On Tuesday, Marco Cecchinato reminded us that no matter how lopsided a match-up appears on paper, there's a reason they actually play the matches. Anything can happen, as Novak Djokovic can ruefully attest after his comeback was derailed by Cecchinato, a player who had never even won a Grand Slam singles match until the current French Open. Only one of the matches of the four remaining quarterfinals, all to be played on Wednesday, seems like a comparable mismatch. Consider yourself warned, Mr. Nadal!
Here's the breakdown:
No. 3 seed Garbine Muguruza vs. No. 28 seed Maria Sharapova (Sharapova leads series, 3-0)
If you remember, this time last year Muguruza was struggling and largely written off as a prime contender, a fourth-round loser to Kristina Mladenovic at the French Open. A few weeks later, she caught fire and added the Wimbledon title to the one she won at Roland Garros in 2016. Still just 24, unpredictable Muguruza may be in the midst of a similar, spectacular revival. Power and inspiration, not persistence and consistency, are her strengths.
Sharapova has never lacked for inspiration; there isn't a more focused and ambitious competitor on the tour. But the 31-year-old Russian's ultra-aggressive style sometimes breaks down. Muguruza was an unimpressive 5-3 this year on clay at the start of the French Open, but she's been an overlooked dynamo in Paris. Sharapova (8-3 on clay in 2018) also has created momentum. This shapes up as a meeting of the proverbial "unstoppable force" and "immovable object."
Prediction: If Muguruza can stand her ground and keep Sharapova from dictating from inside the baseline, she'll win it.
No. 3 seed Marin Cilic vs. No. 5 Juan Martin del Potro (del Potro leads 10-2)
Granted, del Potro has had serious injury issues and missed a lot of time. But it's still surprising that these men haven't met on clay since 2012 at the French Open. Del Potro dominated that encounter; in fact, he dominated Cilic in all four of their clay-court matches. It's hard to pin down just why that's so, but personal history and confidence probably play a role. Cilic has never been a paragon of self-belief despite having won the US Open in 2014, while del Potro has never appeared to doubt his place among the game's elites.
Both men are 6-foot-6, and move well given their size and muscular frames. Del Potro's serial wrist problems have reduced the menace of his backhand, but he's learned to hide it. He relies on perhaps the most powerful forehand in the game to push opponents back and keep them on the defensive. The strategy worked well enough to earn Delpo a win over top-seed Roger Federer for the Indian Wells title.
Prediction: Cilic won't be able to cope with del Potro's forehand, especially with the slow clay giving Delpo an extra split second to draw a bead.
No. 1 seed Simona Halep vs. No 12 Angelique Kerber (Halep leads, 5-4)
If Muguruza vs. Sharapova was the yin, this one is the yang. These are well-matched counter punchers who lack preemptive power but make great use of their wits and athleticism. And both are seeking redemption at this tournament: Last year, Halep surrendered a big lead and lost to first-time Grand Slam finalist 18-year old Jelena Ostapenko. Kerber had a magnificent 2016, winning two Grand Slam titles and rising to No. 1, but she's still recovering from her recent deep slump.
Kerber was 4-4 on clay this year before Roland Garros, Halep 9-3. They're both playing well; Kerber hasn't lost a set, Halep has also been perfect since losing the very first set she played. Kerber won the only match they've played on clay. If their Australian Open semifinal in January was a preview, this will be a barn burner. Halep won that in overtime, 9-7 in the third.
Prediction: Halep. After two painful failures in finals, it's her time.
No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal vs. No. 11 Diego Schwartzman (Nadal leads, 5-0)
Sure, this has blowout written all over it. But so did Tuesday's clash between Djokovic and Cecchinato ... Of course, there was no history to call on in that match (which always helps the underdog), while Nadal has dominated Schwartzman on clay. He's won six straight sets in their three meetings.
Schwartzman's enthusiasm and skill will make this one fun to watch no matter which way it goes. He's just 5-foot-7 but he's climbed to No. 12 in the singles rankings in a game increasingly populated by muscular men close to a foot taller. Schwartzman, 25, is persistent, hard-nosed, willing to run all day and he's never, ever out of a point until the ball flies out or dies in the net. Schwartzman is 14-6 on clay in 2018. He's capable of beating anybody, but Nadal isn't "anybody." He's the King of Clay.
Prediction: Schwartzman will make Nadal work hard for every point but never seriously threaten him.