May 23, 2011 -- Ever since the men's and women's draws came out last Friday there's been a buzz. Tennis pundits, diehard bloggers, and everyday club players have sent texts, written on Facebook walls, tweeted, and perhaps talked over the phone about the match-ups... especially the first round ones.
For example, how did Rafael Nadal, still King of Clay in Paris, pull up alongside the six-foot-nine American-with-a-giant-serve John Isner? Sure, Nadal will probably get past Isner but the number-one seed won't find his groove because Isner's game is so dependent on his boomer of a serve. That means zero rhythm for Nadal.
And what about Caroline Wozniacki's chance meeting with Kimiko Date-Krumm, a woman twice the Dane's age? It didn't matter to 'Sunshine,' today. She just beat the life out of the elder opponent 60 62, waved to the crowd, smiling brilliantly to all. Game... set... match... and who's up next?
But not many considered Tomas Berdych's draw. Or, if they did, they didn't yell above the din swirling through the galaxy of electronic communication. His first round looked routine.
Here was a 31-year-old French qualifier named Stephane Robert -- not a big deal. Berdych would not have been dumb enough to totally disregard the man that many called a 'journeyman,' an unflattering term amongst pros. Berdych knew deep down that anyone on any day can get hot. Matches nowadays are contested in the margin. One point here, one point there. Boom, an upset.
And that's what happened today on Court 2. Stephane Robert blindsided the #6 seed Berdych, sending him off site to sulk, break a racquet or two, and move on.
Asked how it happened that after being up two sets to love, that he then lost it 9/7 in the fifth, Berdych sarcastically replied, "He won three more sets than I did." He wasn't in the mood for chit-chat about the crushing defeat.
Berdych intimated that he didn't struggle more in the last three sets than he had in the first two. "He missed a few balls in the first two sets," Berdych admitted, his mind beginning to wrap around the reality of the day. "He used his enjoyment to the best of his ability."
Bottom line... Robert played the match of his life, got lucky a couple times, and kept his head straight at 8/7 in the fifth as he served for the match. The Frenchman is ranked currently at 140, far away from the upper echelon of top-ten tennis air that Berdych breathes.
"I should have served more aces," Berdych added sarcastically. "That would give him not so many chances."
This is Robert's third French Open; and, he's never made it past the first round. In 2007 he was sidelined with Hepatitis A, returning mid-season the next year. "I didn't practice for months. I'm not an athlete anymore and I have no ATP ranking," he said, according to the ATP website.
Of the 14 tournaments he entered this year, 12 were Challengers. He didn't win any titles. He qualified for the Australian Open and then lost first round to Nicolas Almagro who is seeded #11 at Roland Garros. Tomas Berdych might not want to know that right now.
Berdych fans probably feel badly for their hero. On the flip side, today's story was one for the underdogs -- a French underdog. Being culinary geniuses, the French will savor this victory for some time.
Chances are, though, Stephane Robert won't make it past the next round. That's usually what occurs. The miraculous upset is followed by a fall from grace. If that happens Robert will hear the bitter side of French fans, known for their no-nonsense dismissal of players who disregard their expectations.
With Berdych out of the tournament his former quarter of the draw has lost two seeded players: the Czech and Marin Cilic, the #19 seed. Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo stunned Cilic yesterday in straight sets.
Novak Djokovic's resides in this quarter of the draw, too. The Serbian must be wearing the grin of a Cheshire Cat this evening, as he realizes two of the biggest servers and hitters, especially Berdych who had match points against him in Miami this spring, have been ousted. The pathway across the terre bateau courts of Roland Garros could appear smoother for Novak, at the moment. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.
And speaking of getting far ahead... Christine McHale, an American teen hopeful, was up 5/0 in the third set against the Italian Sara Errani in their first round when McHale's wheels wobbled and fell off completely. She lost 9/7 in the third. Sound familiar?
Errani is playing in her fourth French Open. She has never advanced beyond the first round. Maybe the thought of losing to McHale, ranked some 40 spots lower and playing in only her second French Open, was just the spark she needed to reverse the momentum.
The Associated Press reported, "The reason she [Errani] didn't give in down 5-0 was because she recalled that McHale appeared tense in the first set tiebreaker."
Errani's keen insight was certainly one key to her victory. And McHale's lack of an ability to remain calm and in the match unearthed her chances.
"I started rushing when she won a couple games [in the fifth]. I felt like it was slipping away. I couldn't stop it," she said tearfully, again as reported by the Associated Press. "I didn't take my time. I was feeling something in my leg and I wanted to close it out quickly and I stopped thinking. I was just trying to end it."
The biggest of tennis tournaments -- all four Majors -- throw players into another level of consciousness. Errani's experience and drive to perform well at this French Open held an edge over McHale, a young woman who has years left to prove herself.
McHale said this had never happened, "even in the juniors." Good thing it was today and early in her professional career. Training your mind to stay with each point rather than sail off to some improbable ending that lives only in an imagination can only materialize after a disappointing loss like this one.
"It feels awful now, but hopefully in a couple days I'll be able to take something from this so it won't happen again." Sounds as if she's on the right track.