Led by Venus Williams, players from the U.S. acquitted themselves admirably on Wednesday. Fewer of them will be sliding and grinding on the red clay on Day 5. Here are some of Thursday’s more compelling matchups:
Here we are at another Grand Slam, and the Swiss guy everyone is talking about is not the on-site, highly seeded former French Open champ Wawrinka, but the absent one, Roger Federer. But be warned: With only Rafael Nadal in peak contender form among the Big Four, Wawrinka’s chances here may be better than ever. He just won one of the final tune-up events (Geneva) for Roland Garros, and he blasted through his first-round opponent in straight sets. If Dolgopolov is inspired, this will be a good test for Wawrinka.
Dolgopolov is the anti-Stan — electric where Wawrinka is bone-jarring powerful, quick where Wawrinka is deliberate, tricky where Wawrinka is a meat-and-potatoes baseliner. Dolgopolov’s serve may not break the radar gun, but it’s launched by a quick, deceptive action. “The Dog” rose as high as No. 13 in the rankings thanks to his speed and ability to hit dazzling winners from anywhere on the court. But that was at the start of 2012, and Dolgopolov has been mired in a slump. One of his wins over Wawrinka was by walkover, and the matches they split were both three-setters.
This is an excellent opportunity for Townsend, one of the more interesting young players trying to break through on the pro tour. Townsend, once the top-ranked junior in the world, has loads of skill that add up to a bewitching game that goes against the grain in an era dominated by highly disciplined, straightforward baseline play. She got off to a fast start. Shortly after she turned 18 in 2014, she earned the USTA’s French Open wild card and upset Vania King and French star Alize Cornet in succession to reach the third round.
On paper, Townsend should have an easier time of it this year. Hsieh, from Taiwan, has been ranked as high as No. 23 but has struggled lately. But she’s the kind of player who drive opponents crazy with her unique style. She hits two-handed off both sides and make liberal use of drops shots and heavy slice. The key to beating Hsieh is to keep her on the defensive with aggressive play and deep shots.
As litmus test for contenders at the French Open go, Almagro is an excellent one. He may be slowing down at age 31, but Almagro has been a reliable fixture on the clay circuit. A three-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros, he has a booming serve and one of the most clean, explosive backhands in the game.
Del Potro wasn’t sure he would be able to start at Roland Garros; he’s been troubled by back and shoulder soreness. But the 6-foot-6 2009 semifinalist looked convincing in his straight sets first-round win over his clay proficient Argentinian fellow countryman Guido Pella. Almagro came close to a massive upset of Novak Djokovic at Madrid a few weeks ago, but his career-long habit of coming up just short at key moments kicked in again. Del Potro will be hoping he can smother Almagro with his serve-forehand combination before it comes to that.
No. 28 seed Fabio Fognini vs. No. 83 Andreas Seppi (5-4, Seppi) OK, so neither of these guys is on anyone’s short list to win the tournament. But this pairing of creative, temperamental 30-something Italians is too appetizing to pass up. It’s what some people call a “popcorn” match, although the main item on the menu will be the two hot dogs on court. There will be plenty of flashy and daring shot-making in this one.
Both men have posted huge wins. Fognini had Rafael Nadal all but begging for mercy during 2015, when he swept three of four matches from the “King of Clay.” Seppi knocked Roger Federer out of the 2015 Australian Open in the fourth round and No. 14 seed Nick Kyrgios out of the same tournament earlier this year. Neither is a conventional baseliner. Both like to push and probe, change the pace and surprise opponents. Seppi will be trying to stop a four-match losing streak against Fognini after he reeled off wins the first five times they met.