PARIS -- With upsets having been the norm during the first half of the fortnight in Paris, the French Open has taken on a March Madness sort of motif: a favorite wobbles. The pressure mounts and the upset alert buzzes throughout the draw. In her first-round match with Alberta Brianti, world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka was down a set and 4-0 in the second, and with two break chances to go up 5-0. Azarenka said the only thing going through her mind as the time slipped away was that there was a direct flight from Paris to Minsk the following afternoon.
Still, Azarenka's troubles were almost entirely the result of her scattered shots. The wonderful shot-making that defines so many surprise victories were almost nonexistent in the second set. Azarenka hit a shot -- a second-serve ace in the fifth game of the final set -- that seemed to correct her strokes. Brianti was swallowed whole by the moment and lost 12 of the next 14 games. That was it.
Roger Federer was up two sets to love and thumping Adrian Unger so badly that the Paris crowd was caught in a collective catnap. Unger then won the third set in a tiebreaker and the buzz began to rise.
Eventually, Federer restored order, muting the upset alert with a 6-3 fourth-set win, but in his next match, with Nicolas Mahut taking the second set in a four-set loss, the question of what constitutes danger is not an insignificant one. This is especially true in the case of Federer. It has become second nature to look for any signs of vulnerability when the great Federer is trying to close the deal. Federer was in about as much trouble as the Miami Heat after losing Game 3 to the Pacers.
It is true that some alarms, however, are quite real, even if disbelieving eyes put up a fight. In her epic upset of Serena Williams, Virginie Razzano put up a huge battle, full of steel-willed points, while Williams simultaneously could not return a serve. Williams couldn't hold back her tears, and clearly even her championship resolve was not going to save her.
When Paul-Henri Mathieu upset John Isner 18-16 in a marathon fifth set, Isner's inability to even gain a break opportunity was a real sign of trouble. The same was true of a weary Agnieszka Radwanska, who was blown off of the court by Svetlana Kuznetsova.
In the first set of his first match here, Novak Djokovic beat Potito Starace 7-6, giving the impression that Djokovic was courting suspense. He wasn't, winning 12 of the next 16 games to close out. The truth is that in general, the expectation of perfection is the greatest opportunity for a false alarm.