Why We Watch the Opening Rounds
Monfils takes it 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 and does a unique "exploding heart" celebration. twitter.com/RomiCvitkovic/…— Romi Cvitkovic (@RomiCvitkovic) May 29, 2013
Barring a dramatic upset, we pretty much know what we're going to get in this year's French Open. On the men's side, the odds are very good that the semifinals will pit Novak Djokovic versus Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer versus David Ferrer. Federer and Ferrer have looked fabulous, and while Djokovic and Nadal each plodded through a tough first-round match, they're Djokovic and Nadal. They're fine. Meanwhile, on the women's side, we know we're probably going to get Serena Williams versus either Sara Errani or Agnieszka Radwanska in one semifinal and Victoria Azarenka versus Maria Sharapova in the other. There are a lot more wildcards in the women's draw, but only so many. If we only care about who's making the finals, then we only have one or two must-watch matches in a given day, and the first week of the French Open could require minimal attention.
But the subplots are just so much damn fun. As with March Madness, the little stories are almost more enjoyable than the big ones.
Take Gael Monfils. Long a fan favorite because of his randomly flashy offense, he has long shown the penchant for doing exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, just because. Here's how Reeves Wiedeman put it in a lovely piece on French tennis for Grantland last year:
It is quite possible that in his eight-year career, Gaël Monfils, currently ranked 14th in the world, has yet to hit two shots exactly alike. His specialty is leaping in the air, then swinging his racket between his legs or behind his back or with his weaker hand, and occasionally some combination of all those. As [French writer Philippe] Bouin put it, Monfils "prefers to be seen as an exciting showman than as a dull winner." Were he ever to focus on winning, he is seen as the Frenchman with the best chance of someday becoming a champion at Roland Garros. This year, he was out with a tweaked knee. "Monfils would be my favorite player if he ever played," Bouin added. "I'm almost convinced he has no confidence, no deep confidence in himself. So I think he escapes by doing all the crazy things he does. And I think sometimes he escapes by having injuries."
On Wednesday, Monfils reached the third round of the French Open with a hard-fought, four-set win over Ernests Gulbis. It is the sixth time he has advanced to the third round; he actually reached the semifinals in 2008, beating Ferrer in four sets in the quarterfinals and splitting the first two sets with Federer in the semis before fading.
Through the years, Monfils has beaten Federer and Nadal. He has been around the block, and he has certainly been in the third round at the French Open before. But things feel different this time around. First of all, his draw has been insanely difficult. He fell out of the rankings because he missed a lot of time with a knee injury last year, and, unseeded, he drew No. 5 Tomas Berdych in the first round. He lost a two-set lead but held on in the fifth and advanced. His second-round match versus Gulbis pitted two of the most tantalizing and frustrating players in the men's tour against each other. No lead was safe in the first three sets, with both players surging and fading. But Monfils was the steadier of the two players and eventually pulled away. His reward? A date with another big-time clay-courter, Tommy Robredo (No. 13 in the Advanced Baseline clay rankings) on Friday.
Perhaps because of his injury, or perhaps because of the look on his face during his matches -- he's trying as hard as he can to remain all-business, and he looks uncomfortable at times because of it -- it feels different this time. Monfils has always been an endearing player, appearing super-human one second and incredibly, depressingly mortal the next, but he has embraced the moment in the first week of the 2013 French Open, holding steady on the court and enjoying the crowd on breaks. If you only pay attention to the players most likely to reach the finals, you might miss Monfils. You might also miss Milos Raonic (the No. 14 seed who appears to be more comfortable on clay than ever), or the way Americans are overachieving in the Djokovic Region, or the way French men are ganging up around Roger Federer in the Fed Region. On the women's side, you might miss the maddening Bojana Jovanovski's sudden surge, or Virginie Razzano's out-of-nowhere move to the third round, or Monic Puig's hello-world moment. All of the most enjoyable stories from the first few days of the tournament probably won't be stories a week from now. But we watch because of them.
I wasn't kidding about Monfils, by the way. He's insane. He plays defense like Andy Murray, then randomly says "Eh, let's go for it" when he absolutely, positively shouldn't. At least, the old Monfils did.
Matches to Watch
Women's 2nd round (Sharapova Region): Maria Sharapova  vs. Eugenie Bouchard (Match 3, Court Philippe Chatrier)
Advanced Baseline clay ranking: Sharapova No. 2 | Bouchard No. 66
The top-five seeds in the women's draw lost a total of 13 games in eight first-round sets. Four of those came in one set from Victoria Azarenka. The story has held true thus far in the second round, with No. 1 Serena Williams cruising through Caroline Garcia (6-1, 6-2), No. 5 Sara Errani playing untouchable clay tennis against Yulia Putintseva (6-1, 6-1), and Agnieszka Radwanska cruising through young American Mallory Burdette (6-3, 6-2). A player's form can fall apart at any time, but the top women have looked fantastic. Now it's time to see if Sharapova and Azarenka (versus Annika Beck) can hold steady as we reach the first weekend.
Men's 2nd round (Djokovic Region): Janko Tipsarevic  vs. Fernando Verdasco (Match 3, Court 1)
Advanced Baseline clay ranking: Tipsarevic No. 27 | Verdasco No. 31
Tipsarevic fell into a terrible slump this spring. Heading into the French Open, he had lost three-consecutive matches and 11 of 15 since he pulled out of his Australian Open match versus Nicolas Almagro. He has fought both a foot injury and bronchitis. But if he can get past Verdasco, who is, according to Advanced Baseline, his equal on clay, the draw could unfold in a rather positive way for him in the coming rounds.
Men's 2nd round (Djokovic Region): Tommy Haas  vs. Jack Sock (Match 4, Court 2)
Advanced Baseline clay ranking: Haas No. 14 | Sock No. 122
It's the Odd Couple matchup of the day: the 35-year-old Haas versus the 20-year-old Sock. The two are occasional practice partners in Southern California, and while Haas has an obvious form and experience advantage, Sock looked tremendous in his first-round match and might be starting to figure out the clay a little bit. The longer this match goes, the more Haas could eventually wear down. Haas is your likely winner, but this could turn into a fascinating battle.
Men's 2nd round (Djokovic Region): John Isner  vs. Ryan Harrison (Match 4, Court 3)
Advanced Baseline clay ranking: Isner No. 61 | Harrison No. 124
The good news: one of these two Americans will make the first weekend of the French Open! And with the winner playing the Haas-Sock winner, a Sock upset could ensure that an American actually reaches the fourth round as well! American males -- Isner, Harrison, Sock, Sam Querrey -- have overachieved at the French Open compared to their clay rankings, but the bar is still pretty low. Isner and Harrison know each other quite well, and it will be interesting to see which of the two better embraces the opportunity.
Women's 2nd round (Azarenka Region): Marion Bartoli  vs. Mariana Duque-Marino (Match 4, Court 1)
Advanced Baseline clay ranking: Bartoli No. 62 | Duque-Marino No. 70
Let's just say that, after this incredibly ridiculous Reuters piece, a lot of us may have found one more reason to root for the enigmatic Bartoli this week.
Balance of Power
With each daily preview, we'll take a look at the top-ranked (according to AB clay rankings) remaining members of each region of the draw. The seeds don't really mesh too well with clay-court competence.
Djokovic Region (all advanced to second round)
2. Novak Djokovic 
14. Tommy Haas 
26. Philipp Kohlschreiber 
27. Janko Tipsarevic 
31. Fernando Verdasco
37. Grigor Dimitrov 
39. Mikhail Youzhny 
42. Victor Hanescu
The rankings suggest we're looking at fourth-round matchups of Djokovic-Kohlschreiber and Haas-Tipsarevic. But there are a lot of players condensed into a small space in the AB rankings. This could be an enjoyable few rounds, at least aside from the mostly inevitable Djokovic domination.
Nadal Region of Complete Destruction (all advanced to second round)
1. Rafael Nadal 
7. Stan Wawrinka 
10. Richard Gasquet 
15. Benoit Paire 
18. Kei Nishikori 
21. Fabio Fognini 
28. Jerzy Janowicz 
48. Nikolay Davydenko
The Wawrinka-Gasquet fourth-rounder could be really, really good.
Ferrer Region (all advanced to third round)
3. David Ferrer 
8. Nicolas Almagro 
12. Gael Monfils
13. Tommy Robredo 
24. Kevin Anderson 
32. Milos Raonic 
34. Andreas Seppi 
71. Feliciano Lopez
If Monfils continues his fun run in this tournament, he'll have earned it. If he beats Robredo, he'll probably face Almagro, then Ferrer, giving him five wins versus Top-30 clay opponents. That's ridiculous. And unlikely. Ferrer's still the favorite here.
Federer Region (all advanced to third round)
4. Roger Federer 
16. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 
20. Marin Cilic 
33. Gilles Simon 
36. Jeremy Chardy 
58. Sam Querrey 
66. Viktor Troicki
67. Julien Benneteau 
Tennis fans tend to love Federer, but he could potentially face nothing but French citizens from here until the semifinals: Benneteau in Round 3, Simon in Round 4, and either Tsonga or Chardy in the quarterfinals.
Williams Region (all advanced to third round)
1. Serena Williams 
10. Angelique Kerber 
15. Svetlana Kuznetsova
21. Roberta Vinci 
28. Varvara Lepchenko 
47. Petra Cetkovska
52. Sorana Cirstea 
141. Bojana Jovanovski
So far, we've gotten one set of Bad Kuznetsova and four sets of Good Kuznetsova. She could be Serena's biggest remaining challenge in this region. Or she could bow out to Jovanovski in the third round.
Radwanska Region (all advanced to third round)
4. Sara Errani 
7. Agnieszka Radwanska 
9. Ana Ivanovic 
16. Carla Suarez Navarro 
25. Sabine Lisicki 
77. Monica Puig
91. Dinal Pfizenmaier
128. Virginie Razzano
Ivanovic is doing her best to keep up, but Errani and Radwanska have looked untouchable thus far. Of course, again, that can change in a single match.
Azarenka Region (all advanced to second round)
3. Victoria Azarenka 
6. Na Li 
8. Kaia Kanepi
14. Maria Kirilenko 
24. Yaroslava Shvedova 
32. Alize Cornet 
35. Bethanie Mattek-Sands
36. Paula Ormaechea
The bottom half of the draw has taken the brunt of the rain delays so far, and it looks like that will continue today. Early-tournament rain delays mean a few back-to-backs later in the tournament.
Sharapova Region (all advanced to second round)
2. Maria Sharapova 
5. Sam Stosur 
13. Petra Kvitova 
18. Jelena Jankovic 
19. Dominika Cibulkova 
34. Jamie Hampton
37. Shuai Peng
38. Sloane Stephens 
Can anyone interrupt the Sharapova-Stosur quarterfinal crash course?