Simona Halep arrived at the French Open as the overwhelming favorite. The world No. 2 and top seed was virtually unbeatable on clay. She skipped the US Open to focus on the surface, winning both tournaments she played in Prague and Rome since the sport’s resumption in August and hadn’t dropped a set in her first three matches in Paris.
That all came to a crashing halt on Sunday in the fourth round. It took just over an hour for 19-year-old Iga Swiatek to dismantle Halep 6-1, 6-2 with a dazzling display of winners and confidence, dashing Halep’s dreams for her third major title and second at Roland Garros.
That match was just the beginning of a wild, upset-riddled day in what is already the most unpredictable French Open due to its autumn start, wet and chilly conditions and shocking exits of many of the sport’s biggest names in the first week. In the women’s draw, there were just six seeded players remaining entering the round of 16 — the fewest ever since the 32-seed format was introduced in 2001.
As Halep walked off the court, passing by Swiatek who was seated with a towel over her head to mask her emotions, it was more proof to expect the unexpected in the second week of the year’s final Grand Slam.
Moments after Halep’s loss to the 54th-ranked Swiatek on Court Philippe Chatrier, Kiki Bertens, the No. 5 seed, found her hopes for a Grand Slam title ended by qualifier Martina Trevisan on Court Suzanne-Lenglen. Trevisan, the world No. 159 who is playing in just her second major, had already knocked off Coco Gauff and Maria Sakkari during her run in France. Bertens became her latest victim, 6-4, 6-4.
For those watching stateside, it wasn’t yet daybreak and two of the top five seeds had been eliminated. Halep and Bertens were left answering questions, desperately trying to make sense of what happened.
“I think [Trevisan] has the confidence of winning a few matches in a row already, [and having] done well,” said Bertens. “And I think, with that, no one really has played a lot, so I think then you can see that [anything] can happen in a tournament like this.”
Bertens’ comment almost immediately came to fruition again. Alexander Zverev — the No. 6 seed on the men’s side and just weeks off of a US Open final appearance — was listless against 75th-ranked Jannik Sinner. In his French Open main draw debut, Sinner handed Zverev a four-set loss, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-3, and the 19-year-old became the youngest man since Novak Djokovic in 2006 to make the quarterfinals of a major.
Zverev later said he was “completely sick” and had been dealing with a fever and struggling to breathe. He said he shouldn’t have played (and refused to answer a question about testing for COVID-19), but regardless of the reason for the loss, it still resulted in a finish that many would not have predicted.
As Zverev and Sinner drew most of the attention as they played, No. 131 Nadia Podoroska and No. 114 Barbora Krejcikova were battling on Court Simonne Mathieu. It was a fourth-round match so unlikely, even the announcers on the Tennis Channel admitted they didn’t know much about either opponent as they shared the in-progress score.
Podoroska, who entered the draw through qualifying, is playing in her first main draw in Paris. She became an immediate superstar in her native Argentina as the first countrywoman to make the quarters of a major since Paola Suarez in 2004. Her win also marked the first time two qualifiers have advanced this far in the draw at Roland Garros since 1978.
“Well, for me it’s like a dream,” she said following the win. “Like I said the other days, I always dream[ed of] being here, playing these kind of tournaments, and for being my first time here, I am very happy.”
By the end of the day, just three of the top 10 seeds on the women’s side remained halfway through the fourth round, with No. 4 Sofia Kenin and No. 7 Petra Kvitova — the lone remaining major champions — both taking the court Monday. Of the four women’s winners on Day 8 — Swiatek, Trevisan, Podoroska and No. 3 seed Elina Svitolina (who routed Caroline Garcia 6-1, 6-3) — Svitolina is the only one who has ever previously played in a major quarterfinal, guaranteeing that at least four of the final eight women will be unseeded, with as many as seven possible.
“For me, it’s not a surprise, these results,” Halep said in response to a question about all of the upsets in the tournament. “Because everyone at this level is playing really well. And in the fourth round of a Grand Slam, it’s not a surprise anymore because if you are there it means that you have a great game. So I believe that every match [opens at] level and it’s about the day that you play.”
In other men’s action, Rafael Nadal, the event’s 12-time champion, easily held off American Sebastian Korda in straight sets on Sunday, while reigning US Open champion Dominic Thiem needed five sets, a rain delay and more than 3½ hours to hold off Hugo Gaston. World No. 1 Djokovic will be in action on Monday against Karen Khachanov. Still, six of the top 10 seeds are already gone with Daniil Medvedev, Matteo Berrettini, Gaël Monfils, Roberto Bautista Agut and Denis Shapovalov eliminated before the fourth round.
It’s unclear what all of these upsets mean. Is it merely a product of the strange, coronavirus-impacted year, or a wave of newer faces cementing their spot atop the game? There is still so much tennis to be played this week even without the absence of many of the sport’s marquee names.
As for Halep, who implied that her 2020 season was over following the loss, she won’t dwell on the outcome of one day for too long or read too much into it.
“I realize that it was a fantastic year with all the tough moments that we all had, so I’m not going to ruin the whole year just for a match,” she said. “Of course it’s not easy to take it, but I’m used to some tough moments in this career. So I will have a chocolate, and I will be better tomorrow.”
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