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.

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