The Vacuum Left by Nadal
June 1, 2009 -- Saturday Novak Djokovic took a dive. Yesterday, it was Rafael Nadal. The one man left standing that the whole world assumed would ascend the French throne was Roger Federer. However, early today with the door wide open for him to advance another round and creep ever closer to winning the one major title he lacks in his stellar portfolio, the mighty Federer stumbled and was almost sucked up in the vacuum left by his Spanish nemesis: Rafael Nadal.
Federer lost the first set in a tiebreak. He lost the second set on a break of serve by Tommy Haas, his journeyman opponent. At 3-4 and 30-40 in the third Federer faced the biggest break point of his career. Lose this one and Haas would serve for the match.
Roger Federer hit an inside-out forehand winner, however, and turned this match around for him and maybe the whole French Open. Haas wouldn't serve for the match. Federer had stopped the bleeding. It was 4-games all.
Haas knew he had missed the opportunity to close the door. You could see it on his face -- his eyes drawn in, his jaw set in determination. The free-flowing tennis he had played for the first one hundred minutes jammed.
Federer could smell it, could feel it in his bones... he broke Haas then and won the third 6-4.
The Federer express left the station with no local stops scheduled in the fourth. Haas continued to slide, losing that set at love. After four sets, Federer pulled even with the German. The match was either man's to win.
The French fans then saw the Roger Federer that had won five consecutive U. S. Open titles and five consecutive Wimbledon crowns. They saw the Roger Federer that players don't come close to on a tennis court, the one before he was sickened by mononucleosis. He began to play the kind of tennis he'll need to capitalize on for the remainder of this French Open, if he wants to claim his 14th Grand Slam title and make bona fide history -- the type with no caveats, no asterisks.
Federer defeated Haas 67 (4) 57 64 60 62.
Later, in his press conference Tommy Haas was asked how Federer made that winning inside-out forehand shot at such a crucial moment. Haas said, "That's just Roger Federer being Roger Federer. How does Roger Federer explain a shot like that at a crucial moment?"
"I thought actually I was playing -- serving all right, especially for a set and a half," Federer began. "I was down a set but up in the second. Unfortunately I got broken. That definitely made me a little bit nervous, you know, just knowing that I still haven't found my range and my rhythm from the baseline."
Federer wasn't thinking about who was in or out of the draw today, either.
"In a situation like this you don't really think about whoever is out of the draw or not," Roger said. "You just try to come through yourself. It's hard enough to stay positive when you're down two sets to love and a break point."
Federer will play Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals -- the same match up as in the semifinals last year at The French Open. Monfils defeated Andy Roddick today 64 62 63 in dwindling light.
One player who seemed to get caught up in the moment and not in a particularly good way was Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, seeded #9. The flamboyant French shot-maker faced Juan Martin Del Potro, the #5 seed. As the match progressed, you could feel the pressure build for Tsonga. Here was his chance to get to the quarterfinals at his home... every French players dream. It overwhelmed him.
"It's due to the fact that I wanted to play such a good type of tennis that maybe I was trying to rush for it, for the victory," Tsonga began. "I should have played longer rallies. He should have run more."
But Del Potro had the experience and no pressure from the home crowd. He defeated Tsonga 61 67 (5) 61 64. Del Potro will play Tommy Robredo (#16 seed) in the quarterfinals. Robredo pulled past Phillip Kohlschreiber 64 57 76 (4) 62.
On the women's side the vacuum from Nadal's exit was almost as palpable as on the men's side. His early exit had sent waves throughout the entire grounds at Roland Garros. If Rafa could lose, then others expectations would have to change. It was as if Nadal's presence provided a reason not to exceed a level of tennis to which they were predisposed. With Nadal in the draw, players had an excuse not to excel. But now that's he's gone? The disturbance was unsettling.
Especially to Jelena Jankovic seeded #5. Jankovic made her way to the semifinals here in 2007 and 2008. She had her sights set high. But little known Sonora Cirstea put up the fight of her life and defeated Jankovic in three: 36 60 97. It was the biggest win of her young career.
"First of all I really wanted to win," Cirstea said. "Maybe I wanted too much in the first set and I wasn't playing the right way. But then I said, I have nothing to lose. I just need to relax."
The Romanian teenager relaxed enough to block Jankovic from getting any games in the second set. Cirstea's groundstrokes were consistent and consistently deep -- her forehand a formidable weapon. She kept up with Jankovic's defensive style, running down ball after ball. At opportune moments, she hit drop shots that drew in Jankovic and allowed Cirstea to either lob her opponent to win the point or hit a passing shot to win the point. Her nerves seemed steady for such a big occasion.
Cirstea had to defeat her good friend Caroline Wozniacki, seeded #10, plus Jankovic to reach the quarterfinals. Playing on such a big stage could pose problems, but not for Sonora.
"I always said I love playing on big courts because I love having a lot of people supporting me and big crowds. That motivates me a lot."
Several of their points included extended rallies, a couple reaching close to thirty exchanges. Near the end of the match both players turned their backs to the net to gasp for much needed air.
"I was looking on the other side. I saw she was tired also," Cirstea said. "So, I knew it was also a little bit mental who is going to stay stronger, and I was just trying to take control, you know, to keep the energy coming."
Many expected Cirstea to make a bigger splash when she initially turned pro in 2006. However, every player has her day and today's was Cirstea's. Her solid sense of the tennis court can partially be attributed to her skills as a singles player. However, she also has played doubles, which has expanded her strategic opportunities. Cirstea was comfortable at the baseline, mid-court, and at the net.
Sonora Cirstea will face Samantha Stosur (#30 seed) in the quarterfinals. Stosur destroyed Virginie Razzano of France today 61 63 in an hour and ten minutes, hitting over twice as many winners to unforced errors.
Svetlana Kuznetsova set up a meeting with Serena Williams in the quarterfinals when she defeated Agnieszka Radwanska 64 16 61. Williams had no problems defeating Aleksandra Wozniak today 61 62.
Earlier Columns from this Event:
May 31, 2009 French Open Coverage: Both Defending Champs Out At French Open
May 30, 2009 French Open Coverage: Draw Opens as Djokovic Falls In Three
May 29, 2009 French Open Coverage: What's Up With All That Noise!
May 28, 2009 French Open Coverage: The Shifting Clay of Roland Garros
May 27, 2009 French Open Coverage: The Heart of a Champion
May 26, 2009 French Open Coverage: American Women in Paris
May 25, 2009 French Open Coverage: Sharapova Fights On, Nadal and Federer Cruise
May 24, 2009 French Open Coverage: Bienvenue au Paris