The ninth day of action at the 2014 French Open is full of compelling storylines as fourth-round play continues to unfold at Roland Garros.
Eight-time tournament champion and top seed Rafael Nadal is seeking to keep his momentum going strong against young upstart Dusan Lajovic, while former women's world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic will battle formidable 10th seed Sara Errani in a pair of intriguing matchups.
However, there are even more interesting matches on tap for Monday at the season's second Grand Slam tournament based on what's transpired thus far. Several standout performers still alive are experiencing bounce-back efforts after facing prior adversity and will help shape the narratives behind the marquee Day 9 fixtures.
Here is a look at the best showdowns slated for Monday, as the prospective winners will claim berths in the quarterfinals.
David Ferrer (5) vs. Kevin Anderson (19)
Still in search of his maiden Grand Slam title, Ferrer is a victim of playing in an era with legendary contemporaries such as Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Their impeccable consistency has hindered Ferrer's efforts to triumph on the grandest stages in tennis.
It would be easy for Ferrer to view falling short of the title all the time as a disappointment, yet he seems to have an optimistic outlook, per Roland Garros' official Twitter account:
Ferrer lost last year's French Open final to Nadal in straight sets and was no match for his Spanish compatriot. A rematch with Nadal looms if he wins this clash with Anderson, but that's no guarantee at all.
A towering frame allows Anderson to generate a ton of racket speed with his massive arc, giving him an intimidating serve and rare explosiveness.
Unfortunately, two early 2014 finals appearances for Anderson have been followed by disappointing tennis. Never before has he advanced to a major quarterfinal, though he has to have a bit of vengeance in his mind after getting bounced by Ferrer at Roland Garros in Round 4 last year.
The aforementioned encounter saw Ferrer dominate by a score of 6-3, 6-1, 6-1. Anderson hit 25 winners to 41 unforced errors and managed to win just 56 percent of his first-serve points despite hitting 71 percent of his first serves in play (h/t RolandGarros.com).
In order to even compete this time around, the underdog Anderson must be more willing to grind out long rallies and deploy serve-and-volley strategies more often. Despite his edge in power, Anderson came to the net just 12 times in three sets in 2013.
Anderson's best skills are mitigated on the slower clay surface. That works to Ferrer's advantage, as he is already exceptional in covering the court—perhaps the best this side of Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray in the ATP.
Based on how lopsided their last meeting was, it stands to reason that Ferrer will advance in straight sets again. But Anderson should put up far more of a fight now that he's had experience against this particular opponent at this advanced stage of a Grand Slam.
Prediction: Ferrer wins, 6-4, 2-6, 7-6, 7-5
Simona Halep (4) vs. Sloane Stephens (15)
This is a crossroads match for two of the most promising young stars in women's tennis. Halep, 22, has achieved a career-best No. 4 WTA ranking and has maintained steady progress since breaking through with six singles titles last season.
But there is a certain amount of pressure on Halep, perhaps somewhat unexpected, since she is the highest remaining seed in the women's draw.
As for Stephens, 21, she has largely disappointed as the next potential big name to emerge from the U.S. Despite not winning a singles title yet, though, something about the Grand Slams seems to bring out the best in Stephens, as she finds herself alive late in the tournament.
Baseline Buzz: Can Stephens take out Halep? http://t.co/LHTNuRN2TT— espnwnews (@espnWnews) June 1, 2014
The three-match winning streak Stephens is on at Roland Garros matches her longest of the 2014 season, which occurred at the Australian Open before losing to Victoria Azarenka. Stephens has a game featuring immense power and great athleticism, allowing her to translate her skills to any type of court.
Sports Illustrated's Courtney Nguyen highlights how difficult Stephens has been to take out in tennis' marquee events:
Quite a stat: Four of Sloane Stephens' last five Slam losses came to players ranked No. 1 or No. 2.— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) June 1, 2014
Naila-Jean Meyers of The New York Times reported what Stephens had to say about her inability to rise to the occasion at regular WTA events after her third-round victory over Ekaterina Makarova.
"If I knew, I would capitalize on it," said Stephens. "I would do it every week. I would, you know, make the most of it. But I guess it’s all just a learning experience. Rather this than anything else, so it’s O.K. for now."
Whoever comes out on top in this match will be favored in the quarterfinals, facing the winner of Lucie Safarova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both of whom are seeded in the 20s. That makes it all the more critical for Halep or Stephens to capitalize on the golden chance ahead of them.
Neither Halep nor Stephens have dropped a set in Paris, making the two even trickier to distinguish. Consistency has plagued Stephens in the past, though, and Halep has demonstrated the chops to close out a tournament that Stephens has only shown in flashes.
The uncanny ability Halep has shown to hit winners from unlikely positions due to her innate anticipation should be enough to throw Stephens off her game and gather momentum as the match wears on. Both players can play from behind the baseline well, but Stephens is just a little rawer in her development. This will be another learning experience for her—of the three-set variety—in one of the better matches at Roland Garros.
Prediction: Halep wins, 6-4, 5-7, 6-2
Andy Murray (7) vs. Fernando Verdasco (24)
Even though Murray is the clear big name in this one, Verdasco can't be dismissed. Although he's likely approaching the twilight of his career at age 30, the Spaniard is a former top-10 player in the world who's made it to the quarterfinals in every Grand Slam except the French Open.
With this being Verdasco's fifth trip to the fourth round, he figures to break through at once. Murray is not the same player he's been as one of the elite men's superstars in recent years, still shaking off the rust and getting back into top form after back surgery in September 2013.
It took him five sets to get through Round 3, but Murray found a way to advance against a determined Philipp Kohlschreiber, needing a marathon 12-10 decisive set to get it done. With that frame knotted at seven games apiece on Saturday, play was suspended due to darkness, forcing the reigning Wimbledon champion to take the court again Sunday.
Murray shared his thoughts once he finally closed out his persistent adversary, per ATPWorldTour.com:
Physically in the fifth set I was struggling. I was cramping. So I was disappointed obviously that I wasn't able to finish in four sets. But at the same time, stopping the match probably helped me a little bit, because if I had played seven or eight more games, probably wouldn't have been great.
Today was a pretty high standard, I thought. Probably the best standard of the match I think from both of us. He came up with some great shots when he was behind in games today. I thought both of us served a little bit better. It was a good finish to the match.
This number from ESPN Stats & Info appears all the more pertinent in light of Verdasco being seeded 24th:
Andy Murray wins a 5-set match at the French Open. He's still never lost to player seeded outside top 25 at a Grand Slam.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 1, 2014
Pablo Cuevas pushed Verdasco to five sets in Round 2 in winning the first two, so both of these players will be fighting some form of fatigue, with Verdasco also dealing with advanced age as well.
Which lower seed is most likely to win on Monday?
The clash of styles on display between Murray and Verdasco will be fascinating. As much pace as Murray is capable of generating when he's on, he can't put quite the topspin Verdasco boasts, which makes it all the more difficult to deal with on clay. But Murray has superior fitness and should be able to extend points and get into long rallies with Verdasco, whose aggressive tactics tend to backfire over the course of a five-set match when that's the case.
Look for Murray to be on the offensive, though, as he'll want to close this one out as quickly as possible and rest up ahead of the quarterfinals. Verdasco will claim one set, but Murray will prevail in four.
Prediction: Murray wins, 6-3, 6-7, 7-5, 6-4
The French Open has never been Murray's strong suit, as it's the only Grand Slam in which he hasn't at least reached the final. Continuing this Roland Garros run as long as possible will be invaluable for his confidence moving forward as he reasserts himself as one of the best players in the game. Especially with local talent Gael Monfils or an unseeded opponent waiting in the quarterfinals, Murray will have a great shot at enhancing his result in Paris far more than most anticipated.
As talented as Anderson, Stephens and Murray are, all three of them haven't quite lived up to expectations. Now they all can continue their redemptive hot streaks on Monday with wins. Only Murray can get it done as a favorite. It's up to Stephens to continue stepping up and for Anderson to make the proper tweaks to contend against the reigning finalist Ferrer.