- Kamakshi Tandon
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PARIS -- If there's been any competition between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer here, it's been to see who can face the lowest-ranked opponents through to the quarterfinals. The two might as well have been playing a challenger event.
Take away the big stadiums, the applauding crowds and the courtesy cars, and the field faced by Djokovic and Federer this past week has looked more like one from a minor league event than the French Open.
On his way to the quarterfinals, Federer has faced players ranked No. 78, No. 92, No. 89 and No. 109. Djokovic's first three opponents were ranked No. 97, No. 99 and No. 289. Then he finally got a very solid opponent, No. 25 Andreas Seppi, who responded by going up two sets on Djokovic.
The chief issue is that despite the easy draws, neither has looked that comfortable so far. Both found themselves in trouble in their previous match, particularly Djokovic, whose struggle against Seppi unfolded almost simultaneously alongside Victoria Azarenka's fall on Staggering Sunday.
Playing side-by-side in the tournament's two main stadiums, both world No. 1s dropped their opening sets and then, in near tandem, played and lost second-set tiebreakers. Although Azarenka lost, Djokovic took advantage of the men's longer best-of-five format and battled back. But it was still far from a convincing victory, so much so that the headline in French sporting newspaper L'Equipe asked, "Djokovic, pathetic or epic?"
The Serb dismissed it as "just a bad day." Perhaps, but there haven't been that many great days -- and scarcely any good ones. He'll need them, though, if he's going to become the first man since Rod Laver to win four Grand Slam titles in a row.
Djokovic's best performance has been against Nicolas Devilder in the third round, when he faced the added task of trying to finish the match before darkness set in. Djokovic could use that little extra urgency when he comes up against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga next. The Frenchman is through to the quarterfinals of the French Open for the first time, and though he lacks some confidence on clay, he tends to draw inspiration from the passionate home crowds.
Djokovic has won his meetings against the Frenchman lately and even beat him three weeks ago in Rome, but Tsonga warned, "I think it's gonna be different because I will be in front of my crowd."
It promises to be a big test of confidence and mental strength for the Serb.
"I will be free on the court because I have nothing to lose against this player, who is No. 1 in the world," said Tsonga, who comes in without a day of rest after having his last match delayed overnight because of fading light. "The pressure will be on him."
Last year, Djokovic faltered while trying to keep up his winning streak and take the No. 1 ranking. With an even greater goal within reach this year, and fewer wins to draw on, could he prove vulnerable again?
There's no such pressure on Federer but, like Djokovic, he also found himself in a fight in his fourth-round match against lucky loser David Goffin. The 21-year-old Belgian, who turned in an inspired performance against one of his heroes, was two points away from going up two sets. Federer, meanwhile, struggled to unleash his game in the slow, windy conditions.
It was the third time Federer has gone four sets in this tournament, not exactly a roaring start given the unthreatening draw. But he attributes part of it to that draw, which has produced low-ranked but also unfamiliar foes most of the way.
"When you're the favorite, you end up thinking you are going to win, but you don't exactly know how you're going to win," Federer said. "I have played guys I've almost never heard about and I don't know their patterns, and it's made things difficult for me."
No such problem in his next match. It will be the fifth meeting between Federer and Juan Martin del Potro this year, with Federer having taken all the others in straight sets. The Argentine is also recovering from a knee injury, which he describes as almost 100 percent, and, like Tsonga, he will be coming in without a day of rest after his fourth match was also delayed overnight.
But del Potro's huge forehand is firing, which means there is potential danger for Federer. There have been times during this tournament when del Potro has looked almost untouchable, and others when he has looked error-prone and unimpressive. It's hard to tell which one will show up, and for how long.
"In spite of everything, maybe I will get a chance to play a beautiful match with Federer," he said.
Unlike last year, when del Potro practically floated through the first week, Federer is still trying to unfurl his game at this stage of the tournament.
Though both Djokovic and Federer remain favorites to get through and set up another meeting against each other in the semifinals, their next two challengers are big steps up from the glorified challenger they were playing last week.
Order among chaos in women's draw
It might seem like the women's draw is, as usual these days, disintegrating into chaos. But in some ways, it's just a case of form over fame. Take Sara Errani and Angelique Kerber, who will face off for a spot in the semifinals. Kerber has been rising like a rocket ever since making the U.S. Open semifinals, going from No. 92 during that tournament to entering the top 10 just before the French Open. She has also won tournaments at the Paris Indoors and Copenhagen and beaten Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Li Na this season.
Similarly, Errani also has been having a fine year, reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open as well as winning titles in Acapulco, Barcelona and Budapest.
Little giant-killer Dominika Cibulkova hasn't been on that kind of run, but she is a former semifinalist at this event and has been slowly recovering her form since splitting with coach Zeljko Krajan in March.
Her win over Azarenka in the quarterfinals wasn't a complete surprise, given Azarenka's struggles early in the event and that Cibulkova had been up a set and a break in both their previous two meetings. Though Cibulkova struggled again when trying to close out the match, this time she managed to fight through the nerves.
"I think this is really, really important for me that I won that set and that I, you know, I just finally made it," she said. "I'm playing really well all the tournament, you know, but this was the moment where just I needed to do it. I needed to play well in this situation. I just made it, and it was really, really hard for me."
The biggest name in the top half of the women's draw is U.S. Open champ Samantha Stosur, who has also been spotty this year but has a game that has proved itself on the clay over the last few years. She came into the tournament under the radar but now finds the spotlight on her.
"Nobody had really spoken about that before today, and then Victoria loses and I'm the favorite to get through, so it's funny how things quickly turn around," Stosur said. "But it's the quarterfinals; there's still a long way to go and favorites don't really mean anything."
That's certainly been the case so far.
Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer haven't looked great so far. And now they face the big boys.