Every tournament takes on a life of its own, in any sport.
Some tournaments become interesting from the very start and stay that way. Others start brightly but then slow down and descend into dullsville, with a predictable forced-march of a denouement giving fans and pundits very little to chew on.
Still other tournaments gain a stop-start quality, in which one day is spectacular, the next three are snoozefests, and the following day offers a basket of fragrant surprises, just when you were being put to sleep.
Then there’s the 2015 men’s tournament at the French Open.
This is the tournament in which form has held through four rounds, setting up four main-event quarterfinals over the next two days. Every matchup is mouthwatering and could be special. Wednesday’s clashes are much more likely to deliver drama, but Tuesday’s tussles certainly have the capacity to give us beautiful and compelling tennis.
How good, on paper, are the men’s quarterfinals of Roland Garros? The matchup between two former major finalists on Court Centrale (also known as Court Philippe Chatrier), pitting the most dangerous claycourt player outside the top four against the one Frenchman left in the field, is probably the “least” appealing.
To be clear, saying Kei Nishikori-versus-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the “least” appealing men’s quarterfinal on tap in Paris is like saying that John McEnroe had the “least successful” playing career when placed in a foursome with Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, and Bjorn Borg.
That Nishikori-Tsonga is the “least” appealing quarterfinal is obviously not a commentary on that pairing or the two men as individuals; it’s a reflection of how good the other three quarterfinal matchups are.
Tuesday, Nishikori-Tsonga will be accompanied on the docket by the all-Swiss showdown between Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer. Wawrinka went away in the Rome semifinal between the two, but their dead-even duel in the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals semifinal round, combined with the memory of Wawrinka’s comeback victory in the 2014 Monte Carlo final on red clay, make that matchup seem like a toss-up. You don’t know whether you’re going to get good Stan or bad Stan, but if good Stan shows up, Federer — having had to play each of the past two days — will need his A-game to advance to Friday’s semifinals.
Federer played well on Monday in the conclusion of his suspended match against Gael Monfils, but that said, the nature of this particular (2015) tournament cut against the Frenchman: Two straight five-set matches, a long wait on Sunday, a suspension of the Federer match after two sets, an early re-start on Monday, and a bout with the flu all combined to create a situation that did not lend itself to a deep run for a crowd favorite at Roland Garros. Does Monfils’s condition suggest that Federer is uniquely vulnerable against Wawrinka? We’ll have to wait and see.
Then, on Wednesday, bring gallons of water and stay hydrated, because you’re going to see two showcases of attritional men’s tennis: Andy Murray versus David Ferrer in one quarterfinal, and then the big one, Rafael Nadal versus Novak Djokovic in the other.
Murray-Ferrer would make a good centerpiece quarterfinal in many major tournaments, especially since Nadal and Djokovic generally play in finals. Put Nadal against Tsonga and Djokovic against Wawrinka — under that hypothetical, a Murray-Ferrer match would have commanded top billing in the quarters. Complicated, textured, involved points and all the court coverage you can stand? Murray-Ferrer should deliver those ingredients.
Those qualities, while existing in abundance, won’t begin to match the quantities of defense and resilience seen in the Nadal-Djokovic blockbuster.
Naturally, since these two legends of the game (Nadal owning a much higher place, of course) have usually resided in the top two or three over the past four years or so, they’ve generally met in finals, occasionally in semifinals. A quarterfinal, though, represents a much earlier intersection point for the nine-time Roland Garros champion and the man trying to dethrone him. It was one thing when these players met in the 2013 French Open semifinals — the winner had only one hurdle to climb after that, and it turned out to be Ferrer. The winner of this match will have to surmount both the Murray-Ferrer winner and the bottom-half finalist in order to lift the trophy in Paris. Will that factor — and Nadal’s third-set hiccup against Jack Sock on Monday, and Djokovic’s very minor injury in the second round of this tournament against Gilles Muller — influence the outcome on Wednesday afternoon?
We can’t wait to find out.
That last sentence basically sums up the global tennis community’s feelings about the four consequential and compelling quarterfinals we’re about to watch in the City of Light.