Bear with me here. I know that my coverage of the French Open is just starting to resemble one article after another about great players exiting early. But that’s what the French Open does best: be unpredictable and eliminate top players like they were qualifiers happy just to be there. I don’t have data to support this, but I think most watchers of the sport would agree with me that the French Open seems to produce the most truly unforeseen upsets, with top-ranked players losing to nobodies with frightening regularity.
The latest victims are the Williams sisters, who lost on the same day for the first time since 2011 and denied us a third-round matchup between them. Along with Li Na losing yesterday, it’s the first time in the Open Era that the top two women’s seeds were out before the third round, per the Associated Press. As I mentioned before, Venus’ exit isn’t that surprising. She’s never been totally at home on the clay at the French Open, and even though she was and still is having a good season, her loss isn’t that surprising considering her age and condition. She did what has become unfortunately far too common these days for her: win the first set and look great doing it (she won by two breaks of serve), only to have it fall apart and slip away. She lost to 19-year-old Slovak Anna Schmiedlova, ranked outside the top 1000 in the world (1272 at time of writing), who was actually the girl’s singles runner up in 2012, so she has some pedigree with the clay of Roland Garros. However, it is dangerous to assign too much importance to junior success.
Serena’s loss is perhaps a little more worrisome. She looked terrible (repeat, terrible) in going down in straight sets, two and two, to 35th-ranked and unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain. Make no mistake about this; Serena beat herself. On her best day, there’s no way Muguruza takes her down the way that she did. She lost in just over an hour, the kind of consummate beating that she normally doles out, not receives. As ESPN reports, she had 29 unforced errors and won just 55 percent of her first serve points. Normally, that would be all right for her in a second-round match, but couple that with inconsistency and double faults, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The speculation immediately turned to whether or not she had a recurrence of the thigh injury that kept her out of Madrid this year. Though she immediately quashed those questions, they make sense in the context of this defeat. It could be the first sign of the inevitability of father time catching up to her, but until she starts losing a little more regularly, we’ll probably that can’t be confirmed. Though she won the French last year, it has never been her strongest surface, and it does her credit that she became such a strong clay court player. She can still salvage her season with good performances in London and New York, and she will undoubtedly be the favorite at both of those, as long as she’s healthy and Victoria Azarenka isn’t (get well soon, Victoria!).
I think that more than anything else; these losses were due to unpredictability combined with a bad day. The lack of reliability of the tennis court is a contentious, scientific topic, as Carl Bialik reports (read the article, it’s really cool). The issue of the way that courts behave depends on so many different things, and this lack of control over the surface is especially evident in events on grass and clay, where the actual playing surface is constantly changing, forming peaks and valleys, wearing out, getting slicker, and overall being difficult to deal with. The weather in Paris has been terrible these first few days, which definitely hasn’t helped, either. Even the best players have trouble dealing with these elements sometimes, and when you couple a court that seems to be fighting back with the fact that sometimes, you just don’t have it, you lose to nobodies in straight sets.
For now, let’s just enjoy how wide open the draw has now become. It seems like the perfect time for one of the young guns, like Simona Halep, to rise, or for an old champion like Ana Ivanovic to reclaim her place.