Cubist Masterpieces

Roland Garros, Fourth Round

The fourth round of the 2014 edition of Roland Garros is complete, thus concluding a first week that began nine days ago, and ushering a second week that will last a mere six. Structurally, the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament acts as the interface between the first week and the second, conveniently wrapping up what has gone before whilst simultaneously preparing players and fans for the thrills to come. Structurally, then, the fourth round at this year’s French Open has fulfilled its purpose, providing a succinct summary for the largely forgettable opening rounds. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images EuropeOnly one match lived up to its billing, while too many others lived all the way down to theirs.

The fourth round also traditionally generates the first real concentration of great matchups. Of the sixteen players remaining it’s generally a sound bet that more than half of them will be of high quality, and will thus be obliged to start playing each other. Before seedings were doubled to 32 in 2001, this was the round in which the seeded players first began to collide. Wimbledon further enhances this frisson by scheduling all eight men’s matches on the same day (weather permitting, which it seldom does).

Roland Garros has defied this tradition, however. The early rounds were riddled by upsets that proved mostly shocking for their volume and by their concentration in the draw’s top half. Kei Nishikori’s frail frame was only good for a few sets, as was Stan Wawrinka’s brain. Nicolas Almagro, afflicted both mentally and physically, fared no better. All three had only been title contenders in the minds of those Rafael Nadal fans whose fantasies of catastrophe are at right-angles to reality, but it was still a blow to have them flame out so early. Indeed, seeds were combusting all over the place – Haas, Dolgopolov, Dimitrov – with deflating consequences for the rest of the week. The best match ending up being Philipp Kohlschreiber’s agonising five set loss to Andy Murray in the third round, which concluded 12/10 in the fifth even as the bottom half of the draw had commenced its fourth round.

The draw’s bottom half held together rather better through the initial rounds, with the highest seed in each ‘eighth’ attaining the round of sixteen, whereupon he was presented with an opponent that was at least nominally worthy. Sadly, only in the case of Roger Federer and Ernests Gulbis did this result in a high-quality match, suggesting that it requires more than a lack of early round upsets to ensure a decent fourth round. It also requires a healthy dose of luck. The upshot was seven matches – I’ll come to the eighth presently – that were so unengaging that desperate commentators were required to manufacture interest on our behalf.

There was, for example, some debate as to whether Novak Djokovic’s 89 minute demolition of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was superior to Nadal’s 93 minute dismantling of Dusan Lajovic. Djokovic got it done quicker against an ostensibly elite player enjoying local support, while Nadal conceded one less game against an opponent whose presence was largely superfluous. The answer is that it doesn’t matter. Further intrigue mounted as Nadal claimed the first seventeen points of the second set, thus coming within seven points of a golden set. (Alas, he pushed a backhand wide on the eighteenth point.) This thrashing was painted as valuable experience for the young Serb, in much same way that meeting Godzilla was valuable for Bambi. Of more value is the confidence gained from winning three other matches, increased opportunity from a higher ranking and the provisional security of a six-figure pay check.

Tsonga’s abject defeat to Djokovic was more interesting, since he is putatively a top player and last year reached the semifinal, although he didn’t acquit himself well once there. To an extent, we can simply say that Djokovic was far too good, and he was indeed very good. But there’s no use pretending that something has not gone horribly awry with Tsonga’s career. Coming in to today’s fourth round encounter Djokovic had lost to Tsonga five times, though the last of these defeats came in 2010 in what is increasingly looking like the Frenchman’s heyday. Between 2008 and 2011 Tsonga compiled a record of 24-28 against players in the top ten, even including the wilderness year of 2010. Since the beginning of 2012, however, Tsonga has compiled a record of 4-26 against players of the same rank. He is still reaching fourth rounds at the big tournaments, but for the second Slam in a row he was manhandled by the first elite player he encountered (in Melbourne it was Federer), and his poor form is looking less and less exceptional.

Tomas Berdych was as impressive as anyone in pulling apart John Isner, especially as he never allowed any set to reach a tiebreak. Indeed, no one’s form has looked more fearsome through the first week, and if he didn’t have such a keen propensity to capitulate against the either of the current top two (Nadal more so then Djokovic), you’d suspect Berdych was on the verge of a real breakthrough. He’ll face Gulbis in the quarters, to whom I’m very gradually coming. Djokovic will play Milos Raonic, who progressed to his first Major quarterfinal in fine fashion, including assured dismissals of Nick Kyrgios and Jiri Vesely (representing of the next wave of up-and-comers), Marcel Granollers (representing a subset of self-taught hackers with bafflingly high rankings), and a five set grind past Gilles Simon, which is something of a rite of passage. For his troubles he has earned a meeting with Djokovic, a quite different (and far sterner) rite of passage.

Gael Monfils’ third round five set tussle with Fabio Fognini turned out to be a Cubist masterpiece. All the fundamental elements of a professional tennis match were there, but arranged into unsettling configurations, and largely shorn of narrative linearity. It thus went exactly the way everyone thought it would. Having whetted his taste for the bizarre, Monfils displayed little patience with the relatively mundane stylishness of Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and dispatched him with little fuss, thereby ensuring a French presence in the second week. David Ferrer beat Kevin Anderson with less ease than he did at this stage last year, but still never looked in strife. Andy Murray, having endured that classic with Kohlschreiber, surprised everyone by seeing off Fernando Verdasco in straight sets. No one expected a classic, but the respective fan bases, striving to outdo each other for pessimism, hadn’t been shy in predicting a more exhausting debacle. Anyway, having spent some time discussing the matches that I self-defeatingly suggested weren’t worth talking about, I’ll move on to the one match that is worth revisiting, namely Gulbis’ sinuous five set defeat of Federer.

Much has rightly been made of the fourth seed’s overhead at 5/3 40-15 in the second set, which, had it been properly dealt with, would have given him a two set to love lead. It wasn’t the easiest overhead – Gulbis’ stabbed response had some work on it – but nor was it so hard that Federer didn’t have multiple options. There are degrees of difficulty in all things, and tennis at this level is often decided by the player who executes the harder shot under pressure. Instead Federer went for the easiest option, and hit his overhead straight to the spot where Gulbis happened to be standing, not because the Latvian had anticipated it, but because he hadn’t bothered to move. Gulbis redirected the ball into the open court, and a match that was already serpentine coiled once more, this time decisively. Federer was broken back, and in lieu of being two sets to love up, lost three of the next twelve games to fall down two sets to one.

If only because it superficially recalls another notorious moment serving at 5/3 40-15 – the US Open semifinal of 2011 – one suspects that overhead will be a shot even Federer finds hard to forget. Certainly it stayed with him for rather too long in yesterday’s match. It would undoubtedly haunt a lesser career: I picture small children groaning as granddad again regales them with the time he was so nearly two sets to love up in the Roland Garros fourth round. In the case of Federer, alongside whose career almost all others must be considered ‘lesser’, I imagine he won’t let it ruin his Wimbledon preparation.

Still, that overhead was emblematic of a larger issue. What let Federer down all match, as it frequently has in the last few years, was a lack of audacity, or, to put it another way, an overabundance of caution. This was evident in his service placement, which was generally conservative, and in his unwillingness to go for the sidelines in baseline rallies, which often allowed Gulbis to re-establish a neutral court position, which never stayed neutral for long. There was a time when Federer’s determination to press an advantage would not relent, and initiative could only be wrested away from him by the very best defenders, such as Nadal or Djokovic. Yesterday Federer proved unable or unwilling to maintain pressure, and repeatedly allowed Gulbis to take control.

It is entirely to Gulbis’ credit that he could and did take control, and that unlike his opponent he was willing to chance his arm to sustain it. Whenever he saw an opportunity to go big, he went big. He pounded on Federer’s backhand – afterwards he confessed this to be his master plan – served big, and, most crucially, somehow remained focussed in defending the early break for the remainder of the fifth set. Federer seemed to labour under the hope that Gulbis wouldn’t be able to maintain so exalted a level. History has shown that Gulbis can tumble catastrophically off the boil, though history has also shown that history is a poor indicator for predicting what Gulbis will do. The Latvian’s form did dip in the fourth set. Federer, finally bold, lifted to a 5/2 lead, whereupon Gulbis availed himself of a medical time-out, which he later insisted was more precautionary than strategic. This had a profound effect on momentum, as Gulbis emerged swinging lustily at everything. He had no reason not to, believing the set was already gone. Where Federer had been cruising up a double break, he now narrowly eked out the fourth set, and ceded his serve rather tamely at the beginning of the fifth. From there Gulbis, who has yet to lose in France this year, never relented. He is deservedly through to his first Major quarterfinal in six years.

Federer, significantly, isn’t. Just as his victories often break or extend an obscure record, so do his losses curtail or forestall another. Had Federer won he would have reached his tenth consecutive Roland Garros quarterfinal. Alas he is stranded on nine, and might one day bore his grandchildren with the story of how he’d have reached ten but for one injudiciously placed overhead, or, more accurately, one inspired and defiant Latvian.

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