French Open 2011: 5 Shocking First-Round Losses
The first round of the French Open may be done with, but the drama left in its wake is still very much alive and kicking. Rafa Nadal fought through his first ever French Open five-setter, Kim Clijsters returned from injury and Maria Sharapova made a confident opening bid in her quest for a Career Slam.
In between, there were several notable upsets to be had. A former women's champion continued to struggle, two top men's players squandered big leads, a dangerous dark horse was worn down and a young American on the rise blew a big chance. Read about the five most shocking French Open first-round losses here.
(Q) Stephane Robert d. (6) Tomas Berdych 3-6 3-6 6-2 6-2 9-7
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There was, to put it bluntly, no way in hell the Czech should have lost this match.
Take Berdych's opponent: Stephane Robert, a 32-year-old journeyman ranked No. 140 in the world, who slogged his way through three rounds of qualifying and had just a lone win in Grand Slam play under his belt prior to Monday's match.
Take Berdych's situation: Cruising, up two sets to love, smacking winners with ease.
Take Berdych's standing as well: a top-10 player and a semifinalist last year, when he blasted his way to a matchup with Robin Soderling.
Maybe the pressure of repeating that feat was too much to handle. Or maybe much of the credit should go to Robert, who put on a scintillating performance in those final three sets—firing up the crowd with a series of lightning-rod shotmaking. I saw the guy take on Andy Roddick in the first round of last year's US Open, and he looked nothing shy of a solid club player, so I'm pretty shocked he was able to pull this win off.
But the fact of the matter is that Berdych, while he's compiled a solid year full of quarterfinal and semifinal appearances, remains a rather lifeless contender. When his game is flowing—like it was for two mercurial months last summer—the man is fun to watch. Results such as this one, though, are proof that Berdych—whether due to his shaky mental game, spurts of inconsistency or lack of self-belief—isn't going to be hoisting a Grand Slam trophy anytime soon.
His year thus far consists of beating the beatable and losing out to the big guns—and on Monday afternoon, Robert played like a big gun.
Johanna Larsson D. (20) Ana Ivanovic 7-6(3) 0-6 6-2
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Hard to believe just a few years ago that Ana Ivanovic hoisted the Roland Garros cup, sat atop the world rankings and looked poised to perhaps fill the big gap left by Justine Henin's sudden retirement.
Granted, injuries flared up shortly after her rejuvenating victory, but it's interesting to wonder if the Serb caught a major break (no pun intended) on her way to a lone major title. In winning, she only took down one top-10 player and didn't face a single former Slam champ—the first time that'd happened since '96.
She's had spurts of good play since then—like in Rome, Cincinnati and Bali last season—and after each tournament, without fail, would claim something along the lines of, "I'm back to playing great tennis." In between and after those sublime runs, however, Ivanovic racked up a massive injury haul.
Is most of the harm mental rather than physical? Past players, such as Steffi Graf, have created ailments in order to relieve pressure—and it's a well-known fact Ivanovic feels the stress to return to the game's elite.
I'm actually shocked the Serb's ascended back to the game's top 20. But judging by this match against Larsson, she's not going to stay there long. While Larsson is very talented, other than a couple low-level clay-court semifinal showings and a random victory over Li Na, the Swede has accumulated plenty of straight-set losses this season.
What Larsson needed in pulling out a first-round Roland Garros victory was an opponent even less confident than herself—and she found that very woman in Ivanovic.
(Q) Lukasz Kubot d. (11) Nicolas Almagro 3-6 2-6 7-6(3) 7-6(5) 6-4
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For a player like Nicolas Almagro, honed on the clay courts of his native Spain, the French Open warm-up period presents a wealth of opportunity: titles, money, ranking points and lots of confidence heading into the year's second major.
But there's such a thing as overplaying, which is exactly the reason Almagro crashed out in spectacular, dramatic fashion to qualifier Lukasz Kubot—a guy largely known for his prowess on a doubles court. Leading two sets to one against the Pole, Almagro lost two successive tiebreaks in the third and fourth sets before running out of gas in the deciding fifth.
Some of the loss, no doubt, can be attributed to Kubot's fighting spirit—with men's tennis deeper than ever, there's no room to let up, even when holding a lead like Almagro did.
Kubot's efforts aside, the Spaniard had to have been burned out after a busy clay-court swing. Nobody had won more matches on the dirt coming into the French than Almagro, and he was just fresh off a tough tournament victory in Nice. Despite breaking into the top 10 with the win, he ultimately paid the price in Paris.
Vania King d. (22) Dominika Cibulkova 6-7(10) 6-3 6-2
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Whenever Dominika Cibulkova and Vania King meet, be prepared for a doozy.
Their first encounter back in '07 went three tiebreaks, with King emerging the victor. The two played another thriller under sweltering conditions at the Aussie Open last year, with the American losing a set and 5-3 lead and falling behind 5-1 in the third before mounting a huge comeback to take the decider 7-5.
This time, at the French, the two pint-sized players toyed for nearly three hours before King emerged with yet another come-from-behind win.
For Cibulkova, the loss is both head-scratching and unsurprising. I considered her an outside dark horse to take this title—she's a former semifinalist with a solid clay-court game and has all the weapons to compete right along with the women's elite. But she struggles to find consistency, partly due to health struggles.
Right after mounting a big run to the semifinals of the French two years ago—during which she nearly double-bageled Maria Sharapova—and reaching a career high of No. 12 in the world, the Slovak suffered an awful rib injury that forced her to miss several months. Since then, she's picked up nice wins here and there and challenged several top players...yet losses like this one to King keep piling up.
Cibulkova's condition going into the match was shaky at best—she withdrew from tournaments in Rome and Brussels with yet another injury, this time to her ab. Yet the week before in Madrid, she took down Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sharapova in straights before losing a heartbreaker to eventual champ Petra Kvitova in the quarters.
Maybe the thoughts of losing out on a first title were fresh in her mind, maybe she was still coping with the ab ailment or maybe King's wall-like presence from the back of the court simply frustrated Cibulkova to no end. One thing is for certain: She needs to cut back on tight losses like this one and gut a few out.
Elena Baltacha d. Sloane Stephens 7-5 6-2
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All right, so maybe this isn't too ridiculous a loss. But for skyrocketing American teen Sloane Stephens, who blitzed through three qualifying matches to earn a maiden Grand Slam berth, she must be ruing a golden opportunity to advance to the second round.
Baltacha is an unspectacular baseliner lingering in the lower half of the top 100 and certainly has posted better results on faster services in her career.
Stephens, who captured an ITF title in fine fashion a couple weeks ago, led 5-3 in the first set. Then the wheels came off. She lost four games in a row, with errors and negative energy flowing recklessly off her racket.
For Stephens—who, along with the likes of Coco Vandeweghe, has been touted as part of the next wave in American tennis following the Williams-Roddick era—this is hopefully the start of a long, illustrious Grand Slam career. But it still resounds as a huge missed opportunity.
Want to know the worst part? If the 18-year-old had won, the U.S. would be guaranteed a woman in the third round—Baltacha now plays none other than Vania King.