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Monday, May 30, 2011
Too much free time for Novak Djokovic?

By Greg Garber
ESPN.com

PARIS -- The day after Fabio Fognini channeled Federico Fellini, a fellow Italian fabulist, he created even more drama.

Without even stepping on the court.

Fognini -- who dispatched Albert Montanes on Sunday in a 4-hour, 22-minute match that was easily the most entertaining of this entertaining French Open so far -- will not play his quarterfinal match against Novak Djokovic.

This means that Djokovic, who played for three straight days, will now have four days off before his semifinal match -- presumably against Roger Federer.

It also has repercussions regarding The Streak. Djokovic, who has won 41 straight matches to start the 2011 season, will now have to win the French Open title to break John McEnroe's record of 42, set in 1984. Additionally, with an overall win streak of 43-0 going back to last year's Davis Cup final, he cannot reach Guillermo Vilas' Open era record of 46 straight wins. That would have to wait a week for the grass warm-up event at Queen's Club in London.

So the question must be asked: Is this good for the No. 2 seed? Or bad?

On the surface, it would seem to be a rare -- and welcome -- extended rest in the throes of a grueling two-week ordeal. Djokovic has now benefited from a walkover, plus the retirement of Victor Hanescu in the second round. So, despite dropping a set to Juan Martin del Potro in the third round, Djokovic has played only 12½ sets, when the standard minimum is usually 15.

This contrasts with No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal, who spent more than seven hours on the court in his first two matches, including an exhausting 4-hour five-setter against John Isner.

On the other hand, is four days off too much free time? Will Djokovic see the sights of Paris, perhaps jet home and sleep in his own bed in Monte Carlo for a few days? Probably not, for he is a creature of habit. Not that he has been a hermit here. On Sunday night, after defeating Richard Gasquet, he was spotted at the popular Latin Quarter restaurant L'Entrecote with members of his team.

There is a recent precedent to consider. At Wimbledon in 2007, Federer was gifted with a fourth-round walkover by Tommy Haas, who had suffered a pulled stomach muscle. That happened on a Sunday, and with rain complicating the situation, Federer wound up with four days off. He returned to defeat Juan Carlos Ferrero in the quarters, then Gasquet and Nadal to claim his fourth straight title at the All England Club.

Despite reaching the first major quarterfinal of his career, Fognini said doctors advised him not to play. He injured his left leg in the fifth set against Montanes, and it was diagnosed as a Grade 1 muscle strain of the quadriceps.

"I'm not really happy now for sure, because I mean, is the best tournament of my career," Fognini said at a well-attended Monday morning news conference. "But is better like this. The team, the doctor say if I play tomorrow maybe can be dangerous, so decide to retire."

He said the decision was not easy.

"It's really difficult," he said. "I am in the court and finally in Paris playing tomorrow against Djokovic. He never lose, like 40 matches in a row. It's difficult to me, because I repeat, it's the best tournament of my career.

"But I think this is the best solution."

Cynics -- including many in the crowd at Court Suzanne Lenglen -- questioned whether he was seriously hurt or merely cramping, but Fognini convinced the chair umpire that it was the former and he was allowed a visit from the trainer. The decision to pull out seems to support his contention, but with Fognini you never really know.

Indeed, there was skepticism regarding this outcome, too.

Why was Fognini smiling so much during his news conference if he was so heartbroken? Why didn't he display a more pronounced limp when he walked to and from the interview room? The conspiracy theorists argued privately that Fognini was actually cramping in the match and had never sustained a serious injury. The decision not to play, they said, was a smart way to defuse the controversy, since he had little chance of winning anyway.

If he had merely stepped on the court in Tuesday's scheduled quarterfinal match with Djokovic and then retired, the match would have been posted as a victory for the streaking Serb. Now it won't count -- representing the second walkover this year for Djokovic, going back to Janko Tipsarevic (leg) in Belgrade.

Thus Djokovic will have plenty of time to think about The Streak. He'll most likely have to beat Federer in the semifinals and Nadal in the final. He will no doubt be comforted by the fact that he's already beaten them a combined seven times already this year.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.