No man has won four grand slams in a row for 43 years and Novak Djokovic came close to finding out just how difficult pulling off the feat is when he diced with defeat before conjuring a great escape at the French Open on Sunday.
Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open champion Djokovic appeared to be heading for his earliest grand-slam defeat in three years before he hauled himself back from two-sets-to-love down for only the third time in his career to subdue Italian Andreas Seppi 4-6 6-7 6-3 7-5 6-3 and reach the last eight.
The ear-splitting wails of fellow world number one Victoria Azarenka were silenced, however, at least for another year at Roland Garros. The Belarussian world number one slumped to a 6-2 7-6 defeat by Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova.
Asked how she would recover from the defeat, a stone-faced Azarenka said sarcastically: “I’m going to kill myself!”
While Azarenka lost her chance to become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati in 2001 to complete an Australian-French Open double, Li Na become the sole Roland Garros women’s champion still standing in Paris.
Following the earlier exits of former winners Serena Williams and Francesca Schiavone, Italy’s Sara Errani followed up her win over 2008 title holder Ana Ivanovic by dumping out 2009 victor Svetlana Kuznetsova on Sunday with a 6-0 7-5 win.
The claycourt specialist will next run into German 10th seed Angelique Kerber, who beat Croatian Petra Martic 6-3 7-5.
While Azarenka’s and Kuznetsova’s defeats caused ripples on day eight, it was nothing like the shockwaves that were reverberating around a chilly and blustery Roland Garros as men’s world number one Djokovic fell two sets behind.
Before the last-16 showdown, Djokovic had joked: “I think half of Serbia will support Sepp... (because) he’s very famous in Serbia” for winning the Belgrade tournament.
After Sunday, Seppi’s name will be known around the world.
Seventy-seven unforced errors over four hours and 18 minutes of high drama summed up why the world number one found the going tough against a man he had beaten in all seven of their previous meetings.
In fact, if the Serbian is going to deny his great rival, Rafa Nadal, a record seventh Paris crown, Djokovic will have to sharpen his game, and quickly. In his three matches to date, Nadal has hit 26 fewer unforced errors than Djokovic produced on Sunday.
Seppi impressed during the first set and had the hollering fans stamping their feet when he took the second.
While fans were sensing an upset was on the cards, Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka, whose match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was scheduled next on Philippe Chatrier Court tweeted: “Do I get ready or do I wait? Think I’ll wait for the fifth (set)”
He turned out to be an astute soothsayer.
Djokovic shook off the dead weight around his legs to take the third set as Seppi, going more and more for the lines, was left frustrated by shots that looked certain winners when they flew off his racket being blown just wide by the gusting winds swirling around court.
The 25-year-old Serbian held his nerve to nudge past Seppi in the fourth before slamming down a forehand winner to keep alive his chances of joining Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only men to have held all four majors at once.
“It’s one of those days where you feel just nothing is working. I was very fortunate to come through this match,” Djokovic said after joining the fans in giving Seppi a standing ovation as he walked off the court.
“He performed incredibly well. He deserved the applause.”
Roger Federer was also impressed with what he saw when he came up against baby-faced admirer David Goffin on Suzanne Lenglen Court.
The Belgian, who had plastered his bedroom walls with posters of his Swiss idol when he was a teenager, looked like he should have been standing in attention, hands crossed behind his back, as one of Federer’s gofer ball boys.
Instead, the excited and exuberant 21-year-old declared that playing in front of such huge crowds “gives me wings”.
After Goffin went flying through the first set in front of a disbelieving crowd, Federer clipped his wings, albeit gently, to bring him down to earth for a 5-7 7-5 6-2 6-4 win.
“David has played an extraordinary tournament,” the Swiss said after ending his opponent’s bid to become the first lucky loser to reach a grand slam quarter-final.
“I thought he played really well. He impressed me and I enjoyed the match today,” added the third seed after reaching his 32nd consecutive grand slam quarters.
Azarenka had very little to savour during her humbling by Cibulkova, a player who had a forgettable 1-7 win-loss record against the Belarussian top seed.
It took her 15 minutes and six break points to break the Cibulkova serve in the opening game and that appeared to drain her energy for the remainder of the set.
Azarenka, who wore black leggings and a grey hooded fleece over her pink-and-orange tennis outfit on to court, finally warmed up to the task when she fought back from 4-2 down in the second set to take it into a tiebreak.
That set off alarm bells for Cibulkova, who had famously suffered total meltdowns from winning positions before.
On Sunday, she controlled her racing pulses and jittery nerves to produce a blazing backhand crosscourt winner on her second match point and promptly collapsed on to her back after tossing her racket high in the air.
“This year in Miami I was 6-1 5-2 up against her and a pretty similar thing happened. Last year in Miami it was the same... I think I was 6-2 4-2 up again, and I lost,” said Cibulkova, who will next face 2010 runner-up Samantha Stosur.
“Today it happened the same when I was 4-2 up. That’s why I got a little bit... nervous. But today it was a great thing that I managed to go through these emotions.”