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Friday, May 30, 2014
What's going on in Upset City?

By Greg Garber and Matt Wilansky
ESPN.com

PARIS -- OK, this is getting way out of hand.

It was shocking when No. 2 seed Li Na crashed out in the first round of the French Open at the hands of Kristina Mladenovic, but upsets happen. Then No. 1 seed Serena Williams left the building at the hands of Garbine Muguruza. It was surprising, but Williams has a spotty history at the French.

But after Friday's stunner on Court Philippe Chatrier, the conspiracy theorists are going to have a field day. Ajla Tomljanovic wrecked an oddly anemic No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska 6-4, 6-4.

Agnieszka Radwanska
Agnieszka Radwanska became the latest upset victim at the French Open on Friday.

This is the first time in the Open era that the top three women's seeds all failed to reach the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Take a deep breath and drink that statistic in. In 46 years of open tennis -- nearly half a century -- there's never been this kind of anarchy on the women's side heading into the second week of a Slam.

Throw in the absence of world No. 5 Victoria Azarenka (foot injury) and the Friday elimination of former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova, the No. 9 seed, and you have a very depleted draw. Or, for those still in it, an appealing path full of possibility to a Grand Slam singles title.

ESPN.com tennis editor Matt Wilansky and senior writer Greg Garber break it down in the latest Baseline Buzz:

Garber: I don't think these are isolated incidents. There's something larger going on here. Consider the three players who crafted these upsets:

• Muguruza, age 20, ranked No. 35

• Mladenovic, age 21, ranked No. 103

• Tomljanovic, age 21, ranked No. 72

Both Mladenovic and Tomljanovic celebrated their 21st birthdays earlier this month, which means this trio is just arriving on the grand stage. On the flip side, Williams and Li, both 32, are on the downsides of their careers, and Radwanska, at 25, is only a few years away.

"After seeing the first two seeds go out, you kind of feel like 'I can do this too,'" Tomljanovic said. "I grew up with these girls who are beating them. I went out there, and I really, inside, thought I could win. I think that showed and is why I won."

Wilansky: I think Generation Y might (finally) see an opening. Look at it this way: The Aussie Open finalists are both gone. Last year's US Open finalists (Williams and Azarenka) could be anywhere -- just not Roland Garros. And the Wimbledon finalists (Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki) are nowhere in sight. In other words, all the trophy winners from the previous three Slams have either lost, retired or never showed up. It goes without saying that after a brief window of stability in the WTA, the tour is a complete mystery.

It's also safe to say the women who knocked off the top three seeds are virtually unknown to the casual tennis fan. Look at their previous best wins: Muguruza's was over a world No. 8, Mladenovic's over a No. 9, and Tomljanovic had never beaten anyone ranked higher than No. 26. In other words, the quality of opponents they've taken down here in Paris is much higher than anything they've done in the past.

Garber: Maria Sharapova might want to consider heading over to Notre Dame and lighting a candle or two. Perhaps a few Louis Vuitton bags for Muguruza and Tomljanovic? Might I suggest the Speedy 35? Only 850 euros, monogram included. Because her ranking has fallen, Sharapova would have played Williams in the quarterfinals. When your head-to-head record is 2-16 against someone, it's always nice when someone else does your dirty work. And now that Radwanska is out the picture, No. 8 seed Angelique Kerber and No. 14 Carla Suarez Navarro are the worst-case scenarios in the semifinals. Talk about a soft draw.

These kids are so young, they don't really understand what they're doing. Look at the unseeded Tomljanovic's run. She beat 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the first round, No. 32 seed Elena Vesnina in the second and now the No. 3 Radwanska. Williams and Li, particularly, have been defying the gravity of age for a few years now. These upsets suggest that possibly their time has come ... and gone.

Wilansky: Possibly, but a certain someone vowed to do whatever it takes to "never lose again," which means we might be writing a different story when Wimbledon is said and done -- a story we've already written 17 times, give or take.

But if Sharapova does bestow Tomljanovic and Muguruza with those swanky little gifts, as you suggested, she might want to consider sharing them with Chris Evert. Tomljanovic, a student of the 18-time Grand Slam winner's academy, said, "I'm very fortunate to have [Evert] in my corner. She not only helps me on the court, but we actually have a great relationship off the court. We get together when I'm in Boca. I call her, she calls me."

Well, of course; otherwise would be rude. But I wonder if Tomljanovic & Co. have staying power or if this is another brief interlude by players we won't be talking about in two weeks. That said, Tomljanovic has systematically progressed in her brief career. Last year at Wimbledon, she fell in the first round, then won a single match in both Flushing and Melbourne. Now she's on to the fourth round.

Williams
A year after winning the French Open, Serena Williams was ousted in the second round.

Garber: That would make her -- what? -- 3-0 in her career at Roland Garros. Undefeated. Perfect. Even Rafael Nadal (61-1) can't say that.

Here's an interesting nugget, culled from the WTA match notes: The last time Radwanska lost to an opponent ranked outside the top 50 was at last year's tournament in Rome against No. 64 Simona Halep. In almost exactly a year, Halep has soared into the ranks of the elite. In that span, she has the second-best winning percentage among WTA players, after only Williams. And at 22, she's a decade younger.

That sound Williams & Co. are hearing is the footsteps of their successors. Suddenly, it's getting louder.

Wilansky: Well, not so fast. The sound you might be hearing is that of the victims' awkward, heavy footsteps. I spoke to Evert earlier, who explained why an overhaul atop the game is a stretch. "When you reach a certain point in your career," she said, "you have to understand you are not going to be fresh out of bed every day to practice or play a match. This is what's happening. We've seen it with Roger [Federer], Martina [Navratilova], myself and even Andre [Agassi] at the end of his career. You can still play peak tennis, but you're going to have more bad days."

What it really comes down to, more than age, is motivation. As Evert said, Williams began last year jumping around, proclaiming a French Open title was her mission after falling in the quarters of the Aussie. "But this year, I questioned whether Serena could have the same enthusiasm," Evert said. "A 27-year-old can be as good as a 32-year-old, depending on how much you play. And in Serena's case, she played and used a lot of energy in the past year. But give credit to the other players. The depth of the game, especially No. 5 through No. 20, is really showing. They're not as intimidated by the top players as they used to be."

Garber: And now these women -- ranked 35, 72 and 103 -- are smelling the café creme too. After beating Radwanska, Tomljanovic conducted her biggest interview ever.

"I never had lights in front of me," she said, drawing laughter from the assembled reporters.

Earlier, with a straight face, she had talked about the youth movement threatening the hierarchy in women's tennis.

"The draw, it has 32 names that have a number next to them," she said. "But really, in my head, it doesn't matter. You respect everyone, but you don't fear anyone."

Still, these upsets make a difference. "Yeah, with the seeds out, I guess we are stepping up a little bit."