The Unexpected Ones

If you filled out a French Open racquet-bracket on any number of platforms before last Sunday, you must know by now that you messed up. Don’t fret. Who in the world could have picked these two to grab berths in the quarterfinals: Shelby Rogers and Alberto Ramos-Vinolas? 

But, they did. And that’s the glory of a major tennis tournament. All the players know the import of these four events, prepare as best as possible, and try to let loose. In fact, though, the underdogs are probably less nerve-wracked at times than the higher seeded players. 

Case-in-point is number-108-ranked Rogers. 

Shelby Rogers has beaten two seeded players plus a two-time Wimbledon champion on her way to her first-ever major quarterfinal. Photo credit Leslie Billman

Who would have predicted that a woman ranked that high would beat these players on the way to her first-ever major quarterfinal: No. 17 seed Karolina Pliskova; Elena Vesnina, Volvo Car Open runner-up; No. 10 seed Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion; and No. 25 seed Irina Begu, a semifinalist in Rome and quarterfinalist in Madrid this year? 

Improbable doesn’t cover it. 

Jon Wertheim on Tennis Channel best characterized Shelby’s performance in Paris as, “A career changing week.”

“I always dreamed it would happen, but I’m not sure I thought it could happen,” Rogers told commentators on court after her two-set win over Begu, 6-3, 6-4. 

Rogers’ tennis has been eye-popping. In today’s heavier conditions — damp, rainy — patience was key. When she connected with forehands and backhands, she moved the ball around the court and kept them deep. Begu couldn’t do much as her frustration infected her attitude. 

“Usually it’s Serena and Venus,” Rogers said on court, as she tried to make her way to the locker room. “I was trying not to think where I was and who I was playing. I was trying to treat that last point as if it were any other, but there were so many thoughts going through my mind.”

Emotions ran high for the Charleston, S.C., native, as the occasion became more real immediately following the win. Her mother and step-father were in the audience, both with tears in their eyes. Shelby, too, was overcome. At one point, commentator Marion Bartoli handed out tissues. 

“I’m definitely outside of my comfort zone already,” Rogers told the press afterward. “I keep telling myself, you belong here, you belong here. You know, play your game, do the things that got you to this moment. Don’t change anything.”

Rogers next faces Garbina Muguruza, No. 4. She is a two-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist (2014, 2015) and runner-up at Wimbledon last year.

“I’m ready to step up to the challenge,” Rogers said. “I have nothing to lose. I have no pressure. It’s just been a great experience here, and I want to keep enjoying it and keep pushing myself.”

Little known lefty, and Spaniard, Alberto Ramos-Vinolas showed a the big-serving Canadian, Milos Raonic, just how it’s done on the terre-battue of Roland Garros. Photo credit Leslie Billman

Spaniard Alberta Ramos-Vinolas can probably relate to Rogers’ excitement. The 28-year-old journeyman looks as if he’s taken on the mantle for a missing countryman named Rafael Nadal. Today, Ramos-Vinolas continued his push to make history by defeating another expected member of the final eight: Milos Raonic, No. 8, 6-2 6-4, 6-4. 

The scoreline should tell a story in itself because the big-serving Canadian normally drags opponents through tiebreak nail-bitters; and, it reveals nothing but out-of-the-ordinary. But he couldn’t find his way against the lefty who showed Raonic just how it’s done by an authentic ‘dirt-baller’ from Spain, in this emphatic loss.

“He played well,” Raonic told the press afterward. “He’s having the best week on tour. He’s moving well. He did things quite efficiently today. The conditions were slower and heavier, but he faced what I faced. I had a simple task to find a way to win and I couldn’t.”

Milos Raonic, No. 8, must return to the red-clay drawing board in order to improve on his 4th round best-performance. It’s certainly not easy when facing a player who schools you.
Photo credit Leslie Billman

Yesterday, Roanic’s camp announced that John McEnroe would join their team for the three weeks leading up to Wimbledon. McEnroe’s serve-and-volley style is something Raonic wants to adapt and apply with more frequency, as his career moves forward. It makes all sorts of sense, too. Raonic is six-foot-ten and can intimidate and gain ground because of his serve. Yet, he had hired Carlos Moya — French Open Champion, 2002, and Spanish clay-courter — for improvement on red clay and only advanced to the quarterfinals in 2014 (He did not play in 2015, due to an injury). This is the conundrum for all players yearning for the number-one ranking. You can hire the best and plan for victory, but the draw and unexpected circumstances always will alter outcomes. Which gives credence to the importance of bouncing back and recovering from every obstacle the game hands out.

“This tournament, in general, I have played way too passive and let the other guys dictate too much,” Raonic admitted. “I counted on sort of scrapping and fighting to get myself through, which wasn’t enough today.”




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