Baseline Buzz: Our Week 1 awards from the French Open

PARIS — In an attempt to stimulate the economy, France’s socialist government has been trying to loosen the protections for union workers. Not surprisingly, this is not going well.

Strikes have been the dominant theme this spring, as railroad, Metro and airline employees have walked off the job in protest.

Here at Roland Garros, it’s been a vastly different story. Some 256 main-draw singles players, happy for the opportunity to work, lined up a week ago. We’re now down to the round of 16 on each side — an appropriate time to assess the French Open at this point.

Johnette Howard and Greg Garber, our reporters in Paris, and Peter Bodo give us their midweek reports.

Top match

Howard: Second-seed Andy Murray seemed unlucky when rain and darkness interrupted his comeback from a two-set deficit against Czech qualifier Radek Stepanek, pushing their first-round match to a second day and giving the 37-year-old Stepanek time to recharge physically. Stepanek threw a scare into Murray again during the 49 minutes they were on court the next day, too, sometimes egging on the crowd to cheer his best shots. But Murray eked out a 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 win.

Garber: I admit that I love my numbers, and Ivo Karlovic produced the craziest of the fortnight so far. The 6-foot-11 Croatian, who is 37 years old, hit and amazing 41 aces and 103 winners in his second-round win over Jordan Thompson of Australia. He won 12-10 in the fifth set and became the oldest man to advance to the third round of a Grand Slam since Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open some 25 years ago.

Bodo: It has to be the second-round battle between Irina-Camelia Begu and Coco Vandeweghe, which Begu won 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 10-8. It was a wonderful, tense match on intimate Court No. 2, which was jammed to the gills by the time the third set began. The match went on for 3 hours, 38 minutes, the longest on the WTA this year.

Biggest disappointment

Howard: The withdrawals of Roger Federer (before the tournament) and Rafael Nadal in a shocker Friday left the tournament missing some star power. The glass-half-full talk about how their absences throws more attention on rising players like Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios and even Kei Nishikori is nice, but let’s be real: The younger guns are all perfectly fine players, but without Roger and Rafa here, it just ain’t the same. A possible Nadal-Novak Djokovic semifinal matchup loomed as the match of the tournament when the draw came out. That’s now gone.

Garber: It has to be Rafa and his painful left wrist. His departure here, where he’s made his career, is particularly tough to process. His record at Roland Garros is a sublime 72-2, but winning that 10th title could prove difficult. The doctor that operated on Juan Martin del Potro‘s wrist, based on what he knows, thinks that Nadal’s recovery time will be four to six weeks. That puts him seriously at risk for Wimbledon.

Bodo: No. 19 seed Sloane Stephens was in a great position to get back her reputation as a big-match player. And what better place? She had been to fourth round for four years in a row (and she’s only 23). Also, she was in the lower half of a draw in which the only Grand Slam champs left by Round 3 were Samantha Stosur and No. 13 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova. But Stephens didn’t even look like she was paying attention as she sleepwalked through a 6-2, 6-1 loss to No. 108 Tsvetana Pironkova.

Biggest surprise

Howard: Stepanek, the 37-year-old Czech, has to play his way into the French Open via qualifiers. His first match was against second-seeded Murray, who’d just beaten Djokovic in Rome. Stepanek didn’t care. He preened, bellowed and gestured for the crowd to cheer his best shots as he seized the opening two sets. Rain and darkness pushed their cliffhanger match into a second day. Murray admitted he was lucky to escape with a 3-6, 3-6, 6-0, 6-3, 7-5 win.

Garber: Shelby Rogers came into this fortnight with all of four career wins at Grand Slams and in the span of one week, put together three here at Roland Garros. That is coming out of nowhere. Her victory against No. 17 Karolina Pliskova was eye-opening, but her three-set victory over two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova was inspiring. After losing a second-set tiebreaker, Rogers rallied to produce her second 6-0 bagel of the match.

Bodo: No. 4 seed Nadal’s decision to pull out of the event because of a worsening left wrist injury seemed to come out of nowhere. Nadal, a nine-time Roland Garros champ, had just broken out of a long and stressful slump. He seemed ready to restate his King of Clay credentials. The last minute withdrawal of Roger Federer (bad back) boosted Nadal up to a No. 4 seeding, ensuring that if he met Djokovic, it would be in a much-anticipated semifinal. And then it all fell to pieces when Nadal unexpectedly had to quit the tournament on Friday afternoon. Bummer.

Women’s player of the week

Howard: It’s hard to top the way defending champion Serena Williams dropped only five games and won both of her first two matches in less than an hour apiece. And she showed serious fight in a third-round struggle against Kristina Mladenovic. Anyone wondering if Williams’ terrific play while winning the Italian Open after a long absence from tournament play would carry over to Roland Garros now has their answer: Serena hasn’t dropped a set — let alone a match — since returning to the tour.

Garber: There’s a reason Serena is seeded No. 1. Unlike last year, when five of her seven matches went the distance, Serena has been taking care of her business this time around. Two dropped games in the first round, three in the second and a straight-sets win Saturday is the way to conserve energy for the second week.

Bodo: It’s a tossup between the sisters, Serena and Venus Williams. Serena has picked up right where she left off in Rome, giving the women’s game a very much needed element of reliability — and at the very top, no less. Venus has been inspirational, winning three matches at the age of 35 and showing that the competitive fire still burns.

Men’s player of the week

Howard: Djokovic could be the pick in every tournament he enters, but second-seeded Murray deserves some props for weathering a media tempest about terminating his working relationship with French hero Amelie Mauresmo, then five-set scares against Stepanek and unheralded Mathias Bourgue. Instead of sulking or deciding the fights were too steep, Murray survived, advanced and achieved his goal of being more efficient in his straight-sets, third-round match over Ivo Karlovic.

Garber: I’ll take the easy way out and go for the obvious — No. 1 seed Djokovic. He’s been steady and consistently downplayed his quest for a first title at Roland Garros. Djokovic directly benefits from Rafa’s withdrawal here. Who would you rather play in the semifinals, Nadal — or fellow Spaniard Marcel Granollers, who was granted the walkover?

Bodo: The obvious pick would be Djokovic, but I’m going with defending champ Wawrinka. He was under a lot of pressure in his first match, given how so many considered his win over Djokovic in last year’s final a fluke. Then they made the poor guy play a dangerous opponent in an early match on a dismal day before an empty stadium — some way to honor the defending champion! Stan Wawrinka survived Lukas Rosol and won two more matches, including a third-rounder over a Frenchman who plays well at home, No. 30 seed Jeremy Chardy.

Most pressing question for Week 2

Howard: Can world No. 1s Williams and Djokovic finally close out the milestone titles they’re chasing, despite knowing they’ve faltered in this position before? This is Williams’ third crack at tying Steffi Graf at 22 major titles, an Open era record. Djokovic became even more heavily favored when Nadal withdrew Friday. But everyone said that last year when Djokovic faced eighth-seeded Wawrinka in the final.

Garber: Who will come out of the bottom half of the men’s draw to challenge Djokovic in the final? You can make an argument for No. 2 seed Murray, No. 3 Wawrinka, the defending champion, No. 5 Kei Nishikori and even No. 8 Milos Raonic. They could all meet in the quarterfinals. Can’t wait.

Bodo: It will be interesting to see how Djokovic is influenced by the withdrawal of Nadal. Suddenly, Djokovic is expected to land in the land of milk and honey. But isn’t that exactly what happened last year once he got past slumping Nadal in the quarters? And we all know what happened then. Djokovic will face similar pressure again, this time potentially for four rounds, and nothing can be taken for granted. Stay tuned.

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