Alert: The Perrier supply at Roland Garros needs to be tested. There was obviously something in the water today at Roland Garros and whatever it was, it was toxic to the top seeds. For a heady couple of hours, the tennis galaxy of the Twittersphere was abuzz that perhaps the biggest day of upsets in the history of Grand Slam tennis could be upon us. The seed-pocalypse that began with the fall of World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka threatened to fell Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer simultaneously on Phillipe Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen, respectively. Had those seismic events happened, they would have left a hole big enough in the top half of the draw for Juan Martin del Potro to walk through...or Tomas Berdych, same difference. All three superstars (Azarenka, Djokovic and Federer) walked onto the court today heavy favorites. All three walked off the court having faced far stiffer challenges than any of them (or us) could have imagined. In the end, despite a trio of underdogs bringing the drama, it was only the highest seeded of them, 15th seeded Dominika Cibulkova, who finished the job. She helped Azarenka book a ticket back to Minsk, with a surprising victory. Here are my three thoughts from a wild and wooly day at Roland Garros.
Surviving Seppi: The entire Roland Garros complex looked for all the world as if it was channeling the old No. 2 "graveyard" court at Wimbledon today. When world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka saw her Roland Garros end unceremoniously with a 6-2, 7-6 (4) to Dominika Cibulkova, Djokovic suddenly, shockingly, Novak Djokovic found himself down two sets to love against the Italian, Andreas Seppi. It's been a roller coaster season for Djokovic to say the least. To wit, he opened it with that six hour win over rival Rafael Nadal to claim his third Australian Open title. Then he dropped back-to-back hardcourt semis to Andy Murray and John Isner at Dubai and Indian Wells, respectively. He won the big shootout in Miami, exacting a bit of revenge on Murray in the final and hasn't won a title since. The passing of his grandfather understandably got his claycourt campaign off to a rocky start. He finally lost a final to an inspired Nadal in the venerable Monte Carlo Masters. Since then, the Serb skipped the Djokov...err, Serbian Open in Belgrade, sulked his way off the smurf clay of Madrid and dropped a second final to Nadal in Rome. Djokovic's run at Roland Garros has been similarly up and down, Potito Starace tested the top seed in the first round, but after a tight set and change, Djokovic ran away with the match. 99th ranked Blaz Kavcic and 286th ranked qualifier Nicolas Devilder didn't frankly have enough game to trouble Djokovic for long. Today, on the other hand, the tables almost turned.
As they often do, the scoreline all but tells the story here, Djokovic survived the challenge of Italy's Andreas Seppi in a grind of a five set encounter 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3. Today's the kind of day when a Federer or a Nadal, maybe even a Murray, would have feasted on Djokovic. Though you would never pick him to win on paper, today's match was full opportunities missed by Seppi to do just that. Through the first two sets, the Italian held his nerve and let the player formerly known as Robo-Nole proceed in self-destruct mode. Through two sets, Djokovic's winner/unforced error ratio stood at 18:34. By comparison, Seppi was 22:26, or -4. Djokovic, alternatively, was -16. While the World No. 1 was spraying the ball long, wide and into the net; Seppi was taking advantage, breaking on two of three opportunities in the first set. It was his inability to do so at the business end of the match that ultimately led to Seppi's downfall...and to Djokovic living to fight another day. Djokovic's winner/unforced margin stayed negative, he was another uninspiring -16 through the final three sets. Seppi, -4 in the first two, decelerated wildly, finishing -34 in the last three. The pressure of the moment: the crowd, the opportunity, his own wearying body and mind ultimately began to bear down. More than four hours after they took the court (and maybe two hours after most prognosticators would have expected), Andreas Seppi finally capitulated, leaving Djokovic's shot at making Nole Slam history intact.
Djokovic wasn't playing terribly mind you, but he will have to find better stuff than he did to win, or frankly, to even be on court a week from now. Djokovic was quick to point out that he didn't play his best ball today. "It's one of those days where you don't feel just nothing is working," Djokovic said after the match. "My serve was well. But aside [from] that, I could not get into the rhythm, you know. I was fighting, and I think because of the fight I won the match." Fight will win a lot of matches, but what Djokovic brought to the court today was just, and only just, well enough to get past the 22nd seeded Seppi. A player who, despite winning the Djokovics' tournament in Belgrade a few weeks ago, doesn't have much in the way of big match bonafides. With a much tougher test in either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Stanislas Wawrinka awaiting in the quarterfinal, Djokovic is going to need that fight, plus better footwork and forehands than he had today, to play himself into position to win this event.
Go On, Goffin: 21 year old Belgian David Goffin has been whispered about in some corners of the tennis world quite a bit over the last few months, but today was our first chance to lay eyes on the prospect who ended last year just inside the ATP Top 175. In his pre-match presser, he sounded like a kid: "When I was young," Goffin reminisced, "I had a lot of pictures in my bedroom of (Roger Federer)." When he came on court, wearing the same shoes as his idol, bearing a face that will get him carded at bars until he's old enough to qualify for seniors discounts, he looked like a kid too. His unblemished record, this being his first main draw at a major, was that of a kid. When he started playing, it was clear. Goffin is all man.
Federer, likely accustomed to seeing players like Goffin, 5'11," knocking on the door of the Top 100 and in his first experience on a big stage, bow down before the Federer, saw the opposite. Goffin came out and not only won the first set, but he didn't even give the 16-time major champion one lousy break point. Not one loose game, not a string of absurd errors, nada. How disrespectful! We always say that against the very top players, the rank and file need to play almost perfect tennis to win, especially in best three of five set matches. Goffin came out doing just that, delivering just six unforced errors and winning a startling 86% of points on his first serve. We should mention that Goffin's first serves averaged between 103 and 116 MPH...he is just 5'11" after all. Goffin didn't give Federer any glimpse of daylight until deep into the second set. The number of errors increased, the serve became a touch less potent and then Goffin made a crucial error. He finally gave Federer a break point, just one. Not surprisingly, the 2009 champ converted. Apres ça, la deluge.
Yes, Federer won the match convincingly enough in the end 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4; but what we were truly struck by was the play of the Belgian in his first main draw at Roland Garros. The lucky loser from Liege (hometown of 4-time Roland Garros champion Justine Henin), saw his tournament end twice, first, when he lost in qualifying, only to receive the lucky loser entry when Gael Monfils pulled out of the event, then today against Federer. Goffin's legs seemed to give out in the third set. Under the weight of facing Federer and six matches on the Roland Garros clay, Goffin seemed to have given all he had. Federer, fit as they come, with the wind at his back, applied further pressure, he lost all of one point on serve in the third set. From there it was a formality, Federer's level wasn't as heady as it was in that full flight third set and Goffin never gave up, hitting a few stunning winners deep into the fourth set, but Federer is not a guy who coughs up leads much.
Fitness needs to be the next frontier for Goffin. "I was a little bit tired at the end," Goffin admitted. He's going to need more in the tank and on the shots to seriously contend against the top players. Given he's a player who's done next to nothing coming into Paris, we're understandably curious if Goffin is a just one week wonder, no offense to the kid-man, we've seen many before. If he's not, hopefully he can build some momentum in the coming best of three events where fitness is at less of a premium, while beginning to put in the fitness work. We've watched tennis long enough to know that great sets and 3 or 4 match runs are a dime a dozen, backing them up is where champions are made. Goffin's got the raw material, can he turn it into trophies like his idol? We'll all have to wait and see.
Certainly, Roland Garros gets "enough" daylight to be viable without electricity. Play typically continues until well past 9PM and the fact that matches are guaranteed to end by that time certainly is nice for fans who might want to do crazy things like eat dinner or see the Eiffel Tower before the lights go off for the night. That said, there is something off-putting about seeing the world's top players squinting in the darkness in a bid to finish their matches before the conditions become unplayable. Tonight, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will go to bed with a 4-2 5th set lead over Stanislas Wawrinka. Juan Martin Del Potro will similarly leave the grounds up two sets to one on Tomas Berdych, all because it was too dark for their matches to finish.
The US and Australian Opens have had lights and played night tennis for decades. Wimbledon, the other sunlight stalwart, turned on the lights in 2009, a year after the consensus Greatest Match in History between Nadal and Federer finished by the light of the scoreboard. The first Major League Baseball game under the lights happened in 1935, the first cricket game in 1952. Building a stadium is a huge investment, erecting lights could pay for itself. With lights comes a night session; with a night session comes incremental revenue, with the incremental revenue maybe the FFT could squeeze enough revenue out of Roland Garros in 14 days like the other majors...and maybe Tsonga, Wawrinka, Del Potro and Berdych could get some sleep tonight.