Some thoughts on Day 4 at the French Open …
• Venus out of Paris, closing in on London: With Venus Williams’ 6-2, 6-3 second-round loss to Agnieszka Radwanska on Wednesday and her sister Serena’s historic first-round loss on Tuesday, the 2012 French Open marks the earliest exit by the Williams sisters at a Grand Slam tournament. If Serena’s defeat was bathed in drama and struggle, Venus’ exit was a remarkably quiet one. Radwanska, who was on her game, hit a mere six unforced errors and moved exceptionally well. This was one-way traffic from the start and an impressive statement from Radwanska, who has a tough but makeable draw to the semifinals. I’ve never been convinced of her clay bona fides, but if she makes it deep into the second week, consider me convinced.
The good news for Venus is that her first-round win virtually assures her a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. She should be ranked within the top 50 when the rankings cutoff kicks in after the French Open, which is more than enough to earn her place. She’s made it clear that the only reason she came back so early from her autoimmune disorder was to try to qualify for the London Olympics.
• Stephens continues her rise: Sloane Stephens was the only American to win on Wednesday. Yes, that’s a bit misleading — she defeated Bethanie Mattek-Sands, so obviously there was going to be a U.S. victor either way. But Stephens is into the third round of a major for the second time in her young career. The 19-year-old has a great opportunity to do even better — and, with a little help, perhaps make the Olympic team, too. Stephens next faces Mathilde Johansson, a Frenchwoman ranked No. 93, which is a very winnable match for her.
• Business as usual: I made the mistake of tweeting Tuesday that the predictable results were leading to a snoozy Day 3 of tennis. Then Serena took the court and, well, we all know how quickly the day changed. Day 4, though, didn’t bring too much drama, as the seeds cruised to relatively easy wins across the board. Victoria Azarenka looks to have straightened out her form, with a 6-1, 6-1 win over a German qualifier. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro all coasted as well. The only significant upset saw Marion Bartoli, a semifinalist here last year, losing to Petra Martic in three sets — not a total surprise given Bartoli’s spotty form ever since Miami.
• Au revior, Brian Baker: The incredible Cinderella story is over; in the end, no, Brian Baker doesn’t end up winning the French Open. But for a while there against No. 11 Gilles Simon, Baker made you believe that there was more magic up his sleeve. After falling behind two sets to love, Baker fought back and won the next two sets in commanding fashion. Then reality came crashing down. While Simon showed his class and form in winning the fifth set 6-0, Baker’s legs looked stuck in the mud.
As Baker walked off the court with his Babolat bag on one shoulder and black backpack on the other, I kept waiting for him to acknowledge this wild ride. Aside from a few autographs, he didn’t. He had the look of a guy who was disappointed he lost, not that he was just happy to be there. And that’s when you realize that this wasn’t just a one-off for the 27-year-old Baker. All month he’s comported himself with tremendous class and humility, and with every victory and milestone (he won the Savannah Challenger to earn a French Open wild card, and made the Nice final last week), he’s quietly gone about his business and acted like he expects this from himself. He’s earned a lot of respect because of it.
• Play suspended … again: Another day in Paris, another unfinished order of play. While the first two days saw play suspended due to darkness, it was the rain that sent the players packing on Wednesday. This wasn’t an insignificant pause: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga just dropped the second set to Cedric-Marcel Stebe when drops began to fall, and Victor Troicki and Angelique Kerber are two other seeds whose matches will roll over to Thursday.