Tuesday, May 17, 2011
Competition stiffens for Fed, Djoker
By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com
PARIS -- The fourth round of a Grand Slam is a bridge between the first and second week, where players leave the fears of an early exit behind and start to dream. They dream of winning and walking out to play on the last weekend. The serenity and intensity of the grandest occasion in tennis.
The carnage in the women's draw has left the door open for many a hopeful, while the men face the Grand Slam fortress built in recent years by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and now, perhaps, Novak Djokovic. The finish line is a long way off, but it's in sight.
Although they turn their eyes forward, Swiss Patty Schnyder is looking back. Wrapping up her career in Paris on Saturday, she said, "The Grand Slam final was definitely a dream -- and it will remain a dream."
It will be the same for many others players, and on Sunday, three players who have chalked up Slam titles look to take a step farther in their latest quest:
Francesca Schiavone versus Jelena Jankovic
The dream that came unexpectedly and joyously true for Schiavone last year still eludes Jankovic. The Serb became one of the infamous Slam-less No. 1s in 2008, reaching the U.S. Open final before falling to Serena Williams. But burnout and overtraining set in, and she has never gotten another chance. Now there is no Serena, nemesis Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters or even Venus Williams in the draw. And clay is the Serb's best surface.
Jankovic is perfectly capable of beating the remaining players, if only she can summon the spark and speed of three years ago. At 26, she seems more worn down than the 30-year-old Schiavone, but then again, Schiavone got to live her dream.
This will be a matchup of clay experts with contrasting styles -- Schiavone with her spins, slices and flourishes, and Jankovic with her swift counterpunching and rapier backhand down the line. They have met four times, with Jankovic winning three, but not since 2009.
"She's been playing well, and obviously she won this tournament last year," Jankovic said. "But I play well here. I love playing on these clay courts. It's going to be a tough match."
Prediction: Schiavone in three
Roger Federer versus Stanislas Wawrinka
This Swiss intramural is always partly mental. Does Wawrinka really believe he can beat his friend and mentor, the legend?
Wawrinka has played Federer 11 times and won only once, in Monte Carlo in 2009 -- a honeymoon week for Federer, following his wedding to longtime girlfriend Mirka Vavrinec a few days earlier.
"It's a different year," said Wawrinka, who reached the top 10 in 2008, on the wave of his Olympic doubles victory with Federer.
After slipping back the following season, he has turned his life inside out and is determined to climb back. Wawrinka parted ways with his childhood coach and hired former Federer coach Peter Lundgren, and he also split with his wife, with whom he has a young daughter.
"I have more experience. I feel I'm in better shape. I won more matches in Grand Slams. I was in quarterfinals. I reached the round of 16. So I need to find solutions. That's all," he said.
It still doesn't sound very convincing, particularly after two straight-set losses to Federer earlier this year. Wawrinka is at his best on clay, unfurling one of the best one-handed backhands on tour, but has not had great results coming into the tournament and may be tired after completing a five-set comeback against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the French crowd in the previous round. He also doesn't like the new balls being used at the tournament.
"It's very difficult for me when I'm playing with a great player, with a lot of pressure," Wawrinka said. "It's difficult for me to develop my game, and I understand why Rafa also has problems."
Federer has been going swimmingly, but it has not yet been seen whether his form will hold up when he is put under real pressure. Janko Tipsarevic was expected to do that in the previous round, but maybe Wawrinka will instead.
Prediction: Federer in three
Novak Djokovic versus Richard Gasquet
Somewhere, sometime, Novak Djokovic will lose again. When and where, however, is anyone's guess. The Serb demolished Juan Martin del Potro on the second day of their match, and the Argentine was expected to give him his toughest test until the semifinal at least (and probably the final).
Now it's Gasquet's turn. What can he bring to squash The Streak (Djokovic's new superhero name)? The same things he has always had: the magnificent backhand and the ability to hit winners like a magician pulling handkerchiefs from his sleeve. And maybe, something more -- a more aggressive mentality and a newfound competitive toughness? It is too early for firm pronouncements, but there were encouraging signs in the way he pulled out a tight match against Federer in Rome, and in the way he has responded to the French crowds instead of crumbling under home pressure.
"His weapons, yes, he can worry him," said Gasquet's perceptive compatriot, Gilles Simon. "He's got an opportunity to seize. He's got nothing to lose. He's going to play his best.
"Will this suffice? Who knows?"
But a win like this at home is a golden opportunity to reach the semifinal (the winner plays Albert Montanes or Fabio Fognini), and a chance to renew the Grand Slam promise he had as a teenager. Dreams to hold on to when facing the nightmare that is Novak Djokovic.
Prediction: Djokovic in four
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.