It is never easy to be eliminated from a Grand Slam tournament, no matter what the circumstances.
Wednesday, two of the biggest names in the sport, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, had their 2010 French Open hopes vanish when they were defeated by Samantha Stosur and Jurgen Melzer, respectively.
Williams was a single stroke from victory when she held match point at 5-4, 40-30 in the final set. On the match point, Stosur hit a good serve and a modest forehand approach. Williams replied with a forehand pass down-the-line.
There was a rapt anticipation in the 14,845-seat Court Philippe Chatrier as everyone waited for the ball to land - and it did, about a foot beyond the baseline. "I thought it was going a bit further out," Stosur said. "It held up a bit, but it did go out."
Summed up Williams, "She hit a good serve. I don't have anything to regret on that point."
Regarding the quarter-final that ended 6-2, 6-7(6), 8-6 in Stosur's favour, Williams said, "I was definitely off. Had I played better for two minutes, maybe the result would have been different."
Even at that, Stosur, 26, was never going to be easy to beat. The No. 7-ranked Australian has a muscularity similar to Serena's, and Wednesday she was hitting her forehand with bold, consistent point-ending power.
Sobering for 2002 champion Williams, she has not been past the quarter-finals in her past five appearances.
"I can't sit here and say that this is really hard for me to win," she remarked about Roland Garros, "because I think that would present an even bigger challenge."
Perhaps therapeutic, she and her sister, Venus, went out and won their doubles semi-final, 2-6, 6-2, 6-4 over the third-seeded Leizel Huber and Anabel Medina Garrigues. That keeps alive their hopes of achieving a career-first doubles Grand Slam (all four titles) this year.
Djokovic had no such doubles diversion. The usually-jocular Serb was in a prickly mood after losing 3-6, 2-6, 6-2, 7-6(3), 6-4 to Melzer.
Like Williams, who did not play a tournament from late January until early May because of a knee injury, Djokovic came in underdone, having withdrawn with allergies from his past two events before Roland Garros.
Still, he dominated Melzer, 29 and ranked No. 27, for two sets and was up a break in the third before the talented Austrian lefthander began to find the range with his artful arsenal of shots.
With Melzer serving for the match at 5-4 in the fifth set, Djokovic hit an angled forehand cross-court that seemed to catch the sideline, before a late call came ruling it wide. The Serb was convinced it was good, on a point that would have given him a love-30 lead.
But umpire Carlos Bernardes came down from his chair and confirmed the call, finding an infinitesimal space between the ball and the sideline. A weary and irate Djokovic was nearly apoplectic, pleading with Bernardes that it had touched the line.
He lost that game and the match and later, when informed that Hawk-Eye on television had corroborated his view, just shrugged, "What can I say? Should I complain or what? I don't know. This is life."
Hawk-Eye officials would like to see the electronic line-calling system used at Roland Garros, as it is at the other Grand Slams. But that is unlikely to happen partly because the umpire climbing down from the chair and checking the mark - often to the jeers of derision - is a rite of the Paris spring almost as old as a clochard (rubby) drinking cheap wine on the banks of the Seine.
With Djokovic's loss, four-time champion Rafael Nadal, a 7-6(2), 7-6(3), 6-4 winner Wednesday over robust Spanish compatriot Nicolas Almagro, is the only player remaining in the semi-finals, man or woman, with a Grand Slam title on his record.
He is a prohibitive favourite to handle the overachieving Melzer in the semi-finals. But there still might be some suspense left in this increasingly Nadal-centric French Open. The other semi-final Friday features Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling, two of the most brutally concussive hitters in the sport. They have the explosive skill-set to déstabalizer (rattle) Nadal, and put some real excitement in a final that threatens to be more coronation than contest.
THE PASSING SHOT
Yannick Noah, the last Frenchman to win at Roland Garros (1983), is still a revered figure in his homeland. A pop singer now, and recently turned 50, his next concert appearance in Paris is scheduled for Sept. 25. Nowadays, there is an uncannily look-alike Noah in pro sport - his son Joakim, the 6-foot-11 centre with the Chicago Bulls of the NBA. Yannick often shows up out of nowhere to watch his son play, and Joakim, 25, claims, "I don't know why, but I always play my best games when he's there."
The French have some colourful tennis expressions. A popular one is deux roues de bicyclette (two bicycle wheels) for a double bagel or 6-0, 6-0 score. Another is the essuie-glace (windshield wiper), when a player is being run from side to side. Arroser (to hose) means to spray the ball all over the place and, in doubles, a femme de ménage (cleaning lady) is the player who remains on the baseline and does all the work while his or her partner is up at the net.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of career Grand Slam titles won by the four women's French Open semi-finalists - Samantha Stosur, Jelena Jankovic, Elena Dementieva and Francesca Schiavone.
HE SAID IT
"It's a Mickey Mouse with a soccer ball. My girlfriend has the other, Minnie Mouse."
Jurgen Melzer, who upset third-seeded Novak Djokovic on Wednesday, describing the charm he wears around his neck.
All four women in the semi-finals Thursday are 25 or over. In the first semi-final, Elena Dementieva, 28, who has been in two Grand Slam finals, faces Francesca Schiavone, 29, whose previous best was three Grand Slam quarter-finals. Dementieva leads their head-to-head 6-4. In the second, Jelena Jankovic, 25 and a 2008 U.S. Open finalist, plays Samantha Stosur, 26, who has scored back-to-back upsets over Justine Henin and Serena Williams. Jankovic leads their rivalry 3-1.
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