It was a chaotic and bewildering day of action at Roland Garros as tennis fans witnessed two major upsets and near-upsets.
They were two world No. 1s, and the two 2009 champions—Victoria Azarenka, Novak Djokovic, Svetlana Kuznetova and Roger Federer. The coincidences were remarkable, but fortunately for the men, the five-sets format provided them the window for escape.
The first to spread the ill-tidings was Kuznetsova, who fell, seemingly overwhelmed, by Italian Sara Errani 6-0, 7-5. The champion of 2009 was out of place, but has never been an entirely reliable force in the past, either. It was disappointing but not at the time ominous.
Only with Victoria Azarenka's stunning loss—6-2, 7-6, to Dominka Cibulkova—did heads begin to shake. Partly one might have attributed the events of the day to the heavy, slow conditions on an overcast day, which equalised the game a great deal.
But it wasn't itself an entirely startling suggestion that Azarenka might have lost, because it wasn't entirely certain she would have won the tournament. Dominant a world No. 1 as she has been, but her performance on clay in 2012 has been suspect. Evidently, it has had a disappointing summation.
The real events of the day, however, were only about to begin. Just as Cibulkova wrapped up her straight-sets upset at Suzanne Lenglen stadium, Novak Djokovic found himself in a deep hole on court Phillipe Chatrier, down 6-4, 7-6 to the Italian Andreas Seppi.
The men's world No. 1 would eventually overcome the apparent inevitability of an unfortunate fourth-round exit, coming back from two sets to love for only the third time in his career to triumph 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3.
It was a grueling and frustrating afternoon for the Serbian, but for his fellow high seed Roger Federer, the tension of the match dissipated near the end of the second set. The points between him and lucky loser David Goffin were bullet-quick, characterised by swift aggressive strokes. Federer didn't even so much as face a break point on Goffin's serve until 5-5 in the second, but it was all he needed to reclaim the ascendancy. He had dropped his serve to lose a nervous first set, but ultimately prevailed, ending in dominant fashion, 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4.
What did all four events mean? For the women, clearly, there are now gaping opportunities waiting to be exploited. On Kuznetsova's side of the draw alone, Sam Stosur, the 2010 finalist, stands to gain the most, while Kuznetsova's conqueror Errani has a chance to bring to flower her considerable clay-court prowess.
The largest beneficiary, one suspects, is the woman Azarenka ought to have faced in the final—Maria Sharapova. Already touted as a heavy favourite coming in, one can only think of this tournament as hers now to lose; none of the women who have beaten her in 2012 are still alive in the draw.
For the men, Djokovic's heroics and Federer's second houdini act (after surviving Mahut in the third round) serve both to question, and consolidate, the dominance of the Big Three. Federer's performance was patchy, but he still managed to weather the storm, as it were, and for Djokovic, one could only say that the only thing better than winning in straights is winning in five. What doesn't kill you can only make you stronger.
These are ominous signs for his opposition, for all the frailty and fragility he revealed against Seppi. Just possibly, Djokovic doesn't quite adjust his footwork as well as Federer or Nadal; but crucially, he won. His prospective final opponent Rafael Nadal ought to be wary that Djokovic has all right to play loosely for the rest of the tournament, while at the same time heartened to know that Djokovic's latest tryst with career Grand Slam pressure nearly undid him. At the least, Djokovic could play better.
Federer, on the other hand, remains enigmatic and unpredictable. This was the story of Day 8, on a day that showed us yet again the eternal gamble that is tennis, and sports in general. On a day of cooler and slower conditions, Azarenka and Kuznetsova were shown to be average, Djokovic clumsy and Federer human. Anything can happen in this sport on any given day, and yesterday we saw its two faces of unlikely defeat and unlikely victory.