By Jon Wertheim
June 03, 2012
WTA No. 1 Victoria Azarenka smashed her racket in the second set of her loss to Dominika Cibulkova.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

PARIS -- Umbrellas in hand, bodies swaddled in windbreakers, the fans filing into the main gates of Roland Garros this morning were treated to a tennis highlight show. The video board in the main pavilion showed a compendium of shotmaking from recent days. Nadal with a running forehand up the line, punctuated with a signature fist pump. Federer serving and attacking the net, taking a ball off his shoelaces and guiding it into a corner for a volley winner. Djokovic returning a second serve and pummeling the ball, sending it whistling past the server. On it went.

The were no clips of players prolonging points with defense. No examples of footwork or footspeed. No grinding out a point with hustle and patience. No snippets of clever changes of pace. Fans, though, got on those virtues in real time during this wacky Sunday session.

When play began at 11:00, rain was in the forecast, the balls were as heavy as bocce balls and the clay had the traction of a mud pit. In these dank conditions, Sara Errani played Svetlana Kuznetsova, and fans should have seen the match as portent. Listed generously at 5-4, Errani can barely be seen from the other side of the net. She routinely serves at knuckleball speeds. But she knows how to play on clay. In what was less a match than a clinic, she committed few mistakes (unforced Errani, as it were) and simply ground down Kuznetsova, an erratic former champion, 6-0, 7-5. That was the warm-up act.

Next up, diminutive Dominika Cibulkova faced Victoria Azarenka, the top seed. Were this boxing, the two wouldn't be in the same weight class. But in tennis it was a fair fight. Benefiting from the soggy conditions, Cibulkova played a classic clay match, scrambling and slicing and dicing -- and picking her moment to show off deceptive power. The boggy, soggy court and Cibulkova's defense conspired to neutralize Azarenka's power. By the second set, Azarenka was smashing her rackets in frustration. On match point, Cibulkova drew Azarenka in with a clever drop shot and then blasted a backhand -- classic claycourt tactics, perfect for the conditions. As Cibulkova fell to the clay, it marked still another tournament at the top women's seed failed to prove her bona fides.

"It wasn't satisfying at all," Azarenka told reporters afterward. "It wasn't satisfying being out there playing that way."

There was no chant of Defense! Defense! from the crowd. But by this point it was clear that this could be the Day of the Grubber. On Chatrier, the Italian Andreas Seppi used craft and placement and deceptive speed to take the first two sets from the men's No. 1 player Novak Djokovic. Seppi? Nothing flashy. Nothing fit for the highlight video. Just effective defensive tennis.

As researchers were scrambling to find out when both No. 1 seeds lost on the same day, this early in a major (never) there was a third upset brewing. Playing -- all together now -- conventional claycourt tennis, taking advantage of feline movement and the kind of imaginative angles that don't work on faster surfaces, lucky loser, David Goffin -- who's ranked 109 and looks about nine years old -- took the first set against Roger Federer.

One envisions a first-timer coming to the tennis today and expressing amazement that a few seeded players will even win now and then.

It was around this time that the sun came out, the balls lightened up. Seppi and Goffin remembered where they were. Djokovic and Federer remembered who they were. Djokovic survived to win in five sets. Federer rallied to win in four. Vini, Vidi, Vixi: "I Came, I Saw, I Survived." What looked like it could be a historic day at Roland Garros -- Black Sunday -- ended up merely as a weird one.

At the halfway point of the tournament, the women's draw isn't merely open; it's a vast chasm. On the men's side, most of the top contenders are alive. And most are displeased with their play. "Nothing was working today for me. At least I fought," Djokovic said after the match. "Most important is that I won. Now I want to forget this match."

As all this was transpiring Rafael Nadal was conspicuously absent. Today was his 26th birthday and he spent some of it practicing. Not on site, but, rather, across the way at the public facility of the Bois de Boulogne away from the chaos. He didn't need to be on site, or to analyze the upsets and near upsets, to know this reality: on the red clay, defense can win championships.

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