French Open coming into focus, Federer out

Good thing we had time to spare, as that Andy Murray-Philipp Kohlschreiber match ended up being delayed until today due to darkness. (Side note: is it not awesome that they have enough light to play until after 9 PM in Paris? Side note on the side note: is it not awesome that they don’t have lights on the stadia in Paris and London? It’s like attending a Chicago Cubs day game before the 1980s: we work with what we’re given, nothing artificial here.)

Murray prevailed, 12-10 in the final set, the second-longest set of the tournament (Facundo Bagnis of Argentina defeated Julien Benneteau in the final set, 18-16, way back in the first round). The match itself was wildly back-and-forth, with Murray alternately looking terrific and terrible. It looked like Kohlschreiber was going to run away with it early, as he took it to Murray in the opener. Murray couldn’t handle the German’s aggressive baseline play or serve, and he looked like the shaky player he’s been since back surgery and the departure of coach Ivan Lendl.

But the great ones find ways to prevail, and with some truly impressive shots, he managed to continue extending the final set until darkness forced the delay. Kohlschreiber had one of the most amazing shots I’ve seen this tournament before the delay. Murray had run him from his forehand back to his backhand with a great deep ball that he was following in, and Kohlschreiber took the opportunity for a passing shot and flicked one down the line past the charging Murray. The open corridor for hitting that shot is so minuscule it doesn’t even warrant discussing, and the fact that he did it on the run was just stunning. Shame he ended up losing the match.

Gaël Monfils pulled out a really fun match against Fabio Fognini of Italy, one in which the commentators correctly said something to the effect of “he’d rather lose a match like this than win an easy one.” Quite right. Monfils is a showman with a flair for the moment, combine that with a home crowd and the unpredictability of Fognini, who is by turns brilliant and lackadaisical, and we had a fantastic match. The match appeared to be over as Monfils got held at love in the fourth, and he called for the trainer. But he gutted it out, coming up with some spectacular shots in the process. He’s one of the best players to watch in person and a must-see for anyone who really loves the athleticism and showmanship that tennis can bring. He faces Guillermo García-López for a spot in the quarterfinals tomorrow.

García-López had a tough match against Donald Young, who dug himself out of an 0-2 hole in sets to force a deciding fifth. He routinely got better when it mattered, but just ran out of gas in the final set. Young seemed to be playing against the clay rather than with it, hitting deep, flat balls instead of taking advantage of the higher bounces that the clay provides. García-López is 30 and a journeyman, having never been ranked inside the top 20. However, he showed his resolve and ability to take advantage of the surface, and held on just long enough to advance. Expect Monfils, with the home crowd behind him, to get to the final eight.

This match has added drama in that he’s the last Frenchman in the draw, with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga having been run off the court by Novak Djokovic in their round of 16 matchup. Djokovic has looked like a world-wrecker so far, so I don’t give Milos Raonic much chance against him. Yes, Raonic plays a very similar style to Marin Cilic, who took a set off Djokovic in the third round. But Djokovic has proven adept at taking away the advantages that those two have in how hard they hit the ball, anticipating serves with precision and using the slowing effects of the clay to blunt the force of their groundstrokes. Djokovic in three or four sets there.

Lastly, we come to Roger Federer, who bowed out to Ernests Gulbis of Latvia in five tough sets. It was tough to watch the great Federer go down to one of the streakiest players on tour in Gulbis. But let’s be clear here: the clay has never been Fed’s best surface, and the man is old. Like, turning 33 old. Like, Andre Agassi old. The fact that he’s still a threat (more so at Wimbledon, where he hopes to be a factor after an unexpected exit last year) is such a testament to his longevity and love for the game.

Roger Federer lost Sunday in Paris, but will hope to rebound on grass in London in a few weeks' time.

These days, we have to accept that any Roger Federer is better than no Roger Federer, even if it means watching him lose matches to inferior opponents sometimes. Here’s to hoping he gets his mojo back at Wimbledon.

I think it’s distinctly possible that in Federer’s attempt to go bigger to make up for the fact that he isn’t as nimble as he once was, he has messed with his basic chemistry as a player. He knows that more depends on his ability to move his opponents, as he doesn’t move that well anymore. In dealing with the decline of age, his unforced error totals have risen (59 against Gulbis) and he has to sweat out points that 10 years ago he would have won in his sleep. His forehand is less reliable than it once was, and the result is that he lost his first career five-set match in Paris. I’ll root for him every minute until he retires, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I shouldn’t get anything approaching hopeful about his chances unless they include the word “Wimbledon.”

Gulbis is a good player, and when he’s hot and in control of his emotions, he can hang with the best of them. Let’s make sure that we keep perspective as Federer’s career winning percentages start to take their inevitable slide. Nothing is keeping him in the game beyond love of it and belief that he can still compete. Had he beaten Gulbis, he likely would have lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarters (the man who ended his streak of consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances at Wimbledon in 2011). As it turns out, Gulbis-Berdych is an interesting matchup. They both hit really big, and Berdych is still looking to take the next step since making the Wimbledon final in 2010. The bad news is that he would get Djokovic in the semis.

Very little looks like it can derail a rematch of last year’s final (Rafael Nadal-David Ferrer) in the quarters, followed by a rematch of the 2012 final (Nadal-Djokovic) in the championship. This time, though, give Djokovic almost a 50% chance of winning. I won’t believe Rafa is out until someone beats him, that’s how much faith I have in him at Roland Garros.

Keep it right here.