Early Winners and Losers at French Open 2014

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistJune 2, 2014

Early Winners and Losers at French Open 2014

0 of 10

    Roger Federer and Serena Williams were superstar casualties at the 2014 French Open. There have been plenty of other upsets, especially in the WTA, as Roland Garros gets set to host its climactic stretch.

    Find out what else steers Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic toward their seemingly inevitable final encounter.

    What other French Open rivalry has set the standard for longevity and success in the Open era?

    The following is our French Open midterm edition, where we identify the initial winners and losers. As always, we hand out the Golden Breadstick and Burnt Bagel awards in our examination of the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Winner: Gael Monfils

1 of 10

    The least we can say about Gael Monfils is that he brings flamboyant entertainment to tennis. His splash may be bigger than his grit, but for one week in Paris, he brought down the house.

    His first act was to try and impersonate Superman. He tried in vain to save a corner smash from second-round opponent Jan-Lennard Struff as he stretched out horizontally and landed sideways on the crushed brick.

    Monfils has a history of injuries, so it may not have been the wisest retrieval attempt, but it was worth the price of admission.

    Monfils also starred in a third-round French-Italian feature versus Fabio Fognini that had all the hubris of World Cup Final 2006. Well, not quite, but the similarities were striking.

    It was thrilling but filled with errors, ugly but riveting. There was machismo and frustration, capped off by Monfils' tanking of the fourth set and Fognini's well-timed medical massage and racket throw—that earned a one-point penalty.

    The only thing missing was Zinedine Zidane's heady response. And this time, France was the victor.

    After he escaped the carnage that saw 137 combined unforced errors (81 for Fognini), Monfils revealed his recovery strategy for Round 4 to the Associated Press (h/t SI.com): "I'm going to do ice bath for sure tonight and tomorrow. Will do a lot of stretching, massage, and maybe bike a little bit, try to eat good."

    We're going to help out Monfils with that last part, serving him this week's Golden Breadstick.

    After all, anyone who can exceed Fognini's dark charisma and give his home country a show, well, even New Yorkers will undoubtedly find more reason to applaud him when he heads across the pond in late summer.

Loser: Stanislas Wawrinka

2 of 10

    The Australian Open champion was booted out of the French Open's first round. So much for Stanislas Wawrinka becoming the first man since Jim Courier (1992) to take the year's first two majors.

    Wawrinka's inconsistencies are a puzzle, but how could the No. 3-ranked player look so anemic?

    Often, a rising player builds his confidence and belief. The journey to the top is a very different scenario than the pressures of staying there.

    Adversity always attacks champions, but the very greatest champions know how to dig their way out. Fatigue, injuries, challenges, media and poor play are inevitable with their various combinations of assault.

    Wawrinka had not performed as a top favorite at a Grand Slam event until this week. Now, it's back to the drawing board.

    Going forward, the Swiss Ironman will need to reassemble more than just his tennis game. If he wants to compete with the very best on a weekly basis, he must assimilate an entire new world of preparation and resilience.

    It's just not that easy to try and take the baton from the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Winner: Ernests Gulbis

3 of 10

    Tennis fans have long cast a wary eye at Ernests Gulbis. He is an unusual tennis talent with a glib sense for putting his foot in his mouth. He is entertaining, win or lose, and he told reporters he believes he can be the No. 1 player in the world.

    The Latvian just scored the biggest win of his career, defeating Roger Federer in five sets to move into the quarterfinals.

    There's no disputing that Gulbis has big tools, especially with a serve and backhand that are world-class. The question has always been his erratic forehand and combustible temperament.

    Can he be level-headed, consistent and willing to grind through adversity without busting a wall of tennis rackets?

    Can he compete for the French Open title?

    Gulbis has already moved his world ranking up four notches to No. 13. If he defeats Tomas Berdych in his next match, he will climb to No. 10. There, he would get a crack at arguably the world's best player, Novak Djokovic. Is it possible that he could...

    Let's hold that last thought and congratulate Gulbis for his latest achievement. If you ask him, he's only just getting started.

Loser: Young ATP Dark Horses

4 of 10

    Dear Grigor Dimitrov,

    We only bring up your failings because we love your tennis gifts, your earnest efforts to climb into the top 10 and your vast potential. Few athletes can fill up a highlight reel and play the kind of beautiful tennis that you do. Really, we watch eagerly for your success and hope that you will keep your head up.

    However, you did lose in the first round of the French Open. We know that Ivo Karlovic is a big server, but this is clay!

    Don't expect Wimbledon to be any easier than the 22 aces that blew by in your straight-sets defeat. You lost the match in every conceivable way as if he were Pistol Pete Sampras at SW19.

    Time to amp it up and keep going. Yeah, don't worry about this loss. Here is a bagel for consolation. We're sorry that it is burnt.


    Dear Kei Nishikori,

    Get well soon.

    May this not be the opener to our continued tennis correspondence, because we have enjoyed your fearless strokes in 2014 and through nearly two sets of the Madrid final.

    We know that your hip injury and lack of regular practice derailed your chance to win your first round-match.

    But cheer up and realize that you are a top-10 player who can look forward to bigger victories in the future. You have the athleticism to hit the ball early, so maybe your defensive work on grass will surprise the world.


    Tennis Fan

Winner: Rafael Nadal's French Open Symmetry

5 of 10

    Time to check in with Rafael Nadal's French Open historical update. After all, every match is a new mark for history. Today, we will use bilateral symmetry to examine his 62-1 record.

    From 2005-09, Nadal won 31 straight matches and four straight French Open titles before falling in the fourth round to Robin Soderling.

    From 2010-14 (through the third round), Nadal has won 31 straight matches and four straight French Open titles. He is a heavy favorite for his fourth-round match versus Dusan Lajovic.

    Let's compare both halves of the Nadal dynasty. Which run is more impressive? Was Nadal better in his early years or his latter half?

    Young Nadal was more of a defensive retriever. He was ascending the ladder to his best years and his main obstacle was rival Roger Federer, at the peak of his career.

    His early clay-court competition featured the likes Guillermo Coria, Gaston Gaudio, Carlos Moya, David Nalbandian and young Novak Djokovic.

    Prime Nadal has more offensive power and experience. He has primarily had to turn back rival Djokovic, at the peak of his career. His more recent clay-court competition has included Soderling, Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka and a contingent of Spanish players including a stronger David Ferrer.

    On the one hand, Nadal's impressive composure and championship determination during his teenage years and early 20s were extraordinary.

    While other players shrunk away from Federer, Nadal always had the strength of mind to compete with his unique skills. He grew into a champion with a self-made kind of creativity and attack that is unique to tennis history.

    But maybe Nadal's second half is more impressive. He has had to fend off various challenges, including John Isner's five-set challenge in the 2011 first round.

    There have been more opponents and blueprints that have tried in vain to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros. Most importantly, he still has a chance to extend this second wave. A fifth straight French Open title would close this conversation for good.

Loser: Top WTA Contenders

6 of 10

    Maybe the French Open's first week was a microcosm of the instability at the top of the WTA. There is plenty of quality on the women's tour, but even more inconsistency.

    Tournament favorite Serena Williams was attacked and vanquished by young Spanish player Garbine Muguruza. Serena is a great champion, but vulnerable.

    Australian Open champion Li Na lost a great chance to close in on the No. 1 ranking. Is she already fading as the faster tournament surfaces arrive?

    The falling dominoes included No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 5 Petra Kvitova and streaking Ana Ivanovic. Nine of the top 14 seeds have already been buried.

    Is the WTA deeper or has the top weakened? Several young players are challenging the top 10. Other veterans are having solid comeback years, including Ivanovic, Dominika Cibulkova and Flavia Pennetta.

    Superstars like Serena, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka have all dealt with injuries to varying degrees.

    There is no dominance in the WTA at the moment, so the second week at Roland Garros could be wild and unpredictable.

Winner: Sharapova vs. Simona

7 of 10

    The men's game is built on a foundation of rivalries. Even with all of the strong challenges, the French Open still carries a theme of Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic.

    This potential superstar clash creates more fan interest on both sides of the bracket in the journey to the final.

    The women's game needs its own series of big rivalries, and right now this potential existseven with all of the other top women falling by the wayside. We still have the possibility of the Madrid final encore, a compelling duel between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep.

    Could we get a full-fledged rivalry with these two?

    • Popular superstar Sharapova vs. young, rising star Halep.
    • Noisy offender vs. gritty defender.
    • Baseline basher vs. cerebral opportunist.

    This is the kind of marquee matchup that could capture Paris and launch itself into future Grand Slam showdowns. It would be great for women's tennis.

Loser: Roger Federer

8 of 10

    It's taken 10 years for Roger Federer to fall from second-week contention at Roland Garros. The last time things did not go as well, he was swept in the third round by hobbled clay king Gustavo Kuerten.

    A lot will be made of Federer serving to win the first two sets, up 5-3 and 40-15. There will be talk about his overhead floater that settled nicely into Ernests Gulbis' backhand zone, as if the difference between genius Federer and 2014 Federer could be told in a single point.

    More importantly, Federer lost two of the next three sets and watched his younger opponent dictate more of the terms to his victory. Federer had fewer winners (42-53) and more unforced errors (59-53).

    Unless he can call his shots, it is difficult for him to defeat top talents that are playing near their best tennis.

    That's the important point to consider about Federer and his chances at Wimbledon. If he does not serve well and finish points quickly with his forehand and net play, he will not compete for that title either.

    It's a tough challenge at SW19 regardless, but the seven-time Wimbledon champion can only be listed as a favorite—not the favorite.

Winner: Novak Djokovic

9 of 10

    There's no sign of letup in Novak Djokovic. The Serbian superstar dismantled Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets to cruise into the quarterfinals.

    Much of what drives Djokovic's hunger for the French Open title is the presence of his great rival Rafael Nadal. It has been impossible for any non-native of Tibro, Sweden, to defeat the Spaniard at Roland Garros.

    Even with Djokovic's success versus Nadal at many other venues, anything less than total concentration and Grade-A tennis could be his undoing.

    The presence of Nadal has kept Djokovic sharper, hungrier and more determined.

    In Yann Martel's Life of Pi, the protagonist, Piscine Molitor Patel, survived 227 days in the ocean on a lifeboat. He had to be more vigilant and resourceful because he shared his survival with a ferocious Bengal tiger that could turn on him in a second. It was this terrifying challenge that ultimately kept him alive.

    Will it be easier to win the French Open with Nadal in the bracket? Certainly not, but Djokovic will be less likely to lose before the final and more hardened and ready for that last match.

    He is a better player than he would otherwise be without his Spanish rival.

Bonus: Retro Rivalry with Ivan Lendl vs. Mats Wilander

10 of 10

    It's astonishing to note how difficult it is to establish a long-term rivalry at the French Open. Modern tennis fans know that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer squared off in the finals three consecutive years (2006-08).

    Otherwise, in the Open era, no pair of players has ever met even two years in a row for the French Open title.

    It's not going to happen in 2014 either, not with Nadal and David Ferrer both in the top of the bracket.

    There have been several short-term Roland Garros rivalries, but the best and most balanced long-term rivalry was between Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander.

    From 1981-1988, one of these two champions appeared every year in the finals. They each won three French Open titles and split their two appearances in the final (1985 Wilander, 1987 Lendl).

    Lendl was a fierce competitor with a stoic expression. He had the big forehand and superior power.

    In the mid-'80s, he was more fearsome and it always felt like it was his title to win or lose. He won 15 of 22 matches for their career head-to-head encounters. He defeated Wilander in Grand Slam finals twice in 1987 (French and U.S. Open).

    Wilander was cool and relaxed. He was a human backboard, consistent as any player and an underrated strategist. He loved to guide the ball from one spot to another until his opponent would weaken or die with self-inflicted errors. He also defeated Lendl more often in the Grand Slam final.

    His more patient game plan allowed him to outlast his Czech rival.

    Nadal and Novak Djokovic have had more career meetings and created one of the great rivalries in tennis history upon the strength of the last three years. However, Nadal has dominated Roland Garros to keep anyone from stepping up to his level.

    When will we again see a French Open rivalry with the balance and success that Lendl and Wilander showed? Nadal and Djokovic have a long ways to go for a long-term rivalry in Paris.


    Note: Wilander defeated Lendl in three Grand Slam finals on three different surfaces: Australian Open grass in 1983, French Open clay in 1985, U.S. Open hard courts in 1988. Neither player would win Wimbledon.