French Open 2011: Murray & Federer battle the elements
Both men and women alike faced a common foe as the quarter-finals and fourth round overlapped: the wind
The clouds scudded, the light veered from brilliant sunshine to deep gloom and -for the early matches at least -the threat of rain hung like the sword of Damacles over Roland Garros.
The same sword also hung over the head of the British No1, Andy Murray, as he returned to finish his fourth-round match against Viktor Troicki – a match that had very nearly concluded the previous evening.
Carrying a strapped ankle from his injury against Michael Berrer in Round Three, Murray looked out for the count. He went two sets and a break down. He then stunned his opponent by bursting into his attacking best to pull back the third and fourth sets in impressive style.
With the match all square, bad light stopped play to bring Murray’s impetus to a halt. They would come back to open play on Suzanne Lenglen before the French Open quarter-finals got under way.
Meanwhile, another man was already sitting back with his semi-final place secure. Novak Djokovic had received a walkover through his own quarter-final tie without lifting a finger.
So it was that, with spots of rain drifting in the cool Paris wind, Murray found himself on the back foot again in an all-or-nothing fifth set.
Troicki pounded his big serve and forehand to fend off some early chances for Murray on the Serb’s serve. In the event, it was the attacking Troicki who took the break in the sixth game and, when he stepped up to serve for the match at 5-3, 30-0, the result looked a foregone conclusion.
Instead, though, Murray produced an encore of his antics from the night before and reeled off the next four games to take the match, 7-5.
In retrospect, he might consider himself lucky to do so: Troicki went into freeze mode once he could taste victory and began to fire errors -20 in the set -at the key moments. He became the proverbial Ã¢â‚¬Ëœrabbit caught in the headlights’: unable to seize his moment of glory.
The most reassuring part of the Murray performance, apart from his resolve when staring defeat in the face, was the apparent ease with which he moved: no sign of problems with that injured ankle at all.
He now also benefits from what, on paper, should be an easy quarter-final against the unseeded 31-year-old, Juan Ignacio Chela. It means he can expect to reach his first French Open semi having faced just one seeded player, unlike the man who he will meet there.
That other place in the top half of the draw will be fought out between top seed Rafael Nadal and the world No5 Robin Soderling, who contested the title last year.
Soderling is also the only man to have beaten Nadal at Roland Garros. Time, therefore, for Murray -like his friend Djokovic -to sit back and enjoy the view.
Meanwhile, on Philipp Chatrier, there was another fight-back from the dead. Defending champion Francesca Schiavone went 4-0 down in the opening set against the Russian teenager, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Schiavone seemed unable to get to grips with the worsening wind and heavy conditions, scoring just two points on her opponent’s serve.
So at 6-1 4-1 down, the Italian 30-year-old was looking defeat in the face but this is a woman with the biggest heart and the loudest roar in women’s tennis.
She also loves this court with a passion that threatens to spontaneously combust. She gritted her teeth for a heroic fight-back and, with six of the next seven games, she levelled the match, 7-5.
Now it was Schiavone’s turn to find the winners, the variety and the tactics to outplay her big-hitting opponent. She broke in the first game of the third set and raced to a 5-1 lead, but clearly even reigning champions are not immune from nerves and she was broken back by the remarkably mature and attacking Russian to level the match, 5-5.
It seemed that Schiavone had run out of both ideas and legs but the fearsome Italian broke again, fended off two break points when serving for the match and confirmed only her second Grand Slam semi-final with a 7-5 set. Her first was on the way to the title here last year.
Schiavone takes such joy in her tennis that it’s impossible not to smile along with her.
It’s a style that is in vivid contrast to the man who followed her onto court, for Roger Federer shows the minimum of emotion as he goes about his serene business. Yet his win over the popular home favourite garnered just as many smiles from the Philipp Chatrier crowd.
This quarter-final match between the third and ninth seeds was always going to be an entertainer: artistry versus acrobatics, refinement versus extravagance.
Their last match had been a win for Monfils in a close three-tie-breaker at the Paris Masters, and the Frenchman promised more of the same when he gained the first break to lead 3-1.
The wind was, by late afternoon, causing both players a lot of problems and errors came on serve and off the ground. Federer broke back, Monfils found himself at deuce again, but Federer could not convert any of the three break point chances.
Finally, in the 10th game, he made the breakthrough when Monfils hit a forehand wide: 6-4. But both were unsettled by the heavy court and the blustering wind and their unforced errors vastly outnumbered winners.
Then in a scene reminiscent of a Saharan storm, the red clay lifted into a cloud that drifted around the entire arena. It brought play to a temporary halt yet both continued to show admirable focus in the extraordinary conditions.
The sixth game of the second set brought more bizarre rallies, errors and opportunities. As multiple deuces came and went, Monfils was finally broken after serving one of three double faults, and Federer served out, 6-3.
By now, both had resorted to towels around the shoulders at changes of end in an effort to stave off the sinking evening temperature. Yet the third set continued to produce some scintillating shot-making, net-attacks, clutch serving at key moments, all littered with unpredictable mistakes.
By the match’s conclusion, Monfils had produced 53 unforced errors to Federer’s 42, but those statistics disguise an intense battle that went all the way to a tie-breaker.
They were tense moments: Federer had failed to convert break chances on the last three Monfils service games. By now, though, the Swiss looked ready for a hot dinner, and it was over in a flash, seven points to three.
Federer now has three seeds in his rear-view mirror -more than any of the other top four in Paris -and is the only one of the four yet to drop a set. But he now faces his stiffest challenge against that rested Serb who is on a 43-match unbroken run.
Federer was the last man to beat Djokovic: He now has the chance to become the first to beat him this year.