For a moment, the French Open seemed on the brink of implosion on a damp, windy Sunday at Roland Garros.
World No. 1 Victoria Azarenka was out, beaten 6-2, 7-6 (4) by Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova. The other world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, was two sets down against Italy’s Andreas Seppi. Simultaneously, the great Roger Federer was a set down against a Belgian rookie named David Goffin, who looked as if he were playing truant from school.
Eventually, Djokovic and Federer found ways to win, but their opponents walked off court with their heads held high, knowing that they had played their part in an afternoon to remember.
In the evening, when the sun finally appeared, the drama continued with Sloane Stephens against Samantha Stosur. Stephens went down 7-5, 6-4 to the reigning US Open champion on Court One, which leaves Varvara Lepchenko as the last US player in either singles draw. Lepchenko plays Petra Kvitova on Monday.
Stephens almost got herself right back into the second set after trailing 5-1. She forced Stosur into error on both the occasions the Australian served for the match. But, having done the hard part, Stephens produced two bad forehands herself as she tried to level at 5-5 and allowed Stosur to break her again in the 10th game.
Put it down to experience. The 19-year-old Stephens has shown plenty of potential in reaching the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time and will go further than that in the future.
Her upbeat attitude will take care of that because the talent is there.
“I’ve had so much fun,” she said, sweeping aside the disappointment. “Even though I’ve been saying I can’t wait to get home to eat my grandpa’s curry crab, I don’t want to leave. So it’s kind of bittersweet that I’m going home.”
Nothing gladdened the eye of the tennis purist more than the performance of Goffin, the slightly built, sandy-haired 21-year-old from Liege who held 10,000 spectators on Court Suzanne Lenglen in thrall with a brand of smooth-hitting clay-court tennis that made one think of Mats Wilander or Ken Rosewall, or even the man across the net — the same man Goffin had idolized through his teenage years.
“I thought he played really well,” Federer said. “Great impression. He took the ball early every time. He has great potential in terms of touch and the way he reads the game. What I enjoy very much about this story, about David and the way he played today, is to see someone do it at a Grand Slam again because we were used to seeing (Boris) Becker win Wimbledon, (Michael) Chang winning the French Open at very young ages. It just doesn’t happen so often anymore.”
It was not just Goffin’s eye-opening ability to smack winners from unlikely positions on the court that caught Federer off guard, but the way he interacted with the crowd. After one amazing point that the Belgian finished with a delicate drop shot, he raised his arm and then bowed to three corners of the court. The crowd loved it and demanded that both players speak into the microphone at the end of the match.
"I guess they were really excited about this match,” Federer said. “So we spoke, and there were some jokes between us, and then the crowd wanted us to hug each other. So we did give each other a hug. Like men.”
Federer was laughing and was obviously taken up by a somewhat special occasion that just seemed to fit the mood. Everyone who understands the game realized they had seen the birth of a new star, someone who is destined for great things in the game.
As for Goffin himself, he said the chat with Federer at the end had been a great moment and one he would never forget. And then he revealed what it is like to have Federer across the net.
“What is very frightening is his attitude,” Goffin said. “When he was down, I thought he was going to show something with his face, have a shake in his lips. Nothing. Poker face. When he’s not playing his best, he continues playing and ends up winning. That’s what I find impressive.”
Seppi had much the same feeling after losing that two-set lead against Djokovic. The Italian had outplayed the world No. 1 for two sets as Djokovic struggled with his timing and his footwork.
“But I didn’t start strongly in either the third or fourth sets, and that was the problem,” Seppi said. “He just kept fighting and got better towards the end.”
Said Djokovic: “He was the better player for the first two sets, definitely. I was very fortunate to come through this match. But I was fighting and kept believing I could win. That’s the only positive I can take from this match.”
Azarenka tried to fight, but it didn’t work, not against such a tough competitor. Cibulkova erased the memory of a match in Miami in March, when she led Azarenka 6-1, 5-2 but couldn’t close it out.
“You can’t be human if you were not thinking about that,” said Cibulkova, who lost her serve from 5-2 up in the second on this occasion, too. “But today, the great thing was that I got through these emotions. And I’m very proud of myself for still going for my shots in the tiebreak.”
Azarenka had no excuses.
“I’m going to kill myself,” she replied with only the faintest hint of a smile when asked how she felt. “I don’t know how to describe my performance today. No excuses. It was just a bad performance. It was no surprise that she was going to play well today. I think she always plays better against the top players. She really has that desire.”