The increasing depth on both tours, the longevity of top players, and the quirks of the current ranking and seeding system mean an increasing number of surprisingly early matchups between marquee names. We have the first of those at this French Open in the third round, with top seed Andy Murray squaring off against Juan Martin del Potro.
No. 1 seed Andy Murray versus No. 29 seed Juan Martin del Potro (Murray leads series, 6-3)
Murray has struggled all year, but has shown signs of finding his A-game in time to repeat his deep run here in 2016. Getting over this hurdle would be an enormous confidence-booster. But there’s a caveat to this compelling matchup: Del Potro has been battling assorted injuries since before this event started. Ironically, he advanced to this round despite receiving medical treatment in his previous match because his opponent, Nicolas Almagro, went down with a knee injury shortly thereafter and defaulted. It’s hard to tell how much fitness will impact del Potro’s performance.
The matches between Murray and del Potro have always been intriguing battles, pitting Murray’s guile and defensive skills against del Potro’s attacking style. Del Potro got the best of it in their last meeting, a five-set Davis Cup triumph that set up Argentina’s semifinal win last year. That win avenged del Potro’s four-set loss against Murray in the Olympic gold-medal match in Rio. The last time one of them won back-to-back matches was in 2009, when Murray won a pair on hard courts.
No. 3 Simona Halep versus No. 26 Daria Kasatkina (Halep leads 1-0)
Halep is one of the most popular figures in the WTA, perhaps because the determined dynamo so ably fills the role of the underdog alongside her more powerful and physically imposing rivals. But she also has a tendency to shrink away in some matches when she isn’t the underdog and opportunity beckons. That’s why this is such a good test — she’s a veteran facing the highest-ranked 20-year-old in the WTA.
This promises to be a fascinating struggle between two former French Open junior champions. Halep won it in 2008, and she was the finalist in the main draw in 2014, the year Kasatkina won the junior event. At 5-foot-7, Kasatkina is just an inch taller. Halep has had an excellent spring: She’s 14-2 on Euroclay, with a title in Madrid. Kasatkina won the first WTA title of her career at Charleston on the quick green clay, but she has struggled in Europe, going winless until the French Open. Halep’s win in their only previous meeting was on a hard court in Miami.
Each of these men has been largely overlooked for very different reasons. Isner, the 32-year-old American, has been surpassed in the U.S. rankings by Jack Sock and overshadowed by heart-wrenching events surrounding Steve Johnson. Khachanov, 21, has been one of the least-hyped among the #NextGen stars, but he might have the most explosive game in that entire crew.
It’s counterintuitive, but the power-serving Isner historically has had some of his best results on clay. It may be happening again. He recently had back-to-back wins against Grand Slam champs Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic en route to the Rome Masters semifinals. Isner has been as far as the fourth round of the French Open, while Khachanov’s present position is his deepest yet at a major. His role models were Marat Safin and del Potro, which tells you all you need to know about what kind of match this will be: a clash of big servers in which tiebreakers may play the decisive role.