As has been the case at the 2014 French Open, highly ranked players ran the gamut of outcomes on Day 11, from breezy dominance to hard-fought escapes to upset exits.
In men's and women's singles play, five players with top-10 seeds took the courts—two against each other in a top-five clash of fellow countrymen. Only three emerged from the four matches, as top-seeded Rafael Nadal downed No. 5 David Ferrer on the men's side, while No. 28 Andrea Petkovic took down 10th-seeded Sara Errani in straight sets.
As Simona Halep cruised through her quarterfinal match and Andy Murray struggled through his, the story of this French Open became as clear as ever: The stars are on display, but as the semis loom, any of them can easily fall.
|(7) Andy Murray||(24) Gael Monfils||6-4, 6-1, 4-6, 1-6, 6-0|
|(1) Rafael Nadal||(5) David Ferrer||4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1|
|(28) Andrea Petkovic||(10) Sara Errani||6-2, 6-2|
|(4) Simona Halep||(27) Svetlana Kuznetsova||6-2, 6-2|
The Trials of Andy Murray
Roland Garros has turned into an endurance test for the pride of England.
On May 31, his third-round match with Philipp Kohlschreiber stood at a 7-7 tie in the fifth set when bad light delayed the finish. A day had passed and a new month began when Murray finally prevailed, 12-10, in the clincher to advance on June 1, but the next day, he immediately faced Fernando Verdasco to stick to the tourney schedule. Murray advanced in straight sets before finally getting a much-needed rest day.
That brings us to Day 11 and Gael Monfils, which featured Murray alternately having his way, laboring in discomfort and taking over again.
After two increasingly easy sets to start the match, Murray's weekend began catching up with him. As Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times noticed, Murray repeatedly reached for his left thigh as he lost his grasp on the match and Monfils battled back:
Andy Murray definitely seems to be bothered by his left thigh. Has been holding it several times after points. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 4, 2014
Whatever pain Murray was experiencing turned out to be a non-factor by the fifth set, as he turned on a dime from floundering to unstoppable, sweeping the Frenchman, 6-0, as if nothing had been wrong at all.
As head-scratching as the match was, it inspires confidence that Murray is back to his usual self for the semis. He'll have to be, since he'll draw the toughest opponent ever to set foot on clay.
Nadal's Comfort Zone
Rafa Nadal does not lose on clay, but Ferrer rarely does, either. Between his superb mobility and his pinpoint accuracy, Ferrer has an ideal skill set to play this surface, lacking just a bit of the raw ability that made Nadal a legend at Roland Garros.
When Nadal is healthy and at peak performance, taking just one set off him on clay is a major feat. That's all Ferrer got, turning one break into a first-set win before falling in short order thereafter.
And Rafa made it very short order, racing a setting sun to get this match finished on the day it started. So as not to face the same inconvenience Murray did following his third round, Nadal picked up the pace as he retook and built his lead, with Ferrer helpless to adjust and stem the flow of the match:
For the first time in the history of planet Earth, Rafael Nadal is in a rush.— Tumaini (@tumcarayol) June 4, 2014
It's not how Nadal usually plays, but he looked more than comfortable playing more quickly given the circumstances. As long as he's on clay, that's all that matters, which means Murray must be at full strength in the next round to even stand a chance.
Down Goes Sara Errani
After the top three women's seeds all fell before the third round—a first at a Grand Slam in the Open era—this truly became anyone's tournament to win.
For Errani, who excels at positioning herself on clay and who appeared in the French Open finals in 2012, a window was open for her win it all. Playing on her preferred surface against a decimated field, she could not ask for a better draw.
Yet there's a reason so many upsets have occurred at Roland Garros: Clay play is a matter of endurance, and anyone playing at less than 100 percent is going to suffer.
Following her quarterfinal defeat, Errani admitted what everyone watching could see: She did not have the energy to compete with Petkovic.
Sara Errani says lack of energy was the problem, doesn't rule out that her feudings with Italian media this week may have drained her. #RG14— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) June 4, 2014
It was clear Petkovic knew it, playing the aggressor throughout the match as Errani failed repeatedly to make her pay. Very quickly Petkovic's breaks of Errani's serve started to feel like the norm rather than surprise outcomes, and a potential French champ went down without incident.
Petkovic dictated the entire match and played well, but this was more a matter of running into the right opponent at the right time. She can't count on conditions being so favorable next time.
Can Anyone Stop Halep?
Just as easily as Petkovic ousted Errani, Halep did away with Svetlana Kuznetsova—though that was to be expected.
Save for maybe (and just maybe) Maria Sharapova, Halep is playing the best tennis of any woman at Roland Garros. Kuznetsova had her time as a force on the women's circuit, but she is no challenge for Halep at this point in their respective careers.
Halep's game is hell on clay, and this quarterfinal, like the four matches before it, showed that no one seems to have any answer:
In case you haven't noticed, Simona Halep may just be the quietest buzzsaw in tennis: pic.twitter.com/CNOzsohEsu— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) June 4, 2014
She gets to many balls that even high-caliber players would let pass for winners, and she hits with deceptive power that surprises opponents; the ball doesn't explode off the racquet, so it's unexpectedly silent as it drives hard into the deadening clay, sneaking fast and low past the would-be returner.
In the semis, the aggressive play that Petkovic used to take down Errani will not work against Halep. She'll parry the attacks without much difficulty, and she can turn the tables and take the action at Petkovic without leaving herself prone to getting beat on passing shots.
Her result against Kuznetsova is what we have come to expect from Halep at this French Open, and for that reason, it's instructive. As she heads into the semifinals, don't be surprised if she wins twice more with such ease.