French Open: Fourth round recap and quarter-final preview

4 Jun

Tennis fans received a rare treat today, when two of the game’s best one-handed backhand-toting titans squared off in the fourth round of the French Open. Through five punishing sets, Frenchman Richard Gasquet and Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka pushed each other to the brink. In the end, Wawrinka overcame a two-set deficit to edge his Gasquet and reach his first quarter-final on the red dirt at Roland Garros.

This match was, in many ways, everything we hoped it would be: fiercely competitive, characterized by incredible – at times breathtaking – skill, and incredible endurance and focus from each contestant. Each player pushed the other to the limit, physically, mentally and emotionally.

For Gasquet fans, like your correspondent, today’s fourth round encounter was also impressive in the sense that the Frenchman found yet another way to disappoint his supporters. Not only did he let a two sets to love lead slip away, but he squandered two break points at 5-all in the final set. Capitalizing on either one would have set him up to serve for the match and a show-down in his first French Open quarter-final, against defending champ and king of clay Rafael Nadal. Instead, Gasquet bowed out with a whimper, losing his serve at 15, at 6-7 in the fifth.

With fourth-round action squarely behind us, chatter on the quarter-finals has come roaring into view. So, let’s take a look at, and run thru, the match-ups.

Federer (2) – Tsonga (6)

Among the more talked-about match-ups is Swiss maestro Roger Federer’s clash with French number one and home-town favourite, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who has looked dominant in his first four matches at Roland Garros, having yet to surrender a single set. The Frenchman is 0-1 career against Fed in clay-court matches, losing 4-6, 2-6 against Fed in the French Open tune-up in Rome in 2011. However, as many tennis fans will recall, he has taken out the legendary Swiss on a big stage before, coming from a two-set deficit to stun Federer in the Wimbledon quarters two years ago. Although the French crowd will likely pull for Federer – with whom they remain deeply enamored, despite his Swiss passport – there will also be a strong, pro-Tsonga contingent, the animation of which will only increase if the Frenchman (who, incidentally, resides in Switzerland) comes out hot, and pushes Fed into a prolonged slugfest.

This match really could go either way. I think an important factor will be the serve, namely which player maintains a higher first-serve percentage. Fitness shouldn’t be an issue. Tsonga is as fresh as a daisy, and, Federer, despite requiring five sets to come thru against Frenchman Gilles Simon in the previous round, had an easy go of it in his opening three matches and should be at full force come match time. Fed will need to remain aggressive, and come in to net when he can, to keep the pressure on Tsonga, though that would provide the Frenchman with an opportunity to build momentum and confidence, and dampen Fed’s bravado, by hitting a series of difficult passing shots. What Fed cannot afford to do is get put on the defensive, and spend points running from one end of the baseline to the other retrieving Tsonga’s forehands. This would not only allow the Frenchman to find his rhythm and start to believe he can win; it could also take Fed’s legs away and make it difficult for him to shift tactics to a more aggressive style of play later in the match.

In the end, I expect Fed to get the job done in four tense sets, filled with incredible shot-making and tantalizing rallies. Then again, the Swiss is my favourite athlete of all-time. So, I confess to a healthy degree of bias in making this call. And, again, I would not be surprised if Tsonga got the job done.

Djokovic (1) – Haas (12)

This match has a beautiful storyline. Tommy Haas is 35-years-old, and has finally reached the French quarter-finals after twelve attempts. Haas is an incredible talent. His career has seen numerous ups-and-downs, with injuries and personal tragedy preventing him from becoming a mainstay in the top ten and competing for major titles. In May 2002, Haas reached number two in the world, when his parents got into a serious car accident that nearly killed both of them. Haas took much of the rest of the year off to help oversee his parents’ recovery. By the time Haas returned full-time to the Tour, in 2004, Federer had asserted his stranglehold on the upper-echelon of the men’s game. Since then, injury troubles have squelched the Germans various bids to reassert himself as a premier player, despite a smattering of impressive results and various ascents up the rankings. After suffering an injury in 2010, Haas appeared headed out of the game in late 2011, with his ranking having dipped below 100. However, he reasserted himself during the clay-court swing, and, in Halle, Germany, in a grass-court Wimbledon tune-up, stunned Roger Federer to capture his first title in three years. Haas built on this success with solid, consistent play during the remainder of the year and into 2013, returning to the top 20 following a victory over world number one Djokovic on the hard-court in Miami (tennis’ biggest non-major tournament), where he reached the semi-final.

Haas’ experience thus far at this year’s French has mirrored the dramatics of his career, more broadly. In the third round, after going up two sets to love on American John Isner, Haas squandered twelve match points in the fourth set (yes, twelve), and found himself down a break, at 2-4, in the fifth and decisive set. Somehow, summoning the strength and mental fortitude that has helped him pull thru difficult moments both on and off the court for years, Haas fought back and closed out the match 10-8. With many questioning whether or not Haas would recover physically in-time to defeat Mikhail Youzhny in the next round, the German put all doubt to rest by dropping only five games en route to a fourth round drubbing of the wily Russian veteran.

Now, Haas finds himself toe-to-toe once again with Djokovic. A win over the Serb, who is the world’s top-ranked player and looking to complete the career grand-slam by capturing the crown on the dirt at Roland Garros, would allow Haas to do something he has never done before: reach a French Open semi-final. The road to his first major final would still be incredibly difficult, requiring, most likely (see next section) him to overcome Nadal, who is all but infallible on clay, and still more heroics to capture his first major title, as doing so would necessitate a victory over Fed, Tsonga or Spanish marathon man, David Ferrer (I don’t give Robredo any chance of making the final; see final section).

In terms of tactics, Haas needs to take the match to Djokovic. He can’t afford to simply stay back at the baseline and get lured into long rallies. Djokovic, who is in perfect physical condition and basically does not miss shots, would love nothing more than to ground it out from the back of the court until Haas’ legs give out. Instead, Haas needs to show the balanced aggression and dynamic shot-making that has underpinned his return to the top of the men’s game. He should look to come into net, and force Djokovic to execute difficult passing shots, while also mixing-up angles and spins to prevent the Serb from finding a rhythm. Only by taking Djokovic out of his comfort zone does Haas stand a chance to overcome the world number one and reach his first French semi-final. In the end, although I expect a great match and high-quality play from both ends, I don’t expect Djokovic to have too much trouble, and predict him to come thru in three sets.

Nadal (3) – Wawrinka (9)

Nadal, the undisputed King of Clay, is coming into full form, having dispatched Japan’s Kei Nishikori – who has achieved his highest career ranking, 15, and had performed impressively in reaching the final 16 in Paris – in three sets that can at best (from Kishikori’s perspective) be described as routine. Rafa seems to have shaken off a slow start that saw him drop the opening sets of his first two rounds, against journeymen, and to be capturing the form that has earned him a record seven French Open titles and an astonishing 56-1 record on the red clay of Roland Garros. On the other side of the coin is Wawrinka, who is playing the best tennis of his career, and pulled off an extraordinary comeback to see off French number two Richard Gasquet (see above). He seems confident, collected and hungry to reach his first major semi-final, to prove to the world that there is more than one Swiss tenista worth discussing.

Unfortunately – and with due respect to my fellow Balke Bro and to Stani, himself – I expect the Swiss number two to be bludgeoned by the Spanish Toro. We’ve seen this act before. A few weeks ago, Wawrinka was fresh off a victory in Lisbon and had advanced to his second career ATP Masters Series 1000 (ie, the tournaments one rung below the majors) final, in Madrid. The Swiss seemed poised to collect the greatest triumph of his career. Sadly for the Swiss, he came up against the wrecking ball that is Rafa on clay, and dropped two non-competitive sets in a 2-6, 4-6 drudging at the hands of the Spaniard. Now, the Wawrinka-Nadal quarter-final should undoubtedly produce spectacular tennis, and Wawrinka’s big game could pose trouble for the lefty from Mallorca. Indeed, it was the power game of Swede Robin Soderling that led to Rafa’s one and only early exit from Roland Garros, a three-round bloodbath that left tennis watchers stunned. Wawrinka’s big strokes position him well to try to replicate Soderling’s aggression. Moreover, possessing, as he does, one of the game’s best one-handed backhands will give the Swiss a chance to neutralize Rafa’s greatest tactical asset on the clay: the high, heavy cross-court forehand that gives righties fits. Still – and though I feel the rein of a million Balke Bro-therly blows crashing down upon me as I type this – I don’t see Nadal having any trouble advancing to his eighth French Open semi-final. Rafa in three.

Ferrer (4) – Robredo (32)

Now that the hard work is done, we can move along to Ferrer-Robredo. (To the extent they exist) Balke Bros readers know that I have no love for Tommy Robredo. Despite the stoicism and impressive poise the Spaniard has displayed in coming back from a two set to love deficit not once, not twice, but an astonishing three times thus far this fortnite, it brings me tremendous pain watching the Spanish righty do his thing on-court. Heading into Robredo’s fourth-round match-up against fellow Spaniard Nicolás Almagro, I didn’t think it would prove possible for me to become any less enchanted with the former than I already was. Somehow, he proved me wrong.

Many have implored me to give credit to the Spaniard for his repeated refusal to quit in the face of defeat.

My response? I couldn’t be less compelled.

Sure, it’s immensely impressive that Robredo somehow continues to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but is it no less impressive the way in which his opponents – Monfils in the third round and Almagro in the fourth – continued to hand over the victory, refusing, as they did, to clamp down as the win came into view? The story of Robredo’s run during this fortnite says less about his own merits than about the shortcomings of his opponents.

What gives? How has the oh-so-pedestrian Tommy Robredo managed to reach the quarter-finals of this year’s French Open Championships? Are we in 2005, when he was a baller, inside the top five and someone with whom to be reckoned, not only on the clay at Stade Roland Garros, but on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows and Melbourne, as well?

The answer is, decidedly, no.

Look, here’s the deal. Credit is due to Robredo. It’s incredibly tough to come back from two sets down, let alone to do it twice in one tournament, LET ALONE TO DO IT TWICE IN A ROW! But, his game is still offensively boring, mixing in, as he does, neutralizing top-spin one-handed backhands with unimpressive though non-attackable slices. No one, with the exception of Robredo’s twenty-four fans (also known as the Spaniard’s extended family), wants to see that.

Or, do they? I’ve been chastised by certain, tennis-following acquaintances for my unsparing disparagement of Robredo’s tennis abilities, and of his dignity and broader character. It’s unclear to me from whence sprang my deep distaste for this viscerally unoffensive dirt-baller from the Isthmus. But, who cares? He’s now robbed us of a Monfils-Almagro fourth round, and of an Almagro-Ferrer quarter. For those who fancy contrasting styles, engaging play and compelling personality, this is a lamentable development, which, at a minimum, merits condemnation on a largely unread blog, such as ours.

So, here’s to Tommy Robredo, our rightfully unheralded Spanish rightie, the unlikely heroics of whom at this year’s French have robbed tennis fans everywhere of far more compelling second-week match-ups. A sliver of me hopes he wins the whole damn thing, particularly if that means preventing Rafa from capturing an unprecedented eighth French Open crown in his wake. Come to think of it – go, Roberdo!

Actually, nevermind: Ferrer in three.

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