On Friday, it was the thunderbolt that nine-time champion and No4 seed Rafael Nadal had to withdraw from the tournament with a wrist injury.
Come Saturday, it was the home nation’s highest ranked player, No6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, proving that lightening can strike twice in the same place: He was forced to retire injured at 5-2 up in the first set in his third-round match against Ernests Gulbis. That Tsonga was the next highest seed after Nadal in the same quarter only added to the drama, for it ensure that two of the four men competing for a quarter-final place were ranked outside the top 50, the other two seeded outside the top 10.
But by a very late conclusion on Saturday night, the last 16 were set with only one other non-seed bucking the trend. An unlikely Spaniard, the No55-ranked Albert Ramos-Vinolas, took out the No23 seed Jack Sock in five long sets, but on a gloomy, rain-threatening Sunday, he caused the first big upset of the second week by beating No8 seed Milos Raonic, 6-2, 6-4, 6-4, in little more than two hours. And that took him into his first ever quarter-final in his 19th Grand Slam.
There, he would meet defending champion and No3 seed, Stan Wawrinka, who round by round was beginning to look every inch a French Open winner. Certainly he made heavy weather his the opening round, but he had been forced to play just a day after arriving from his title run in Geneva, and against a man who can blow hot and cold, Lukas Rosol.
The Swiss later admitted: “My legs were not so good. It perhaps wasn’t my best tennis. But in the end, I had to fight for these five sets.”
He did fight, and he did not drop a set in his next two matches. He also fought like a champion against the streaky Viktor Troicki, seeded 22 and enjoying some fine wins here thus far: Grigor Dimitrov in five sets in the first round; No16 seed Gilles Simon in straight sets in the third.
Wawrinka anticipated a tough fight, and he got it: three hours and four sets. The Swiss edged a first-set tie-break and seemed to be in control at the start of the second with a quick break, but Troicki won four games on the bounce to go 4-1, and although Wawrinka levelled at 4-4, the big-serving Serb took the second set tie-breaker.
Wawrinka, though, had talked earlier about the improved strength and stamina that had produced such great results in recent years.
“What makes a difference between me a few years back and me now, is that everything is much stronger. My level of play is much stronger. Physically things are much stronger. I’m much more confident… I have defeated all these guys over the past few years, so I can play anyone.
“If I just come along and I move physically and I feel the ball, I have the match under my control. Then of course I need to win it. But it’s already great to be able to think like that.”
He did just that in the final two sets, and closed out the match, 7-6(5), 6-7(7), 6-3, 6-2, as the weather closed in to draw a temporary halt across the site.
Wawrinka is one of the two Roland Garros junior champions in the draw—Richard Gasquet is the other—but until his sixth appearance in the senior draw he had not made it past the third round. His first quarter-final here was not until his ninth appearance in 2013, but clearly the work and confidence-building that came with the appointment of coach Magnus Norman that same year paid off in spades.
For Wawrinka reached his first Grand Slam semi-final at the US Open the same year, won his first Major in Australia at the start of the next season, and did not fall short of the quarters at any of the Majors until Melbourne this year.
He said after his Troicki win: “I’ve had some quite good results in Grand Slams with Magnus. Always good to have him around. Hopefully I can keep winning here.”
He and his armies of fans will expect him to do so, and to reach the quarters with ease, though tough opponents will await in the semis. For the bottom quarter of the draw was the only one to boast its top four ranked seeds.
No9 Gasquet faced No5 Kei Nishikori, and No2 Andy Murray had to follow one ace-machine, Ivo Karlovic, with another in the shape of No15 seed John Isner.
Murray had played and beaten Isner six times before, but almost half their sets had gone to tie-breakers. The same happened in the first set here, their first on clay, though it was a mighty tussle. In both the fourth and sixth games, Murray faced and survived a break point, Isner none at all, but Murray’s serving improved as he warmed up and he took a 5-2 lead in the tie-break.
Isner levelled at 5-5, and he had three set point as they edged toward 9-9. However a couple of missed first serves, and Murray punished him to take the set, 7-6(9).
Even a jubilant Mexican wave around Court Suzanne Lenglen could not stave off the inevitable rain, and with three games on the board in the second, they left the court.
Murray was able to take full advantage of the heavier conditions on their return, and eventually converted his fourth break point for the set, 6-4. He broke quickly in the third set, too, held for 4-1 and saved a break point to serve it out, with an ace, 6-3.
Should anyone need further proof of his consistency, Murray supplied it yet again. At Roland Garros he has made the semis in three of his last four visits—and the quarters in between. And with this win, he has now reached the quarter-finals of 20 of his last 21 Grand Slams. And one more record: Murray has made more French Open quarter-finals than any other British man, including Fred Perry and Bunny Austin.
Incidentally, in a late-in-the-day boost to the mood around Roland Garros, Paris and France as a whole, Gasquet won through to reach his first quarter-final at his home Grand Slam—at this 13th attempt. Not unlucky for some, then, and good to have his French flair and single-handed backhand on display where they belong.
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