Roland Garros 2016: when a story is drawn, not merely written

To a certain extent, it will always and inevitably be true that draws don’t matter that much in tennis.

What looks good on paper often becomes nothing other than a dream.

For blockbuster semifinals to emerge at the 2016 French Open, four players — Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal — must win 20 combined matches (or receive walkovers, for those who want to nitpick). This quartet could achieve a total of 18 match wins… which would mean that as long as the two defeated players were split between the men’s and women’s tournaments, neither semifinal matchup would become enfleshed.

The yawning chasm between the idea of a draw and the reality of a tournament always exists. A ton of work bridges that gap. Timely doses of good luck transform potential into fulfillment. Draws, on many levels, merely serve as declarations of possibility. It is always wise to not attach too many emotions to the release of the draw at each major tournament.

And yet…

… for all the ways in which draws never matter that much, they still inevitably — and inherently — matter to a certain extent.

Consider the 2016 Roland Garros singles brackets.

While main-stage semifinals could emerge in the top halves of the draw in both the men’s and women’s tournaments — Serena-Kerber and Djokovic-Nadal would rate as heavyweight fights — the unveiling of the brackets has similarly created a special opportunity for someone to make a first-ever Roland Garros final or win a first major championship (or both).

The 2016 French Open rates as a representative example of how draws create stories.

With Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova on the sidelines, the adjusted seed placements in Paris have created profound opportunities for high-profile players in the bottom halves of each singles draw.

In the women’s event, Garbine Muguruza — who is learning how to live as a marked opponent, a central challenge for a young and promising player — will not have to play Serena, Kerber, or Victoria Azarenka before the final. This is the Christmas (in May) gift the fourth seed received. That gift is shared by Agnieszka Radwanska and Simona Halep, who — if you add Sharapova — won’t have to play any of the four most formidable and threatening players in the field. The draw has neatly separated the established major champions from the aspiring ones, those who have not yet crossed the threshold.

Should any of the contenders from the bottom half of the draw be favored over Serena or Kerber in a possible final? Probably not. However, merely making the final could revitalize the 2016 season and perhaps serve as a catalyst for the future. The latter possibility — resetting a player’s level of confidence for the long haul more than just this individual calendar year — is the most enticing story to consider from a panoramic perspective.

The French Open has become a tournament where WTA players have broken through over the years.

Ana Ivanovic won her only major in Paris in 2008. Svetlana Kuznetsova won one of her two majors here in 2009. Francesca Schiavone and Li Na won groundbreaking major titles at Roland Garros in 2010 and 2011. Sara Errani (2012), Halep (2014), and Lucie Safarova (2015) all made their first — and to date, only — major final appearances in the City of Light.

The draw — though only a declaration of possibility on some levels — has unavoidably reshaped the outlook for the top-10 seeds in the bottom half of the WTA bracket.

The same is true for the men.

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While Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic reside in the top half, and Federer (never likely to go far in his physically diminished capacity) sits on the sidelines after ending his consecutive major appearances streak at 65, the bottom half of the ATP bracket offers green fields of opportunity on crushed red brick.

Yes, we’ve just finished a Masters 1000 clay swing in which Andy Murray cashed a No. 2 seed into three semifinals, two finals, and a title in Rome. Murray is well practiced in the art of turning a good draw into a very good, sometimes great, result. However, for all that Murray has achieved and continues to achieve, he’s never reached a Roland Garros final.

Whenever Murray has played in a French Open semifinal, men named Nadal or Djokovic have waited for him. Murray is accordingly 0-3 at that stage of Roland Garros, the one major in which Muzz has never reached the final. This year, Rafa and Novak are safely tucked in the top half. Murray’s second seed has served as the portal to a Sunday soiree on June 5… if he can withstand the pressure.

The chance which beckons for Andrew Barron Murray is the same chance Kei Nishikori (Murray’s possible quarterfinal opponent) possesses. It’s also the opportunity Milos Raonic owns if his body can hold up (which is a big “if”).

One other story the 2016 draw has written into the French Open is that while “Rafole” would rate as a Tier-1 blockbuster semifinal in the men’s tournament, a meeting between Murray and Stan Wawrinka in the other semifinal (should it happen) would be almost as compelling.

Nadal and Djokovic are playing for the highest levels of tennis history, the enormity of immortality on the grandest possible scale. Rafa is chasing “La Decima,” an historic tenth title in Paris. Djokovic is pursuing an ever-elusive French Open title and a career Grand Slam. Murray and Wawrinka can’t match that level of historical significance, but as players who both own two major titles, the Scotsman and the Swiss know that a semifinal showdown could become the gateway to a career-affirming moment two days later in the final.

The last time either man lost a major semifinal, Federer was there (Murray at Wimbledon, Wawrinka at the U.S. Open last year). Now he isn’t, and since the draw shoved the other two members of tennis’s Holy Trinity to the top half, Murray and Wawrinka know just how big an opportunity they possess.

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The draw means nothing.

The draw means everything.

The draw can’t guarantee matchups.

The draw can guarantee certain matchups don’t occur until a certain point in time.

The 2016 Roland Garros tournament is waiting for the first point to be played in main-draw competition. Yet, its stories — for the women and men alike — have already been drawn.

Sunday, they’ll begin to be written.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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