For the third time in three matches at this year’s French Open, Rafael Nadal hardly looked himself for a set.
Unlike in the first two rounds, Nadal won his opening set on Saturday, albeit barely. The takeaway, even after another victory, was the same: The owner of a record seven titles at Roland Garros is not the dominant force he usually is at the clay-court tournament.
”If I want to have any chance,” Nadal acknowledged after beating 27th-seeded Fabio Fognini of Italy 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4, ”I really need to play better.”
Hours later, the man Nadal beat in last year’s final and could meet in this year’s semifinals, No. 1-ranked and No. 1-seeded Novak Djokovic, seemed vulnerable, too. Walking to his changeover chair at 4-3 in the third set of a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win against No. 26 Grigor Dimitrov, Djokovic stretched his right arm — the one he’s used to win six Grand Slam titles — several times. He then was treated by a trainer, who applied ointment and gave Djokovic a massage near the shoulder.
Two games later, the match was done, Djokovic was into the fourth round, and he raised that arm in his typical victory celebration.
His mood would shift dramatically soon. When Djokovic left the court and went to the changing room, he was told by his team that his first coach — Jelena Gencic, who began working with little Nole when he was 6 — had died in Belgrade, Serbia, earlier Saturday. Djokovic issued a statement through the tournament saying that he would not be able to attend a post-match news conference.
”His team kept the news secret from him until after the match,” ATP spokesman Nicola Arzani said. ”He just broke down. … He was very, very, very close to her.”
As they approach each other in the draw, Nadal now meets No. 13 Kei Nishikori — the first Japanese man in the fourth round of the French Open in 75 years — while Djokovic faces No. 16 Philipp Kohlschreiber. The other matchups in that half of the bracket established by results on a wild Saturday in Paris: No. 12 Tommy Haas against No. 29 Mikhail Youzhny, and No. 7 Richard Gasquet against No. 9 Stanislas Wawrinka.
Haas let a record 12 match points get away from him in the fourth set, then saved one in the fifth, before eventually pulling out a 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-7 (10), 10-8 victory over 19th-seeded John Isner, the last American man in the field and the player best known for winning a 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon three years ago.
”In hindsight, probably would have been better to lose in straight sets,” Isner said, ”because I feel terrible right now.”
In Nishikori’s victory, his opponent, France’s Benoit Paire, was assessed a point penalty for being coached. The same thing happened to Marina Erakovic of New Zealand during her loss to No. 17 Sloane Stephens, one of four US women into the fourth round.
That’s the most since four also made it in 2004; five made it a year earlier. She’s joined by 54th-ranked Jamie Hampton, who stunned 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-1, 7-6 (7); 67th-ranked Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who also won on Saturday; and 15-time major champion Serena Williams, whose fourth-round match is on Sunday.
Stephens gets the most intriguing matchup with a quarterfinal berth at stake, taking on defending champion Maria Sharapova on Monday.
Sharapova dealt with eight double-faults against unseeded Zheng Jie before winning 6-1, 7-5.
Hampton next plays 2008 US Open runner-up Jelena Jankovic, Mattek-Sands faces No. 12 Maria Kirilenko, and 2010 champion Francesca Schiavone plays two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka.
Those matches will be on Monday, when Nadal will return to the court, too. The way he’s been playing, he looked forward to a chance to work on some things in the meantime.
Asked after the Fognini match what he’s pleased with about his game at the moment, Nadal replied: ”Not one.”
He is trying to become the first man to win eight championships at one Grand Slam tournament and is now 55-1 at Roland Garros.
But, wearing a wrap of white tape below his oft-troublesome left knee, he was as erratic as ever, with 40 unforced errors and problems converting break points. He’s never lost to a player seeded as low as Fognini at any major tournament but fell behind 3-2 when broken in the first set; perhaps coincidentally, Nadal was warned for taking too much time between points in that game. Nadal broke back, but later dropped serve again to trail 6-5.
In one period of that set, Nadal lost 10 of 11 points that lasted at least 10 strokes, the types of exchanges he typically controls.
If Fognini had not made as many errors as he did — a botched overhead here, a sitter into the net there — Nadal would have been in serious trouble. The Spaniard lost the first set against 59th-ranked Daniel Brands in the first round, and the first set against 35th-ranked Martin Klizan in the second round.
Nadal managed to pull out the first set in a tiebreaker against Fognini, but only allowed a smile to crease his face — after 2 hours, 45 minutes of sneering – while waving to the crowd when the match was over.
”If I can calm down, I will play better,” Nadal said afterward. ”Otherwise, I can go back to Mallorca and go fishing.”