Well, nobody didn’t see that one coming. The French Open final everyone expected came to fruition, with world No. 1 Rafael Nadal and world No. 2 Novak Djokovic vying for the title. Along the way, however, more than a few scripts were flipped. Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka shortened his name and then shortened his stay at Roland Garros, Nadal’s eighth of the draw opened wider than the Red Sea, and Ernests Gulbis made noise with both his mouth and his racket (well, not in that sense with his racket)
It was a tournament that ultimately yielded an expected result, but it was also one worth reliving. The Grandstand’s Ricky Dimon, Steen Kirby of Tennis East Coast, and Joey Hanf of The Tennis Nerds have a roundtable discussion focusing on the 2014 French Open’s unheralded stars, matches, and moments.
Ricky: Alright guys, we know about another title for Nadal, another near-miss for Djokovic, Gulbis’ win over Roger Federer and thrashing of Tomas Berdych, and Andy Murray’s somewhat bizarre trek to the semifinals, but give me one less-recognized name–either an up-and-comer or just anyone who deserves further recognition for what they did at Roland Garros…and why.
Steen: I think the obvious choice here is Dusan Lajovic, who is both an up-and-comer and did something no other non-veteran player did—reach the second week of Roland Garros. Lajovic had the luck of facing three opponents who were not highly ranked (Federico Delbonis, Jurgen Zopp, and Jack Sock) to get there, but he impressively did not drop a single set in any of those matches. That’s clutch for someone with only four ATP-level wins prior to this season and just one previous slam main-draw appearance (this year in Australia, where he advanced one round as a qualifier). At 23 and by partial virtue of the career falls of Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki, Lajovic is now the No. 2 Serb behind Djokovic and I still don’t think he has gotten much attention from fans or the press.
Joey: Dutzee had a great tournament, no doubt about that. But the player who stood out for me was Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. His win over Wawrinka in the first round was comprehensive, if not dominant. He lost only two games in the last two sets to take out the Australian Open champion. Often times when players pull off big time upsets like this, they suffer a mental letdown and crash out of the tournament soon after. However, Garcia-Lopez showed us that he was for real, beating Adrian Mannarino in four before grinding out a five-setter against Donald Young in the third round. At 31 years old, GGL reached the round of 16 at a Grand Slam for the first time in his career.
Ricky: That GGL-Young match was awesome. It’s true that a five-set win on clay against Young is not a particularly impressive scoreline on paper for any Spaniard, but make no mistake about it: GGL had to bring his ‘A’ game on that day, otherwise he would have had no shot. I was extremely impressed with Young; both his game and his attitude. He did not throw in the towel after losing the first two sets in quick fashion, something the Young of previous years and maybe even recent months would have done. There was no outburst when he ultimately lost and he even signed an autograph or two before exiting. That’s not the Donald Young of old. The quality of this match, especially late in a tight fourth set and throughout the fifth, was impressive. I don’t think Young’s game is big enough for him to become the Top 10 player everyone tipped him to be 10 years ago, but his athleticism and ball-striking should definitely be enough to get him in the top 30—hopefully to stay for a while.
Ricky: On that note, by recent American standards this was a solid fortnight (yes, one man did in fact reach the second week) on the red clay of Roland Garros.
Steen: I liked the continual improvement I saw from Steve Johnson, who has now earned himself a spot in the ATP top 70 and made it past the first round of a slam for just the second time in his career (in eight total slam main-draw appearances). Additionally, he did it on clay—his weakest surface—and he did it by winning in five sets over a French player (Laurent Lokoli) in a spirited performance from two sets down with match points saved. Although Johnson fell to Sock in the next round, things seem bright the former University of Southern California star, especially this summer when tournaments return to his favored hard-court surface in North America. The way he played in Paris with the mental strength and technical improvements will translate across surfaces. The things I noticed better with Johnson were his movement, his forehand (already his biggest weapon) and the fact he didn’t get tight under pressure—including on serve. Coming out of success in college tennis, he now seems to be finding his feet in the pro game.
Joey: John Isner went relatively under the radar in Paris. I really liked the way he took care of business against the dangerous Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the first round. The Frenchman had the crowd rocking, but Isner played well in key moments to win that one in straight sets. He then proceeded to Mikhail Kukushkin in four even though he wasn’t playing his best tennis. Isner really fought his way through that one. And then clearly his best win came against the ageless Tommy Robredo, who absolutely loves clay. For Isner to take out Robredo in four sets was not only impressive, but also encouraging. It must be noted that Robredo committed a mere 11 unforced errors in four sets…and still lost! With all the tiebreakers he plays, he can wear himself out pretty fast—which showed in his 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Berdych. Still, an American man reached the second week of Roland Garros. Can we ask for much more?
Ricky: We can’t. As for France, they can still ask for a first French Open champion since Yannick Noah in 1983. But they could not have asked for much more from this particular installment of the tournament. Gael Monfils entertained on the dance floor (with Lokoli) then treated fans with even more excitement during a quarterfinal run despite “dying” in the third round against Fabio Fognini.
Gilles Simon could not quite pull off an upset of Milos Raonic, but that five-setter made for arguably the best atmosphere of the entire event. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won three matches, which based on current form and his draw (Djokovic’s eighth) was his absolute max. Richard Gasquet won just two matches, but he was in complete warrior mode just to get through those two. No other tournament outside of a major would have seen Gasquet, who was suffering from a back injury, even show up. Julien Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin also captured a surprise doubles title. And of course there was the Benneteau vs. Facundo Bagnis marathon.
Steen: Bagnis really rose to the occasion in that one. Benneteau had been 4-0 in previous French Open five-set matches, but he finally lost one—18-16 in the fifth to Bagnis, a 24-year-old Argentine. The Frenchman was awful the first two sets, losing them 6-1, 6-2 before turning things around by winning the next two frames 6-1, 6-3. It looked like Benneteau would roll in the fifth, but Bagnis somehow fought back…and then fought through cramps and saved break points in the fifth to eventually break and hold to win in what was a deciding set that tied for the most games played in French Open history. It was a clutch performance and Bagnis has given himself something of a status on tour thanks to this single match. He has yet to crack the Top 100 in his career, but he is well on his way.
Ricky: What other matches stood out, not necessarily a great individual performance but an enticing head-to-head contest that flew under the radar?
Joey: The first round seems like years ago, but Mikhail Youzhny’s comeback win over Pablo Carreno Busta was mightily impressive. The up-and-coming Spaniard took the first two sets easily and looked to be rolling into the last 64. But once Youzhny got the break in the third, the entire match changed. The Russian really started to get emotionally invested (don’t worry, no self-punishment took place), and it paid off for him. PCB actually played strong from start to finish, but Youzhny showed us once again that you can never count him out of a best-of-five match. The finished it off with an unreal backhand pass, and as you can imagine, he was pretty excited about it. The victory gave us another one of his signature Soldier Salute celebrations, and let’s hope he stays on tour a while longer for a few more.
Steen: I’d like to mention a trio of matches. First, Fernando Verdasco avoided another slam choke like the one he endured at the Australian Open this year (against Teymuraz Gabashvili in the second round) by coming back from two sets down to defeat the formerly solid clay-courter Pablo Cuevas 4-6, 6-7(6), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. Cuevas started strong, but the underdog ran out of gas because of conditioning issues. It wasn’t supposed to be as close as it was, but it was an interesting result. Additionally, the third-round showing by Martin Klizan was notable. He clinically upset Kei Nishikori in straight sets and then won a topsy-turvy five-set battle with Robin Haase. Klizan plunged from a promising player to one with seemingly dim career prospects in the span of about one year, but he has had a much better 2014 and his clay swing was especially productive. Perhaps he can build on this third-round finish and get back to being an ATP regular.
Ricky: Verdasco-Murray was kind of a hilarious match. It had everything (aside from a fourth or fifth set), with wild rallies, Verdasco calling the supervisor in protest of a Pascal Maria decision, Murray conceding a point, and Verdasco blasting a ball right at his opponent late in the match only to give way to bromance at the net for the post-match handshake. Murray was outstandingly aggressive for two sets then went into moonball mode in the third; both strategies were enough to get the job done and hold off an inspired Spaniar, who never let up physically or emotionally. The match even extended to the interviews, during which Verdasco said of Maria: “He’s not the kind of umpire I get along with. I can tell you that.” Said Murray, when asked if this was his best performance of the tournament: “I think so. Unbelievable atmosphere today. I really enjoyed myself on the court. We played some great points and he fought extremely hard in the third set.”
Ricky: Let’s wrap it up with a memorable moment.
Steen: For my moment, check out Marinko Matosevic celebrating his first Grand Slam main draw win in 13 tries. Surprisingly, he did it on clay—his weakest surface. He also managed to get it done in four sets despite a near-epic collapse that almost forced him into a fifth. Matosevic is a polarizing player to put it mildly, but it’s always nice to see a guy get over some sort of hump with which he has been struggling for quite some time.
Joey: I’ll go with Monfils’ near-death plea to the chair umpire at the start of his fifth set against Fognini. “Fuck. Oh fuck. It’s like I’m dying. Shit. I’m collapsing.” That whole match was a moment in itself, but it was pretty hilarious to hear La Monf say that was “dying” on court…only to then come back and win the match! Gael the entertainer was on display once again, and he gave the crowd exactly what it wanted.
Ricky: Gonna go with the Djokovic racket smash.
Djokovic outscoring Gulbis of all people in the racket-smashing department and doing so in a match that Djokovic won and Gulbis lost may have been the biggest upset of the tournament. It invoked memories of Federer’s racket decimation at the 2009 Miami event (ironically, against Djokovic). You just don’t see those two champions channel their Gulbises, Ivanisevics, and Safins. But this incident kind of encapsulated the 2014 French Open. It was a French Open that seemed to be more wide open than ever since the onset of the Nadal era, but for almost everyone (with a few exceptions like Gulbis, GGL, and Murray to an extent) other than the world No. 1 it ultimately resulted in nothing more than frustration.