For the last nine years, Roger Federer has been a lock to make at least the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. You know what they say about good things.
Federer's attempt to make his French Open quarterfinals streak a decade long failed Sunday, as Ernests Gulbis came back from a first-set defeat to earn a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 win over the world's fourth-ranked player.
Gulbis, 25, will make his second French Open quarters appearance. His first came in 2008, when the then-unseeded Latvian shocked the world and announced his arrival on the professional scene. Given Federer's steely consistency and opening-set win, Gulbis' latest trip six years later is no less surprising.
Judy Battista of NFL.com highlighted the new "reality" for Federer:
Federer came into the fourth round looking to set his latest record in a career full of them. With 41 Grand Slam quarterfinals appearances, Federer is tied with Jimmy Connors for the best mark on the men's circuit in the open era. Sunday's match proved why Father Time is the biggest opponent to that level of prolonged success.
Federer has been borderline unstoppable with his serve throughout the 2014 season, but his game betrayed him at the worst possible time. He allowed Gulbis to break him seven times, was hit-and-miss with his accuracy levels and won barely half of his second-serve points. The fourth-seeded Swiss also made an uncharacteristic 59 unforced errors to aid his opponent along the way.
Meanwhile, Gulbis was at times overpowering with his serve. His serve reached a maximum speed of 222 kilometers per hours (138 mph) and averaged well over 200 kmh (124 mph) throughout. Placing the serve proved difficult early on, but Gulbis only gained confidence as the match went along.
That confidence can be traced in large part to a key point in the second set. Following a back-and-forth slog of an opening set that saw Federer win in a tiebreaker, the Swiss took a 5-3 lead in the second and looked to be on the verge of closing a win out in fine fashion. He then held a double-set point only to lose it as Gulbis battled with his back against the wall.
Gulbis broke Federer and held serve himself to force a second tiebreak, which he won mostly with ease. That was followed by a dominant 6-2 triumph in the third set.
As it became clear the momentum had shifted, the seams began to show for Federer. He made 12 unforced errors in the set compared to just two for Gulbis and failed to dominate the net despite an aggressive, attacking strategy.
The fourth set provided the match's second turning point.
Like he did in the second, Federer started the critical fourth set dominant. He broke Gulbis and held on his own serve to take a 5-2 lead. Facing the prospect of a deciding fifth set and cramping in his back/hamstring area, Gulbis requested a timeout and went back to the locker room with the training staff. He emerged to the sound of boos raining down upon him nearly 10 minutes later.
Fan displeasure or not, that break was just the boost Gulbis needed.
He came out of the locker room renewed, winning the next two games and giving the crowd a strange sense of deja vu. Federer was able to stave off Gulbis to win the fourth set 6-4, but whatever momentum he'd gathered had vanished. Gulbis opened the fifth and deciding set by winning each of the first three games, making five of six since the injury timeout.
The result felt largely academic from there. With both players gassed as the three-hour mark came and passed, Gulbis' power began taking over. He won his first nine first-serve points in the set, overpowered Federer with a thunderous forehand and avoided costly mistakes. Federer fought to hold his serve, but Gulbis rode that initial break to finish off the match.
For Gulbis, this win is a long time coming.
Not only does it come with the satisfaction of taking down arguably the greatest player in history, but it also happened where his rise first began. Gulbis went from French quarterfinalist in 2008 to advancing past the second round just once over the next six years. With two wins on the calendar year and a rise to No. 17 on the world rankings, though, Gulbis is finally realizing the promise he showed in Paris those years ago.
"I'm jumping on the last train," Gulbis told reporters prior to his match against Federer. "I'm 25, so this was my last opportunity to be really successful, I think, and I think I have a good seven, eight more years to play at the top level."
Up next is Tomas Berdych, the sixth-seeded Czech who beat John Isner in straight sets to reach his second quarterfinal at Roland Garros. Berdych has taken four of his first six matchups against Gulbis, including their only previous head-to-head battle on clay in 2011. It's worth noting, though, that Berdych's level of play has tended to vary wildly on the clay surface—specifically at Roland Garros.
Gulbis may wind up continuing his run to the semis, where Novak Djokovic would likely wait.
Federer is left with the latest in a list of growing frustrations at major championships. His streak of 36 straight Slam quarterfinals ended last year, starting what's now a string of three missed quarters in four tries. With age 33 coming up in August, it's an open secret that Federer is nearing the end.
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