2014 French Open: Assessing the damage from a series of 1st-round upsets

Clive Brunskill

Six of the top 21 men's seeds have already been eliminated in the first round of the French Open, and both Australian Open champions -- Li Na and Stan Wawrinka -- are headed home. Let's assess the damage from a rather unpredictable (but not necessarily THAT unpredictable) first two and a half days in Paris.

Clay courts are perhaps the most specialized in tennis. A lot of really good clay-courters aren't very good at other surfaces, while a lot of highly-ranked players earn their points on the hard courts and muddle through clay season.

Since the French Open bases its seedings entirely on overall rankings, that results in some odd early-round matchups and, at times, upsets that aren't really upsets at all.

Through two and a half days and less than one full round of the 2014 French Open, six seeded men and three seeded women have been taken down. Both Australian Open champions, Stan Wawrinka and Li Na, were gone by Tuesday afternoon. That is nuts, even by French Open standards, and it will have significant bracket repercussions. But how many of these upsets were actually upsets?

Men

Guillermo Garcia-Lopez d. No. 3 Stan Wawrinka

Score: 6-4, 5-7, 6-2, 6-0
Advanced Baseline odds: 19%

This was certainly an upset, especially considering the last two sets, in which Garcia-Lopez won 12 of 14 games. But Garcia-Lopez is still the No. 27 clay-courter in the world according to the Advanced Baseline rankings, so this isn't exactly earth-shattering. The 30-year old Spaniard pounced on Wawrinka's first serve (Wawrinka won only 54 percent of his first-serve points) and basically just got out of the way during rallies (unforced errors: Wawrinka 62, Garcia-Lopez 28), and that was enough.

Ivo Karlovic d. No. 11 Grigor Dimitrov

Score: 6-4, 7-5, 7-6
Advanced Baseline odds: 20%

The 6'11 Karlovic is a landmine at all times because of his monstrous serve -- at 35 years old, he still ranks 37th in the ATP rankings because he's nearly impossible to break. Still, clay mutes big serves, and Karlovic ranks just 107th in the AB clay rankings. But Dimitrov had no answers. Karlovic landed 63 percent of his first serves and won eight of every nine first-serve points. Dimitrov had only 22 unforced errors, but he created just a single break point in three sets. Hard to win like that.

Martin Klizan d. No. 9 Kei Nishikori

Score: 7-6, 6-1, 6-2
Advanced Baseline odds: 51%

This was not an upset. Klizan is the No. 10 clay-courter according to Advanced Baseline, but his lack of success on other surfaces meant he did not get seeded. Nishikori has had a nice year, but at No. 11 on clay, he was actually the AB underdog. And after a nip-and-tuck first set, he gave out. Klizan created twice as many break points and had 13 fewer unforced errors, and won 58 percent of the match's overall points. That part is a surprise, even if the overall result is not.

Teymuraz Gabashvili d. No. 30 Vasek Pospisil

Score: 6-4, 6-2, 6-3
Advanced Baseline odds: 69%

This was really not an upset.

In my opinion, the more egregious one is Vasek Pospisil getting a seed despite being #154 on clay, worse than over half the field. It's illustrative of a lot of the problems with the current ranking system. (I had to scale him down to 100 because his huge distance between seed and ranking was breaking the graph by itself. THANKS, CANADA.)

Pospisil owes 20% of his ATP rankings points to a semifinal run at the Masters 1000 last July, a run that was certainly helped by a timely retirement from Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals. Those points alone are basically good enough to get Pospisil two rounds of immunity from the best players in tennis at a Slam, despite a) their occurring 10 months ago, b) injury luck playing a huge part, and c) the points coming on a completely separate surface. Pospisil hasn't beaten anybody higher than 75th this year, nor has he won a single match since January. He's got early exit written all over him.

Injuries created another couple of surprise results when both Nicolas Almagro and Tommy Haas retired in the first set of their respective matches. Jack Sock would have had a 14-percent chance against a healthy Almagro, while Jurgen Zopp would have had a 15-percent chance against a healthy Haas. And now both advance.

Women

Kristina Mladenovic d. No. 2 Li Na

Score: 7-5, 3-6, 6-1
Advanced Baseline odds: 18%

This rates pretty much on par with Wawrinka's loss -- the result itself isn't a total shock, but the ease of the final set was. Na ranks only sixth overall on clay courts, and faced a pretty big challenge reaching the semifinals in a region with Sara Errani (No. 8), Jelena Jankovic (No. 10) and Andrea Petkovic (No. 13). Mladenovic ranks only 78th on clay, but she still had essentially a one-in-five chance of winning this match. It was certainly poor timing for Na, however, who apparently suffered the rare Time Magazine cover jinx (you're off the hook for now, Sports Illustrated).

Paulina Parmentier d. No. 17 Roberta Vinci

Score: 3-6, 6-3, 6-2
Advanced Baseline odds: 18%

From an odds perspective, this was as unlikely as Li Na's loss. Parmentier is a lowly 185th on clay, and the 29th-ranked player in the Williams region. But after Vinci fell asleep in the second set (six winners to 18 unforced errors), Parmentier found her range in the third, dominating with her first serve and hitting 11 more winners (15 to 4). Parmentier is easily the lowest ranked of the 16 remaining players in the Williams region, and will need to pull another hefty upset to get past Yaroslava Shvedova in the second round.

Monica Niculescu d. No. 25 Kaia Kanepi

Score: 5-7, 6-3, 6-1
Advanced Baseline odds: 45%

This one was barely an upset overall but played out similar to Vinci's loss. Kanepi survived the first set then took her foot off of the accelerator, imploding for 10 winners to 34 unforced errors in the final two sets while Niculescu grew more confident. Niculescu was pretty much perfect in the final set, hitting eight winners with one unforced error and landing 71 percent of her first serves.

Who benefits?

Rafael Nadal

So what does this mean moving forward? For starters, it means very good things for Nadal. The eight-time French Open champion looked downright inhuman in the first round, dropping just three games to American Robby Ginepri -- he won 66 percent of the points in a sport in which anything above about 55 percent is pretty dominant. Nadal was also able to dispose of a couple of challengers without even trying.

Almagro's injury eliminated the possibility of a fourth-round battle with the player who beat him last month in Barcelona. Meanwhile, Haas' retirement eliminated the second-best player in that part of the draw, as well. Instead of playing the No. 7 or 23 clay player (according to AB) in the fourth round, Nadal cannot face anyone better than Dusan Lajovic (No. 84 on clay) or Jack Sock (No. 92).

Nadal could still face No. 4 David Ferrer in the quarterfinals, which is tough, but the path to Ferrer has been cleared.

An American!

Sock, meanwhile, benefits as well. The 21-year-old Midwesterner made waves with third-round appearances in the U.S. Open in both 2012 and 2013, but he might never have a clearer path to the fourth round now that Almagro's out of the way. His second-round opponent will be either fellow American Steve Johnson (No. 106 on clay) or Frenchman Laurent Lokoli (No. 422), and his third-round opponent would be either Lajovic or Zopp. While this road is pretty easy, for either Sock or Johnson, it would still score some nice points in the ATP rankings, since winning is more important than actually beating high-quality competition.

Sara Errani

The 27-year old from Bologna has reached each of the last two French Open semifinals and ranks eighth overall on clay, but has taken just three of 16 sets from Na, her projected quarterfinal opponent. If Errani survives American upstart Madison Keys later on Tuesday, perhaps only Jelena Jankovic (another beneficiary, albeit one who looked shaky in a first-round win) stands between Errani and a third semifinal appearance.

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