – throughout which the Spaniard never lost focus, even when storms and rain threatened in the latter stages – sent out a clear statement of intent.

The main concern for Nadal now is whether or not he has been tested enough ahead of some potentially tricky upcoming clashes. But it must be emphasised that Basilashvili – destroyed though he was – really was not playing badly. The relaxed masterclass from the tournament’s 4th seed will further boost his confidence – and confidence, however it is gained, can only be a positive thing.

(And others who could be considered contenders…)

ANDY MURRAY [1] was overlooked by many as a French Open title contender, despite making the final last season. It is only natural. The Brit has had a poor clay-court season and year in general, losing in the fourth round of the Australian Open and saving seven match points en route to his lone title of the season. The 30-year-old has hardly looked strong in Paris, dropping a set in both of his opening rounds versus Andrey Kuznetsov and Martin Klizan – both players with groundstroke games to cause issues. Indeed, had Klizan’s head game been up to scratch, the top seed’s 6-7(3) 6-2 6-2 7-6(3) triumph could have become much closer.

Murray’s clash with Juan Martin Del Potro also had a lot to do with his opponent’s mental failings. Undoubtedly, the Argentine – who had multiple set points, including one on serve – should have taken the opener against the Scot, and when he failed to do so he spent a good while hung over the net looking like he wanted to sob. Like a burst balloon, he went from charging up the court and dictating with the forehand to dropping serve limply to open the second set – as he also did in the third. It all helped Murray en route to a 7-6(8) 7-5 6-0 win, but the Brit should still be given credit for just about his best performance of the season. His backhand was decent, he turned defence into attack and he regularly brought the goods under pressure.

The leading man in a weak half of the draw yet again – and one that has become even softer since the tournament began – it would be typically Murray to find form in time for a deep run.

NOVAK DJOKOVIC [2] is continuing to take two steps forward and one step back in his fight to return to consistent brilliance, but his new partnership with Andre Agassi heralds all sorts of promise. The two clearly have a mutual respect and understanding of each other, and the American even rearranged his schedule to come and sit courtside as Djokovic struggled with Diego Schwartzman.

The Argentine became Djokovic’s biggest test when he took a two sets to one lead over him in round three, and in some ways, the Serb was fortunate. His small 5’7” stature meant that Schwartzman had to put 110 percent into every single ball in order to produce the tennis that would jolt the defending champion, and he did that for three sets – before it caused him to run out of energy. The nonseeder became sightly limp in the aftermath, with Djokovic – who started the clash promisingly, but became a little sloppy and at times lethargic – immediately taking advantage. Nevertheless, there were positive signs for the 2nd seed. He still showcased an ability to rally consistently and read the best time to launch a surprise winner, and he kept his game face intact throughout the encounter. The 30-year-old simply never looked as though he thought he would lose, and kept his composure to soar through the final games of his 5-7 6-3 3-6 6-1 6-1 triumph.

With Agassi’s insight and calming influence, Djokovic might just be righting a wobbly ship ahead of some potentially tricky encounters.

STAN WAWRINKA [3] will do what Stan Wawrinka does, and so far that has involved entering round four in Paris without losing a set – despite an unimpressive 2017 match record thus far. As has been said before, the ultra talented Swiss star could win the title if he entered the fortnight on an eight match losing streak, and can go cold as quickly as he has flashed hot. There were no signs of a relent when he took on clay-court force Fabio Fognini, however. Wawrinka’s 7-6(2) 6-0 6-2 defeat of the man who beat Murray in Rome only recently saw him distinctly untroubled after saving set point – on Fognini’s serve – to get back on serve in the opening set.

But then, Fognini is another man who can be extremely hot one moment and extremely cold the next.

DOMINIC THIEM [6] is also yet to drop a set on the dirt of Paris, and the 2016 semifinalist has been looking mentally and physically impressive. His hyped first round collision with Bernard Tomic was done and dusted for the loss of six games, while Simone Bolelli hardly offered more resistance during their brief second round meeting. In fact, the Austrian is yet to drop more than ten games in a match after overcoming warrior Steve Johnson – the 25th seed who lost his father just three weeks ago – in a 6-1 7-6(4) 6-3 contest. Thiem’s shots were relentlessly precise in the major moments during the big-hitting clash, and should he meet Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals, he is likely to make it closer than the 6-1 6-0 drubbing he suffered at the 2nd seed’s hands in Rome.

DARK HORSE OF THE WEEK

It really has to be someone that nobody was expecting to excel, so MARIN CILIC [7] is the man. The Croat has been distinctly unimpressive all season, but has not dropped more than three games in a set throughout defeats of Ernests Gulbis, Konstantin Kravchuk and Feliciano Lopez.

This is so unexpected that it could qualify for Shock of the Week. Except there was a much bigger shock that occurred in round one…

SHOCK OF THE WEEK

Tomas Berdych and Grigor Dimitrov both stumbled early, but one result was unmatched in its unexpectedness:

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga bowing out to Renzo Olivo in round one.

There was one real, true shock, and this was it. One of the most talented players in tennis history never to win a Grand Slam (yet), Tsonga has regularly been the Frenchman to rise above the heavy pressure that greets every home player at Roland Garros. He was the hero who blitzed past Roger Federer in straight sets in 2013, who held four match points over Novak Djokovic in 2012 – and was still applauded like a king after his eventual loss.

True, he absolutely blew it in a highly winnable 2013 semifinal against David Ferrer. But if ever there was a home candidate to raise the Coupe des Mousquetaires, it was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Not this year.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. After all, it is easy to forget that Tsonga’s clay-court season was virtually non-existent. Between the birth of his first child and persistent injuries, the 31-year-old had only managed to play – before the Lyon Open – a mere four matches since winning back-to-back tournaments in February. He lost first round in Monte-Carlo, gave David Ferrer a second round walkover in Madrid and skipped Rome altogether – before signing on to the Lyon Open for some last minute match practice.

Originally, it seemed to pay off. Winning all four of his matches against opponents who were all ranked inside the world’s top 65, he crowned the week with victory in the final against world no. 14 Tomas Berdych – a player who has often given him trouble. The 7-6(5) 7-5 win last Saturday appeared to be fantastic prep for a deep Roland Garros run.

Nevertheless, Tsonga has never played an official ATP tournament the week prior to the French Open. The lone exception was the World Team Championship in 2009, which preceded a fall before the quarterfinals in Paris that year. Usually, the much-examined big-hitter would have as much time as he wished to practice in Roland Garros, to prepare mentally for the challenge and to adjust to the conditions. A full week of tennis for the first time in months, immediately followed by the biggest tournament of his season, may actually have been one of the worst scenarios for Tsonga.

Renzo Olivo, the 25-year-old Argentine who produced a shocking first round upset of France’s man, entered the tournament with a career-high ranking of no. 78, zero top ten wins and one Grand Slam match win under his belt. He had never reached an ATP final and had been competing in an ATP Challenger tournament as recently as May. But from the first point of his clash with Tsonga, he displayed a power and precision that outweighed his ranking. That was enough for Tsonga – who looked uncomfortable to begin with – to quickly become erratic, frustrated, and strangely nervous. The long story short: As Tsonga failed defensively and rushed the aggression, Olivo stayed around like a seasoned professional, pouncing on opportunities and capitalising on gifts. But most impressive was the steely mentality that many thought would eventually emerge from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. As the duo played into the virtual darkness on Tuesday night, the Frenchman made no complaint – coming from 5-2 down in the fourth set to 5-4, having broken his opponent to stay in the match. Nevertheless, just when the majority expected the world no. 11 to tighten the screws, and summon all of his experience to walk away with the victory when the match resumed… He walked onto the court on Wednesday and promptly went down three break points, which were also three match points. He would never hold serve, as Olivo – who had barely slept all night, and was psyched up like nobody could have imagined – broke for the biggest win of his career.

And at the heart of it, it was that single game – when the match was back on his racquet – which proved that something was wrong with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

For the Frenchman, it was all indeed quite simple.

“I gave what I had to give, and that’s it,” he said. “He played solid. It took some time for me to be a little bit more precise. He’s young, he’s hungry and he took his chance.”

That 12 of 16 Frenchmen lost in the first round of Roland Garros is a stark fact that cannot be overlooked as coincidental – especially considering the variety of talent bursting within this group of players. While Wimbledon’s British crowds offer unconditional love to Andy Murray and company, the grounds of the season’s second Slam often herald a pressure so heavy and suffocating that even applause and cheers can produce the opposite effect of what was intended. The Parisian crowd has a reputation after years of controversy, and certainly, their roars for Tsonga rarely seemed wholehearted during his round one struggle – and came in short supply. In general, rather than yell as their man finds himself in trouble, the crowd seemingly needs their player to look able or likely to win in order to invest energy in them. It all adds up to a feeling of overwhelming demand – the weight of which, shouldered alone, can contribute to devastation.

Tsonga was not ready to cope with the pressure this season. There was not enough time. He was not in his best form. But that does not mean that he never will be again.

 

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Thanks for reading! Who’s been your standout player so far in Paris? Anyone you think might cause an upset? Let me know in the comments section!

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