Sebastian Korda and the Runs That Make This French Open So Unpredictable

PARIS — Roland Garros has gone down the rabbit hole this year, so it was perfectly logical that Sebastian Korda, who has three career ATP match victories, gushed on Friday that he would be “the happiest person on planet Earth” if his next opponent was Rafael Nadal, he of the 12 French Open titles.

The 20-year-old Korda, ranked No. 213, dispatched Pedro Martínez, ranked No. 105, by 6-4, 6-3, 6-1 on Friday to set up his fourth-round dreamscape against the second-ranked Nadal.

“I named my cat after him,” Korda said of Nadal, “so that explains a lot how much I love him.”

Nadal advanced with a right-as-rain, 6-1, 6-4, 6-0, victory over Stefano Travaglia that restored a smidgen of normalcy on another day of Grand Slam tennis in ski jacket weather.

Under stormy skies in Paris, there was enough turbulence in the draw to shake loose Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 champion. Wawrinka fell, 2-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 6-0, to Hugo Gaston, a wild-card entry from France ranked No. 239. For Gaston, 20, who also hadn’t won a tour-level match before this week, explaining how he beat Wawrinka seemed just as difficult as actually pulling it off.

“It’s difficult to explain,” he said, adding, “Of course, for the moment it’s amazing for me. It’s a dream. But I try to stay focused.”

In the best of years, the French Open is the most unpredictable of majors because of its slow clay surface, which can neutralize the power and speed of many elite players and has rescued from obscurity the likes of Argentina’s Gastón Gaudio, the 2004 men’s champion, and Iva Majoli, the 1997 women’s winner.

But given that the event was moved from spring to autumn and contested with only a smattering of spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic, and that it is using a new brand of balls that Nadal has described as “slow and heavy,” this year’s edition has been even more unpredictable than most.

Led by Korda, who turned professional in 2018, and Gaston, who turned pro last year, nine men ranked outside the top 100 advanced to the round of 32.

The women’s draw has been no less volatile. The top seed, Simona Halep, the 2018 champion whose 6-0, 6-1 dismantling of Amanda Anisimova on Friday moved her one step closer to her third Grand Slam title, has been one of the few players to prop up the status quo.

Thirteen seeded players reached the third round, the fewest since the singles draw was expanded to 32 seeds in 2001 at Wimbledon. Led by the 131st-ranked Nadia Podoroska, eight women outside the top 100 graced the round of 32.

Podoroska, 23, of Argentina, posted a 6-3, 6-2 victory over No. 161 Anna-Karolina Schmiedlova to advance to the fourth round, where she will face the 114th-ranked Barbara Krejcikova, who survived a 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 challenge from the wild card Tsvetana Pironkova.

Podoroska, who started the year ranked outside the top 250, won back-to-back small tournaments in Malibu, Calif., and Petit-Bourg, France, before the pandemic shut down competition for five months. Even with the interruption, Podoroska has managed to win 41 matches this year. This is her second Grand Slam main draw since she turned professional nine years ago, and she believes she has benefited from the relative calm and quiet on the grounds, where there is a 1,000-fan limit.

“It’s good because I’m used to playing with no crowd,” Podoroska said. “For me it’s quite the same playing here or in the tournaments that I’ve been playing before.”

Like Podoroska, Korda was playing well before the pandemic. He spent the shutdown working on his conditioning.

“I just kind of put my head down and said, ‘You know what, this is happening right now. I can’t change anything about it,’” he said. “I really just tried to dial in and be super positive.”

Less than two dozen fans convened on Court 7 to watch Korda’s rain-interrupted victory. They included a few ball girls who stayed after their matches and did not let the soggy weather dampen their enthusiasm for his style, which includes a big serve and a black headband that contains his unruly bangs.

He played in front of more people when he won the junior title at the 2018 Australian Open. But it wasn’t the calm that helped him, he said. It was the three-match qualifying process.

“I mean, I was pretty confident by passing through” qualifiers, Korda said. “I don’t think many people in the main draw actually played that many matches.”

It figures that Korda would not be cowed by the challenge presented by Nadal, the reigning champion. The Korda family runs on competition. His father, Petr, is a former Australian Open champion. His mother, Regina, was a top-30 player. His two older siblings, Jessica and Nelly, have won titles on golf’s L.P.G.A. Tour.

His sisters, who are playing in a tournament in New Jersey this week, have been sending him pep talks via text message.

“Jess and I have been waking up early for every single one of his matches,” Nelly said. “He’s super excited. He’s worked really hard over this break we had the past couple months where we didn’t play sports. He deserves it.”

Korda has Nadal’s full attention.

“He’s playing great, he’s young, he has energy,” Nadal said. “He has a lot of ingredients to become a big star of this sport.”

He added, “I think he has an amazing future — hopefully not yet.”

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