Djokovic survives scare as Gauff makes Slam breakthrough

Published June 8, 2021
Serbia's Novak Djokovic returns the ball to Italy's Lorenzo Musetti during their men's singles fourth round tennis match on Day 9 of The Roland Garros 2021 French Open tennis tournament in Paris on June 7. — AFP
Serbia's Novak Djokovic returns the ball to Italy's Lorenzo Musetti during their men's singles fourth round tennis match on Day 9 of The Roland Garros 2021 French Open tennis tournament in Paris on June 7. — AFP
PARIS: Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti hits a return against Novak Djokovic during their epic fourth-round match at the Roland Garros on Monday.—Reuters
PARIS: Italy’s Lorenzo Musetti hits a return against Novak Djokovic during their epic fourth-round match at the Roland Garros on Monday.—Reuters

PARIS: Novak Djokovic battled back from two sets down to reach the French Open quarter-finals for the 15th time on Monday as 17-year-old Coco Gauff became the youngest woman to reach a Grand Slam last eight since 2006.

World number one Djokovic stayed on course to become the first man in over 50 years to win all four Slams twice after surviving a rousing challenge from 19-year-old Lorenzo Musetti.

The Italian teenager, ranked 76 and making his Grand Slam debut, was poised to condemn Djokovic to his earliest exit in Paris in 12 years when he captured the first two sets, 6-7 (7-9), 6-7 (2-7).

But Djokovic levelled by taking the next two sets, 6-1, 6-0 before Musetti, who had taken a medical time-out, retired at 4-0 down in the decider suffering from a stomach injury.

It was the fifth time in his Grand Slam career that the 34-year-old Djokovic has come back from two sets down to win.

Djokovic, the 2016 champion and chasing a 19th major, reeled off 53 of the last 61 points against the weary Italian as he made a quarter-final at the majors for the 49th time.

Later Monday, 13-time champion Rafael Nadal, chasing a record 21st Grand Slam title, also faces an Italian teenage challenge in the shape of Jannik Sinner.

Nadal, who is seeded to meet Djokovic in the semi-finals, defeated 19-year-old Sinner in the quarter-finals in 2020.

Gauff, meanwhile, swept to an impressive 53-minute, 6-3, 6-1 win over Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur.

At just 17, she is the youngest woman to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam since Nicole Vaidisova who made the quarter-finals at Roland Garros in 2006.

Gauff is also the youngest American woman to book a place in the last eight in Paris since Jennifer Capriati in 1993.

In a composed performance on Court Philippe Chatrier, the American teenager, seeded 24, broke her Tunisian opponent three times without facing a break point herself.

“I am super happy to reach my first Grand Slam quarter-final. I played really well,” said Gauff who has yet to drop a set and also learned she had claimed a place on the American team for the Tokyo Olympics.

Gauff, who famously raced to the Wimbledon fourth round in 2019 as a 15-year-old qualifier, faces Barbora Krejcikova for a place in the semi-finals.

The 33rd-ranked Czech also reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final with a 6-2, 6-0 win over 2018 runner-up and former US Open champion Sloane Stephens.

However, last year’s runner-up Sofia Kenin, the fourth seed, was knocked out by Maria Sakkari 6-1, 6-3 as the Greek also made the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time.

The world number 18 will face either reigning champion Iga Swiatek or Ukrainian teenager Marta Kostyuk for a place in the last four.

Sakkari broke Kenin six times as the 2020 Australian Open winner committed 32 unforced errors and served nine double faults.

“I’m speechless. I love Paris. I’m having a great time and I don’t want to leave anytime soon,” said Sakkari.

Argentine 10th seed Diego Schwartzman reached his third French Open quarter-final with a 7-6 (11-9), 6-4, 7-5 win over Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff.

Schwartzman, who will face either Nadal or Sinner, saved seven set points in the first set as he rallied from a 5-1 deficit against the 42nd-ranked Struff.

Swiatek, the only top 10 seed left in the women’s draw, has not dropped a set at the tournament in her last 10 matches.

Kostyuk, ranked 81, made her breakthrough at the 2018 Australian Open.

Just 15 at the time, she became the youngest player to reach the third round of a Grand Slam since 1997.

SERENA’S RUN ENDS

Meanwhile, Serena Williams’ latest quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title ended in the last 16 on Sunday, hours after Roger Federer pulled out of what was possibly his last appearance at Roland Garros.

The 39-year-old Williams, still one short of Margaret Court’s all-time record for most Grand Slam singles titles, lost 6-3, 7-5 to Kazakh 21st seed Elena Rybakina, while Federer withdrew as a precaution to protect his body for Wimbledon.

The American won the last of her three Roland Garros titles in 2015, and has not gone beyond the fourth round in Paris since losing the 2016 final.

“It was definitely close. I’m so close. There is literally a point here, a point there, that could change the whole course of the match,” said Williams. “I’m not winning those points. That like literally could just change everything.”

Williams, who despite arriving here with just one win on clay this season, had seen her title hopes of boosted by the absence of Simona Halep, and early exits of Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka.

Instead, she remains without a Grand Slam title since winning the 2017 Australian Open in the early stages of her pregnancy.

Williams, who debuted at Roland Garros in 1998, refused to be drawn on whether this was her last French Open.

“I’m definitely not thinking about it at all. I’m definitely thinking just about other things but not about that,” she said.

Russian-born Rybakina, 21, extended her best run at a major as she advanced to her first quarter-final, where she will face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for a spot in the last four.

Alexander Zverev progressed to the quarter-finals for the third time in four years with a 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 win over Japan’s Kei Nishikori.

The German sixth seed goes on to face world number 46 Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain.

Results on Monday (prefix number denotes seeding):

Men’s singles:

Fourth round: 1-Novak Djokovic (Serbia) bt Lorenzo Musetti (Italy) 6-7 (7-9), 6-7 (2-7), 6-1, 6-0, 4-0 — Musetti retired; 9-Matteo Berrettini (Italy) bt 8-Roger Federer (Switzerland) — walkover; 10-Diego Schwartzman (Argentina) bt Jan-Lennard Struff (Germany) 7-6 (11-9), 6-4, 7-5.

Women’s singles:

Fourth round: 24-Coco Gauff (US) bt 25-Ons Jabeur (Tunisia) 6-3, 6-1; Barbora Krejcikova (Czech Republic) bt Sloane Stephens (US) 6-2, 6-0; 17-Maria Sakkari (Greece) bt 4-Sofia Kenin (US) 6-1, 6-3.

Remaining results on Sunday:

Men’s singles:

Fourth round: 6-Alexander Zverev (Germany) bt Kei Nishikori (Japan) 6-4, 6-1, 6-1; Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (Spain) bt Federico Delbonis (Argentina) 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.

Women’s singles:

Fourth round: 21-Elena Rybakina (Kazakhstan) bt 7-Serena Williams (US) 6-3, 7-5.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2021

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