Commentary

Djoker avoids same fate as Vika

Updated: June 3, 2012, 5:52 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- For a few heart-stopping hours Sunday, the French Open was in lockdown. It was only the fourth round, but both world No. 1s -- Novak Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka -- had each contrived to lose the first set and fall behind a break in the second. The cliché that describes the depth in today's professional game as unprecedented has become well-worn. But that doesn't mean it's not true.

If you are even a little off your game these days, an Andreas Seppi or a Dominika Cibulkova can come whistling out of the weeds and knock you on your behind.

Cibulkova, who had lost seven of eight previous matches to Azarenka, changed the chemistry of their relationship with a 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory on Court Suzanne Lenglen. Seppi, despite winning the first two sets, did not fare as well on Court Philippe Chatrier. Djokovic grimly rallied to win 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Patrick Kovarik/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic was this close close to joining Victoria Azarenka on the next flight home.

After the 4-hour, 18-minute match, Djokovic showed very little emotion. He puffed out his cheeks, closed his eyes and exhaled. He has now won 25 consecutive Grand Slam singles matches and the stress of the streak is starting to show.

After her loss, Azarenka was asked the obligatory question: How would she recover from the match? The answer, however, was not standard issue:

"I'm going to kill myself," said a fuming Azarenka, her voice laced with sarcasm. "What am I going to do recovering? I'm just going to go on the practice court and practice again. The tournament is over for me. What's to recover from?"

Earlier, she said: "No excuses. It's just a bad performance."

Only three times in the Open era have the two No. 1s both lost on the same day at a Slam -- before the quarterfinals. The last time it happened was here in 2004, when Roger Federer and Justine Henin were upset losers.

Both Azarenka and Djokovic have talked about dealing with the pressure of playing with the bull's-eye of No. 1 on their backs. Now that Azarenka, the reigning Australian Open champion, has lost, there will be no opportunity for a calendar-year Grand Slam. But on the men's side, the expectations for Djokovic are enormous. Not only is he trying to go 2-for-2 in majors this year, but a win at Roland Garros would give him four in a row.

"He was a better player for first two sets, definitely," Djokovic said. "I was very fortunate to come through to this match. I was fighting. Look, you know, I think it's just a bad day for my game, for my rhythm in general. But, look, I won. I'm in the quarterfinals. That's what matters the most.

"When I was two sets down, I believed I could win the match, and I think that's the only positive I can really pick up from today's match."

When you are 5-foot-3 in the land of the giants, you have to swing for the fences on pretty much every stroke. Cibulkova -- who appears closer to 5-2 -- is the shortest player among the WTA's top 100 players, but she is fiery and utterly fearless.

Although the women's round of 16 featured six unseeded players, Azarenka did not have the good fortune to draw one. But even without the benefit of hindsight, you could see this one coming. That 1-7 record against Azarenka came with an asterisk; the previous five matches all had gone three sets. And in the last two, both in Miami, Cibulkova had enormous leads -- and imploded. By odd coincidence, the two were supposed to have met a few weeks ago in the fourth round at Rome, but Azarenka bailed, citing a sore shoulder.

After losing her opening serve in a wrenching nine-deuce game, the 23-year-old Slovakian raced back to win six of the next seven games. When Cibulkova survived a difficult service game to take a 3-2 lead in the second, Azarenka slammed her Wilson Juice 100 BLX racket to the ground and offered a few heated words in Russian. The racket survived the fall, but in her changeover chair, Azarenka finished the job, cracking the frame.

In the players' box, Amelie Mauresmo scowled. Mauresmo, a two-time Grand Slam champion and former world No. 1, has been retained by Azarenka as a coaching consultant to help her navigate the pitfalls at the higher reaches of the game. But when Cibulkova broke Azarenka (who sent a lame backhand into the net), all Mauresmo could do was smile and clap. Mauresmo, it should be noted, was notoriously weak-kneed in her native Grand Slam.

The thing that makes Azarenka a champion is her fighting spirit. Like Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, she rarely takes anything off her shots. It can be a weakness, too. Down 5-3 in the tiebreaker, Azarenka ripped a forehand, which landed just wide. Two points later, Cibulkova slashed a backhand pass and fell giddily to her back, kicking her feet in the air.

She admitted there were Miami flashbacks when she took a 4-2 lead in the second set.

"That's why I got a little bit -- not nervous, but a little bit more -- not going for my shots anymore," Cibulkova said. "But today it was a great thing that, you know, I managed to go through these emotions. She was 6-5 up, and I said, 'Hey, come on, you have to play your game again and just make it.'

"And for the tiebreaker, I'm very, very proud of myself that I was still going for my shots, and I just made it because she would never give me the match, and I just made it."

In the quarterfinals Cibulkova will meet the No. 6 seed Samantha Stosur. Cibulkova finds herself tantalizingly close to her best effort at Roland Garros (or any Grand Slam, for that matter) -- the semifinals three year ago.

And what of Azarenka? Since winning her first 26 matches to start the year, she has faded appreciably. Her last four tournaments ended poorly:

• Miami: lost to Marion Bartoli in the quarters.

• Stuttgart: played with an injured wrist and lost to Sharapova in the final.

• Madrid: thumped by Serena Williams in the final.

• Rome: exited with a shoulder injury.

She's headed back home to Minsk, Belarus, for at least a week of rest before Wimbledon. "It's something that I for sure need, just to get rested mentally, definitely, just to get out of the tennis field a little bit," Azarenka said. "And once I have my passion and desire back on the court, I'll be on the grass."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.