It was an anticipated feature of this year’s Roland Garros: the cooler, damper conditions and heavier ball were a recipe for long, gruelling matches that would seriously test the movement and fitness of all the players in this best-of-five-set format.
Sure enough even before the second round was completed, the five-set battles were piling up. That No5 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and No13 seed Andrey Rublev were among the marathon men in the first round made their survival all the more impressive. The two contested the Hamburg title just two days before, and Tsitsipas bounced back with impressive energy to cruise past Pablo Cuevas for the loss of only seven games and into the third round.
In the bottom half of the draw, young stars Casper Ruud and Alexander Zverev, survived taxing five-setters to reach the third round, where No27 seed Taylor Fritz and unseeded Lorenzo Sonego also advanced after earlier five-set tests.
For No30 seed Jan-Lennard Struff and Tennys Sandgren, their five-setters proved too much and they progressed no further. The same, perhaps not surprisingly, was the case for Kei Nishikori, who beat Dan Evans in five, but then lost out to Stefano Travaglia in five.
The newest man in the top 10, Denis Shapovalov, certainly had plenty of matches in his legs ahead of Roland Garros, after reaching his first Major quarter-final at the US Open, and then his first Rome Masters semi-final.
The explosive, attacking left-handed tennis of the 21-year-old Canadian had been catching the eye since his teenage years, but his 100th match-win to reach the third round in Paris for the first time, affirmed his rising status on the tour.
He was certainly favourite to reach the fourth round, so there were probably few who expected this to become the latest, and perhaps the best, to join the five-setter library.
But for all the success and fine form that Shapovalov had demonstrated ahead of Roland Garros, an opponent like Roberto Carballes Baena was always going to be a challenge.
The Spaniard may be ranked down at 101, and never even broken the top 70, but he was a clay player in the classic Spanish mould. His only career final/title final was in Quito more than two years ago, and out of 49 career match-wins, 39 had come on clay.
In contrast, the young Canadian’s record had a strong hard-court bias. That 100th match-win at Roland Garros was only his 17th on clay: 81 of his tally had been wins on hard courts.
Carballes Baena, then, broke for 6-5, and Shapovalov took a medical time out for treatment to his upper thigh. Clay is perhaps the worst surface on which to contain such an injury, and the drying conditions in the first proper sun of the week only played into the hands of the clay aficionados.
Sure enough, the Spaniard served out the set, 7-5, and then broke to take a quick lead in the second. Shapovalov levelled, and his attacking game began to yield more traction—he came to the net no fewer than 25 times in this set alone. Even so, the Spaniard got a timely break for 6-5 once again, and the Canadian exploded, smashing his racket.
But he refocused, broke back, and edged a tight tie-break, 7-6(5), though still showing signs of a slight limp.
Shapovalov showed more signs of frustration in the third set, continued to attack and go for his shots, but with a brief halt for drizzly rain, the errors also rained down, 19 of them for eight winners. Meanwhile, Carballes Baena played some brilliant, patient, tactically smart baseline tennis, and it earned him the required break for the set, 6-3.
With the sun out again, Shapovalov dug in, played with a little more patience, and it got him the break. He had chances for another in the sixth game, but served at 4-2, and finally took the set, 6-3. It had been his best set yet, with 10/11 points won at the net, and 14 winners to just one by Carballes Baena.
The Spaniard showed considerable resilience to hold his opening serve, and maintained great length and direction to test the patience of Shapovalov. Another nine-minute fifth game offered the Canadian multiple break points as both men played some of the longest rallies of the match, and at last Shapovalov converted the fourth, 3-2.
He was challenged hard in a long eighth game, but the Canadian held for 5-3. However, two wayward strikes handed the break back to the indefatigable Carballes Baena, 5-5, and Shapovalov roared his fury at the lost chance.
Still the two fought on, in ever-tougher rallies, and Shapovalov broke again with the set now an hour long, 6-5. But yet again, Carballes Baena broke back with truly impressive precision play from the baseline. His serving seemed to improve all the time, and he held to apply the pressure on the younger man—who finally buckled to concede set and match, 8-6.
No wonder Carballes Baena lifted his arms with a smile of pure joy on his face: He looked as fresh after five hours as he had at the start, and his formidable fitness and astute match-play had earned him the third round of a Major for the first time after beating his first top-10 opponent. It was fully deserved.
Shapovalov was happy with his current tennis but less happy with the conditions at this oh-so-late Roland Garros—a common theme running many of the players’ comments.
“I think I’m playing some good tennis, so I just want to keep that up. I mean I’m happy again that I was in the position to win today and son my first round, because these conditions were completely stacked against me. Yeah, it just wasn’t great. I’m not going to let this tournament affect me and I’m just going to keep going. I injured my hamstring a little bit so hopefully it’s not something too serious. We’re playing in freezing conditions so it’s bound to happen that players are going to get hurt. So it’s a bit frustrating, but there’s really nothing we can do.”
Carballes Baena will next play another stylish single-hander, this time of the right-handed variety, in No18 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who beat Andrej Martin, 6-4, 7-6(5), 6-1 in two hours 15 minutes.
And the winner of that contest could face yet another single-hander, the charismatic Greek Tsitsipas.
In the top quarter, No15 seed Karen Khachanov needed over three and a half hours to get past fellow 6ft 6ins player, Jiri Vesely, 6-1, 6-7(4), 7-6(7), 7-6(2). The Russian saved multiple set points along the way, and had to fight back from 2-5 down in the fourth set.
He will now play No20 seed Cristian Garin, who beat lucky loser Marc Polmans, 6-7(5), 6-2, 7-6(3), 6-4, also after more than three and a half hours.
But amid all these marathon battles, four and five-setters together, one man has looked unruffled and untroubled on his way to the third round. No1 Novak Djokovic beat Ricardas Berankis, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2, in well under an hour and a half to improve to 33-1 for the year. What is more, the win was his 70th at Roland Garros, equal to Roger Federer and behind only the defending champion, Rafael Nadal, who scored his 95th win yesterday.
Djokovic will next play lucky loser Daniel Elahi Galan, ranked 153, who beat Sandgren, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.
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