TENNIS: Grief-stricken Djokovic advances in France
PARIS — Novak Djokovic battled his way through grief, Rafael Nadal celebrated a birthday with the center court crowd, and three newcomers reached the quarterfinals on a busy Monday at the French Open.
Playing two days after his childhood coach had died, the top-ranked Djokovic’s emotions were clear to see when he beat Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to reach the last eight.
The Serb clenched his fist once, twice, then swatted it toward the ground in a punching motion as he yelled, “Come on!” to himself. He then quickly turned to his team in the stands and clenched it one last time, his face gripped with determination and pride.
There was no doubt whatsoever that this win was for Jelena Gencic, who died Saturday in Belgrade at age 76. She started coaching him when he was six, and Djokovic referred to her as his “second mother.”
Now, he pledges to win the French Open to honor her memory.
“I feel even more responsible now to go all the way in this tournament. I want to do it for her,” Djokovic said. “I know that her spirit will be always with me and always on the tennis court.”
He next plays 12th-seeded Tommy Haas of Germany on Wednesday.
Djokovic played through grief before at the Monte Carlo Masters in April 2012, when he won a third-round match just hours after learning his grandfather had died.
He reached the final — and that painful experience helped him this time.
“I’m handling it better,” he said. “So now I feel in her honor that I need to go all the way.”
The smile on seven-time French Open champion Nadal’s face after his 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 win against Kei Nishikori turned into a beaming grin when a giant cake was dragged onto center court for the Spaniard’s 27th birthday.
Nadal seeks to become first man to win eight titles at the same Grand Slam event. Even if he does try to eat the huge cake, he might struggle to finish it before his match Wednesday against No. 9 Stanislas Wawrinka.
The Swiss player was one of three who reached the French Open quarters for the first time Monday. The other two are Haas and No. 12 Maria Kirilenko of Russia.
But before Nadal plays Wawrinka and Djokovic takes on Haas, four quarterfinals were being decided today.
Seventeen-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer takes on No. 6 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France and No. 32 Tommy Robredo plays No. 4 David Ferrer in an all-Spanish match.
Top-ranked Serena Williams seeks to extend her winning streak to 28 straight matches when she faces Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion who is unseeded this year. Last year’s finalist Sara Errani, seeded fifth, takes on No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland.
Radwanska leads Errani 6-1 and Williams is 6-2 up against Kuznetsova, but one of the losses was at Roland Garros in the quarterfinals four years ago.
Also through to the last eight is defending champion Maria Sharapova. The Russian beat Sloane Stephens and next plays three-time French Open semifinalist Jelena Jankovic.
Kirilenko beat American Bethanie Mattek-Sands 7-5, 6-4 and next faces two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
Sharapova’s win came in 62 minutes, while Haas took about 20 minutes longer to dispatch Mikhail Youzhny.
The speed then slackened considerably, as Wawrinka labored for 4 hours, 16 minutes to get the better of seventh-seeded Richard Gasquet of France 6-7 (5), 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 8-6.
“In the soul, for sure,” Gasquet said when asked to describe where the pain of losing hurt the most.
Wawrinka may have to brace himself for another very long match if he wants to get the better of Nadal, who is 56-1 at Roland Garros.
“I’m really happy with everything what’s happened, and I want to enjoy (it),” Wawrinka said. “I don’t want to think about my next one. Even if I know it’s Rafa.”
Haas, 35, is the oldest player to reach the French Open quarters since 1971. Joining him in the band of 30-somethings still standing in western Paris are the second-seeded Federer, Ferrer, Robredo and the 15-time Grand Slam champion Williams — who are all 31.
“I think we all just are smarter. ... About how you train, about how you eat, about how you do your recovery,” Haas said, explaining the secret to their longevity. “The physical and fitness areas have improved a lot in sports in general. I think that’s why you see maybe more people also in the early, mid 30s doing well.”