Roland Garros Men's Quarterfinals: Experience and Maturity Still Count

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IJune 1, 2009

PARIS - MAY 27:  Nikolay Davydenko of Russia looks on during his Men's Singles Second Round match against Diego Junqueira of Argentina on day four of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 27, 2009 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

With the losses of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal in the French Open, attention has very swiftly turned to the following group of top-ten rankers such as Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, and Gael Monfils.

However, there’s a group of older players progressing quietly through the early rounds towards the sharp end of this tournament who have been more than happy to let the youngsters take the limelight.

Now, though, four of the eight quarterfinalists are drawn from those mature men, and they can avoid the spotlight no longer.

In the top half of the draw, Nikolay Davydenko has come back from numerous injuries to take some really notable scalps in Paris. He is still ranked No. 11 in the world, but slipped out of the top five this year for almost the first time since he climbed to No. 3 in 2006.

However, at Roland Garros, he has taken out Stanislas Wawrinka—hotly tipped to make it to the quarters himself—and Fernando Verdasco—one of the most improved players in the men’s tour this year.

The latter victory was achieved in straight sets, which is impressive form from the diminutive Russian who turns 28 this week. He must really fancy his chances against Robin Soderling, as long as the Swede leaves some of his Nadal-beating form at home.

Fernando Gonzalez will be 29 in July, yet is producing some of the best clay court tennis of his life.

He slipped to No. 25 almost exactly a year ago, but has crept his way up the rankings to No. 12 over recent months, with the sort of dogged determination that sees any match loss as a prod to work yet harder.

Gonzalez has hit a purple patch since February when he won his home tournament in Chile and reached the semis in Barcelona and Rome.

Because he made it to the quarterfinals in Paris last year, he will be highly motivated by the target of a semi place this year. Murray stands in his way, so the Chilean will have to summon up all his aggression to achieve that target.

In the bottom half of the draw, Tommy Robredo, at 27, is also showing good form through the first half of the year.

Robredo had two early wins and a semi place on the south American clay swing, and made the quarters in Barcelona and Acapulco. He then struggled with an injury during the Masters clay period, but has hit back with a vengeance at Roland Garros.

This is now his ninth year in the top 30 and he still appears to be hungry for the challenge. Is a top 10 place beyond him? Probably, and with del Potro in the next round, it will be a tall order indeed to advance in Paris.

But the Spaniard is a real asset to the aesthetics of the game, a fluid and elegant mover able to command enough variety of shot to lift the spirits of the most jaded spectator.

An honorable mention should be made, in passing, about Robredo’s victim in the last 16, Philipp Kohlschreiber, who will hit 26 in the autumn.

A slow-maturing German who has sat around the lower 30s for a couple of years, he has very gradually clawed up a few places to No. 31. He has now done everyone in the lower half of the draw a huge favor in taking out Djokovic, and in straight sets.

Kohlshcreiber is defending no points in Roland Garros, so reaching the fourth found will propel him well into the ranking 20s. A just reward for this particular performance and for very slowly fulfilling his potential.

There could have been another member of the "old guard" in the quarters had Andy Roddick held his composure during a difficult match against Monfils.

Everything conspired to get under Roddick’s skin when he might well have expected, on recent form, to win this match.

The crowd, the slow and slippery surface, and the dying light favoured the Monfils game, which is powered by huge serving and remarkable defence. He was pumped up, and Roddick was ground down—a rarity for the most committed American on the tour.

It’s now nearly six years since Roddick, 28 in August, held the No. 1 spot, yet this season he’s thrown himself with renewed energy into his fitness and tactical game.

This has helped him creep from No. 8 at the beginning of the year to world No. 6 now. What’s more, he has progressed further at Roland Garros than ever before, and will add ranking points, though to no avail with the accelerating del Potro just above him.

The most outstanding match of the fourth round threw together the flashing rackets and cheekbones of Roger Federer—fast approaching 28—and Tommy Haas, a deceptively fit 31.

Both men have spent years on the tour, with differing fortunes. They have in common that the Swiss is the current No. 2, while Haas is a former No. 2, and on the evidence of this match, he deserves to be far higher in the rankings than his injury-bedevilled No. 63.

A top-10 player for much of 2007, he clearly relishes the prospect of hitting those heights once more in the autumn of his career. Haas’ problem is that there are dozens of hungry players who have a good 10 years’ advantage over him in the way.

Haas gave the aspiring champion a terrific run for his money, and matched Federer for fitness, serving and ground strokes. With a similar build and bearing to Federer, the German very nearly matches the Swiss in the grace department, too. But it will be Federer who flies the flag for the mature men in the last quarterfinal.

What are the chances of the semis being contested by four 27-plus men?
Well in all honesty, very slim.

Del Potro must be a hot favourite against Robredo, and Murray the likely winner against Gonzalez. But there is a decent prospect of Federer beating Monfils and of Davydenko getting the better of Soderling.

So let’s hear it for the “oldies”. They keep the pace quick, they play passionately, and they bring a richness and variety to the tour. And at Roland Garros at least, they are keeping the “young guns” on their toes.