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Tennis

Tennis' unpredictability evident with Nadal, Stephens at French Open

Photo: Petr David Josek/AP

No. 17 Sloane Stephens will play another American, Vania King, in the second round.

PARIS -- Viewed from above, a tennis court looks like a creation by Mondrian, all those rectangles and corners and 90-degree edges, not a curve in sight. Which is funny, because virtually nothing else in tennis is linear.

Shots come drizzled with spin, never quite breaking the way you'd think. Matches are often arrhythmic and unpredictable. Careers resist anything resembling straight lines, zigging and zagging like EKG's. Monday at Roland Garros, we got a vivid display of tennis curveballs.

Shortly after lunch, Rafael Nadal played his first Grand Slam match in 11 months. Given his form coming in, he figured to make quick work of Daniel Brands, a German journeymensch of little regard.

"If there's one sure bet today," one esteemed TV analyst said off camera, "it's that Nadal will crush this guy."

Except, of course, there are no sure bets in tennis. Eight games into the match, the score was 4-4 -- which is to say Brands had notched as many games against Nadal as Roger Federer had in an entire match last week. When Nadal double-faulted to lose the first set 6-4, the fans oohed and pondered the impossible, visions of Lukas Rosol dancing in their heads. An hour later, an upset was still a possibility. Riding his titanic serve, Brands led 3-0 in a second-set tiebreaker.

Yet, if Brands' match was a parabola, this marked its highest point. He played a few loose points. Nadal whipped off groundstrokes fit for ballistic tests. The Spaniard leveled the match and then cruised home, averting danger and winning 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3. He advanced, but not before creating some hope among the rest of the field. And some doubt in his head.

"I am very happy to be through, seriously," he said. "You have to fight and you have to suffer, and that's what I went through."

As Nadal had finished his first match here, Sloane Stephens was starting hers. When most casual tennis fans last saw Stephens, she was beating Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. This was, undeniably, a breakthrough. And conventional thinking would suggest that, like a hot stock, she would ride this momentum and continue surging. Except that's not tennis. It's one step forward, two steps back. Three steps forward, two back.

Since Australia, it's been tough sledding for Stephens. Leaving aside her ill-considered remarks about Serena, the losses have come early and often. And she's failed to come close to replicating her success in Melbourne.

At her most recent Grand Slam match, she played Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open semifinals in front of 15,000 fans. On Monday, seeded 17th, she played on Court 7 in front of a modest crowd. With efficiency and deceptively hard hitting, she pushed aside Karin Knapp 6-2, 7-5. It was something other than a clay-court clinic. But it was a case of a superior player doing what was necessary, limiting her errors and showing superior chops at 5-5 in the second set.

"Really excited to be on the court again, and, like, loving it again," Stephens said, which necessitated the follow-up: When weren't you loving it? "It wasn't that I wasn't loving it, I just wasn't having that much fun," she said. "It was pretty stressful. Had a lot of things going on."

In two days she, like Nadal, returns to get back in line for the second round.

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Mailbag

Enjoyed the French Open women's seed report. Will Venus Williams retire at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open?-- Barbie , Houston

? Lots of questions about Venus after her first-round defeat to Urszula Radwanska. (But Barbie appended a compliment, so we'll use hers.) Wither Venus? Wither Venus. There's a long discussion here about "when to say when" and the agonizing decisions athletes must make about when to hang it up. What is a setback and what is an irreversible decline? How much losing are you willing to take? For some players, when they cease competing for the biggest prizes (see: Andy Roddick), they're done. For others who simply relish competing, the threshold is lower (see: Lleyton Hewitt). It's personal. There's no right or wrong approach.

It's easy for fans to blithely say, "Time to throw in the towel." Or the cloying, "You're tarnishing your legacy." The reality is much more complex. Globally, you once were a top practitioner in your field. Now you are "only" among the top 50 practitioners. How many of us would give that up? Me? I'm wringing every last drop out of the experience.

Specific to Venus, I think it's all about her health. If her back heals -- and backs usually don't roll like that -- she could continue playing at a high level. If her back continues to compromise her entire game, robbing power from her serve, inhibiting her movement and turning her into a grinder surviving mostly on fighting instincts, I suspect she has a highly finite number of matches left. She's intimated that she'd like to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Here's hoping -- through sheer will or through the miracles of chiropractic treatment -- we see her there.

How can you say that David Ferrer is the favored one in the projected semifinal against Roger Federer when their head-to-head record is, ahem, 14-0 in favor of Federer? Granted, they haven't played in nearly two years.-- Catwalk C.,Taipei, Taiwan

? No one beats David Ferrer 15 straight times. These predictions always double as "you're an idiot" catalysts. Just speculating here. Yes, Federer's track record against suggests that he's in good shape. On the other hand, with a tweaked back? On clay? Against a player known for his industriousness? In a best-of-five format late in an event? I guess we'll see ...

Why do people complain about too much coverage of the top players? If you don't like something, stop reading! Do you long for the days when Thomas Johansson was tearing it up and making headlines? (He won the 2002 Australian Open, in case these peasants forgot.)-- Jim McEntee, Pittsford, N.Y.

? Peasants! Oh, behave! I do think that Jim is right on this point: Tennis -- and sport in general, I would argue -- is better off with hegemony over parity. Reliable winners beats any-given-Sunday. After an era of unpredictability (2002 Grand Slam winners: Johansson, Albert Costa, Lleyton Hewitt, Pete Sampras), we're better off in the Age of Federer/Nadal/Djokovic. And the WTA benefits immeasurably from Serena Williams. We like unpredictability match to match. But it's less appealing when there are no reliable, hegemonic teams/players for fans (and networks) to support.

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Shots, Miscellany

? Novak Djokovic hasn't hit a ball, and already it's been a rough tournament. First, Nadal lands in his half. Then a potential washout on Tuesday means that he'll likely have to play back-to-back days.

? Player in ascent: Australian teen Nick Kyrgios, who beat veteran Radek Stepanek to win his first pro match.

? Player in descent: Shahar Peer, a first-round loser, now out of the top 100.

? Player who's typically quirky: Svetlana Kuznetsova, the former champion, who, after some dismal results this spring, beat No. 22 Ekatarina Makrova.

? Nitin of Hyderabad, India: "Roberto Bautista Agut and Pablo Carreno-Busta of Spain have to team up in the doubles -- it will be a Agut Busta of a match!"

? James Blake may have bowed out in the first round, but he becomes the third American tennis player to join Athlete Ally as an ambassador. Blake joins Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish as a vocal supporter of the movement to end homophobia in sports.

? TalkAboutTennis.com has long-lost siblings: Philipp Kohlschreiber and the singer Macklemore.

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