The third round of a Grand Slam is the point at which most of the sediment has settled, and a singles draw takes on a clear, sparkling look. Suddenly, pairings that might have made you scratch your head or go running to Google now make your mouth water. The balance between the familiar and unfamiliar names begins to tilt heavily toward the former. That’s certainly the case with the three matches we’re most interested in on Day 6 of Roland Garros:
No. 13 Madison Keys vs. No. 21 Naomi Osaka (Keys leads series, 2-0)
Osaka was a callow 18-year old when she had that horrible meltdown against Keys on Arthur Ashe Stadium the last time these women met in the third round at a major. Osaka has taken great strides since then, culminating with her title run at Indian Wells just months ago. Nearly 6-feet tall and given to taking big cuts, she helps make this a dream match-up for fans of womens’ power tennis.
Keys, already 23-years old, has been moseying along as erratically as ever, raising expectations only to fade away until the pressure is off again. She hasn’t been in a final of any kind since her own U.S. Open disaster, that embarrassingly lopsided loss in last year’s final to good friend Sloane Stephens. Keys showed promise when she made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open this year, but her record was poor in the subsequent hard-court events, including the Sunshine Double. She’s a respectable 8-3 on clay this year, a semifinal in Charleston her best effort.
Still just 20, Osaka is experiencing some of the same challenges and opportunities that Keys did at a comparable age. She’s been getting a lot of attention and raising expectations. She doesn’t have much clay-court experience (she’s just 5-3 over the last 52 weeks), but she certainly doesn’t sound like a victim of the surface’s properties, or its mystique. Earlier this week, she told reporters: “I just focus more on the tennis part rather than making up excuses of what the (clay) surface is and how my play style isn’t suited for it, or whatever.”
Prediction: It’s difficult to trust Keys’ nerves in this situation; an Osaka upset looms.
No. 20 seed Novak Djokovic vs. No. 13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut (Djokovic leads, 6-1)
The head-to-head in this match-up is a little deceptive, because Bautista has taken great strides after starting this year ranked just outside the Top 20. The men are also 1-1 since Djokovic spiraled into his recent slump in mid-2016. The reality is that Bautista, a 30-year old Spaniard, has a smooth and solid all-around game. That casts this as a pivotal match on the comeback road for the struggling Serbian star.
At first glance Bautista might be taken for another of Spain’s formidable clay-court experts, but he’s best on hard courts (28-13 over the past 52 weeks, while just 9-6 on clay). Attribute that to his relatively flat shots, aided by his quickness and thread-the-needle counter-punching abilities. In some ways he’s similars to Djokovic, although Bautista’s backhand is markedly weaker than his forehand and he isn’t as proficient a returner or as good at changing the direction of a rally as Djokovic.
The mantra for Djokovic recently might be summed up as, “Don’t panic.” He’s still hunting for solutions, his record an anemic — for him — 19-8 over the last year, 8-4 on clay. As he told the press the other day in Paris, “At the moment I’m not playing at the level that I wish to, but at the same time I understand it’s a process that takes time. I’m trying not to give up, to create the best out of the situation and circumstances I am in.”
Prediction: Djokovic hasn’t lost a set, but then the opposition has been weak. Look for a five-setter that can go either way.
No. 10 Sloane Stephens vs. Camila Giorgi (Giorgi leads, 2-1)
Okay, the prospects for Stephens aren’t very promising. The match she won was way back in 2012, while her Italian rival prevailed in 2016 and simply dominated Stephens earlier this year in Sydney in a 6-3, 6-0 blowout. But as they say, “That was then, this is now,” or, “That was hard courts, this is clay.” Bottom line: and Stephens now is a vastly different player than the one who took those two losses.
While still just 8-4 on clay over the last year, Stephens is proving herself a player meant to shine only at certain times and mostly on big stages. She won the US Open last September very soon after missing nearly a full year due to foot surgery. Barely two months ago she emerged from a woeful slump to bag the the Miami combined event – a prestigious WTA premier mandatory. She loves Paris and the French Open, and has been on fire at Roland Garros, losing just six games in her two previous matches.
Giorgi, though, is a very dangerous player who’s been equally impressive scores-wise. But where Stephens wins with speed, guile, placement and innate athleticism, Giorgi hits through opponents. She whales on the ball, and on days when those atomic forehands are landing inside the lines there’s precious little anyone can do. It’s lucky for Stephens that basic inconsistency keeps Giorgi a dangerous outlier rather than a force on the tour.
Prediction: Unless Giorgi shoots the lights out, Stephens variety, consistency, and talent for opening up the court will carry the day.
Upset Special: Keys and Djokovic both go down.