The 128 are down to just four.
Four men and four women who have each fought off five opponents on their way to the semifinals of the most important tournament on clay. They are the very best, who have to fight off just two more to lift the ultimate trophy.
On the men’s side, only one of the final four is seeded or ranked in the top four. Rafael Nadal flies the flag for the best in the world, accompanied by his 2009 Roland Garros nemesis, Robin Soderling.
For the two to meet in the final on Sunday, they will both have to take on Grand Slam semifinal virgins, Jurgen Melzer and Tomas Berdych. It’s not what we expected, but it is no less exciting for that.
On the women’s side, too, just one of the top four seeds has reached the semifinals, and none of the last four has won a Grand Slam.
For Jelena Jankovic, this is her fifth Major semi and for Elena Dementieva it is her sixth. Yet it is the other two women who can claim giant-killer credentials.
Francesca Schiavone took out No. 11 seed Li Na and No. 3 seed Caroline Wozniacki, while Sam Stosur beat the former champion Justine Henin and then world No. 1 Serena Williams.
Can one of the bridesmaids at last become the bride? Or will the late flowering, nothing-to-lose pair fight it out for the result of their careers?
So as the French Open, bathed at last in summer warmth, enters its exciting and unexpected closing stages, here’s a personal selection of the moments that have risen like sunflowers above Paris’s damp, red earth.
On the opening Sunday at Roland Garros, the schedule was packed with French interest, but the standout match pitted the charismatic young Latvian, Ernests Gulbis, against veteran Frenchman Julien Benneteau.
The former had broken into the seedings only the week before and the latter was ranked just outside, and both had got the better of world No.1 Roger Federer in the last six months.
Gulbis, the overwhelming favorite—indeed tipped to upset several of the top players in the draw—quickly went down a break in the opening set. He pulled the break back, but struggled to keep pace with Benneteau’s variety and pace. Even the Latvian’s powerful serve could not prevent him from conceding the opening set.
It was a similar story in the second, with Gulbis floundering against the Frenchman’s creative shot-making. Matters worsened when he pulled a hamstring and was forced to take a medical time-out. It proved to be the beginning of the end. Losing 2-6, 4-6 Gulbis retired one game into the third set.
The fans, already in carnival voice, roared their approval for a wonderful display of tennis from their man, but it was a sad end to an otherwise outstanding clay season for the Latvian.
The partisan crowd had another hero to cheer on the same day, when the world No.10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took to Philippe Chatrier to tackle the German, Daniel Brands. Brands was ranked a lowly No.89 in the rankings but he came close to causing a major upset.
In the fifth set, Tsonga displayed why he is ranked one of the best players in the world by coming from behind to secure a win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5.
Meanwhile on Court 1, Josselin Ouanna, one of five French wild cards in the draw, overcame Lukasz Kubot in four sets.
Eyes then turned to a second French-saturated day on the burnished brick. Not only did this feature the opening match of Gael Monfils but also the gifted and unpredictable Richard Gasquet taking on British hope Andy Murray.
The Roland Garros crowd is a boisterous one at the best of times. In looking for their first champion since Yannick Noah in 1983, they threatened to become formidable.
If the Parisian crowd had enjoyed a string of home wins on the opening day at Roland Garros, they were all but salivating at the second day’s line-up.
As soon as the draw pitted British number one Murray against the classy but unpredictable Gasquet, this was the first-round match that caught the eye. And these two had history.
Back in 2008, the Scot faced the Frenchman on the green sward of Wimbledon’s Centre Court. For a Murray not yet in the top 10, his gutsy five-set win was a landmark match. It raised the British crowd to a frenzy of excitement that he had failed to ignite until he bared his soul to them that day.
Gasquet, a former world No. 7, and blessed with one of the most aesthetically pleasing games in tennis, had found it more difficult to win the big matches. But he was playing his first Roland Garros since 2007, and had started to show some of his old form, winning his first title in almost three years in Nice the week before.
The Frenchman launched into splendid tennis almost immediately, firing his exquisite single-hander top-spin drive with ease in every direction. He plays the kind of varied and attractive tennis that the Paris crowd loves, particularly when delivered from the racket of their own man.
He took the first set, and then the second in a tie-breaker. But his long final in Nice the Saturday before began to weigh heavy and, despite gaining a break in the third set, Murray’s resilient counter-punching, and the hours he has put in at the gym, started to pay dividends.
Murray’s double-handed backhand may not have the artistic sweep of Gasquet’s, but it is a devastating shot, and it left Gasquet floundering—often mid-court—on many occasions.
Murray won the third set, Gasquet sought treatment twice during the fourth, and from then on, it was always Murray’s match. After a little over four hours, in sweltering heat, he took the win 4-6 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-2 6-1.
Murray continued to fight like a terrier in a four-set win over Juan Ignacio Chela and then again over Marcos Baghdatis. Until then, his movement and stamina had looked solid, but against Berdych, the marathon nature of this tournament started to show its effects.
It was, once more, the end of the road for Murray several mileposts short of the prize.
Aravane Rezai was the darling of the Roland Garros crowd before the tournament even began. And what’s not to like about the radiant, effervescent, French-Iranian woman who has been taking the women’s tennis scene by storm?
The 23-year-old hit a career-high ranking of 26 at the end of 2009 after taking titles in Bali and Strasbourg, but with perfect timing, Rezai came into Roland Garros on the back of a victory in Madrid just weeks ago, and a new ranking inside the top 20.
On her way to that title, she beat Henin, Jankovic, and Venus Williams. Little wonder she hit the headlines in a big way.
So her welcome to Philippe Chatrier for her third round match against Nadia Petrova was like the second coming, so enthusiastic was the French crowd. And the match happened to turn into a thriller.
Rezai took the first set in a tie-break, only to see the powerful Petrova take the second 6-4. It came down to a late-night treat of wonderful match-play, with both women running, retrieving, and firing off winners as though their lives depended on it.
Match points came and went, the crowd’s voice roared, and Rezai, resplendent in gold and black, held her Russian opponent to 7-7. In near darkness, the match was suspended.
Sadly, the drama dissipated with the night, and Rezai managed just one more game to Petrova’s three on their return to court on Saturday morning. But it had taken a little under three hours of play to affirm that Rezai is a star in the making, with an exciting style of play, a fearless attitude, and charm enough to win over more than just the French crowd.
The French Open of 2010 seemed to be a meeting point of possibilities. It had the potential to confound the previewers, the bookmakers, and the fans.
In the men’s draw, for example, the tournament could end with any of the top three men ranked as No. 1.
Second seed, yet favorite for the title, Nadal could set a new record by completing the “Clay Slam:” all three clay Masters and the French Open in succession.
World No. 1, yet not even favorite by his own estimation, Federer could take the all time record for the number of weeks as world number one.
Third in both rankings and seedings, Novak Djokovic could be No. 1 for the first time should either of the others falter.
By the quarterfinals, several landmarks had already been and gone. Federer passed 700 tour-level wins and, coincidentally, 150 clay court wins. But his loss to Robin Soderling stopped him one short of his 200th major match win and, more crucially, one round short of the guaranteed No. 1 ranking after Roland Garros. The enigmatic 286 weeks’ total held by Pete Sampras remains just out of reach.
Meanwhile, Nadal recorded his 200th clay-court match win. He now knows that both the French title and the No. 1 ranking could become his at a stroke.
On the women’s side, Henin was hoping to make her own headlines. She was seeded just 22 following her return from a 20-month retirement. It was her first time in the tournament since 2007, and she remained unbeaten through the last six years. She was also many people’s favorite to win.
By her fourth round match with another champion, Maria Sharapova, Henin had one particular record in her sights: 40 straight sets at Paris. You have to go back to the glorious Helen Wills Moody to equal that. But in beating Sharapova, Henin conceded a set, and so could only equal the Moody target.
She is now in illustrious company, nevertheless.
Day six at Roland Garros may have offered the fullest schedule the French Open has ever seen.
As the rain cut a swathe through Paris, the decision was made early on Thursday to postpone 22 matches to the drier forecast of Friday. And fortunately for the organisers, the top seeds played their part by sweeping through the day at breakneck speed.
There were some players, however, who did not join the rush to the exit gates: Players who have been around the block a few times, and who have entertained the Tour for a decade or more.
Ivan Ljubicic, popular with players and fans alike, is a gentle giant of a man with a sublime single-handed backhand and a penetrating serve to die for. He celebrated his 31st birthday two months ago with his first ever Masters title at Indian Wells after 12 years on the pro circuit.
At Roland Garros, he took four and a half hours to beat Mardy Fish, no spring chicken himself, 10-8 in the fifth set.
The spectators on Court Seven must have been counting their lucky stars. Immediately before the Ljubicic and Fish thriller, they watched Lleyton Hewitt—back after major hip surgery in January—take more than three hours to beat Denis Istomin, also in five sets.
Hewitt, 29, has now had surgery on both hips and, with time out for rehab in 2008 and this year, he surely has more fighting spirit than almost any player on the tour. It was his misfortune, then, to meet the only man who may have more: Nadal.
Just as Ljubicic was flying the flag for the golden oldies on Court Seven, the charismatic 30-year-old, Juan Carlos Ferrero, was doing the same on Court Six.
Back in 2003, he won the French Open and was, briefly, No.1 in the world. It was another six years before he claimed his next title: Casablanca in 2009. And this year, he has reached three consecutive clay finals, winning two of them.
Ferrero has worked hard on his fitness and stamina off court in order to taste success on court again, and it has born fruit. He took on and beat fellow Spaniard Pere Riba in four sets. He lost one of those sets 15-13 in a tiebreak, then came back to take the final two sets, 6-2, 6-2. Determination like that is compelling stuff.
Both Ferrero and Ljubicic succumbed in the next round—the former in another five-setter. But beware of writing them off when it comes to the best-of-three events.
Twenty-nine-year-old Jurgen Melzer, the oldest man in the men’s semifinals, is enjoying his best ever Slam run—indeed he has never got beyond the third round.
The omens did not look good for the Austrian’s chances in the quarterfinals when he went down to Djokovic, two sets to love, only to be broken at the start of the third set, too. He had never come back from such a deficit in his career before.
But the left-handed Melzer took six games in a row to seal the third set and then fought through a one hour 20 minute fourth set. The ninth game alone lasted 28 points and saw Djokovic save eight break points. So it seemed appropriate that the set should end in a tie-break and that Melzer should win it.
The final set brought out the best in both men: running down every shot, firing winners to all corners, and pounding their chests with a clenched fist at each break point won and saved.
If Melzer’s downfall looked as though it would be his inability to convert 23 break points, his salvation came, eventually, from the 24th, which allowed him, after four and a quarter hours, to serve out the match 6-4.
He’ll be glad of the rest before taking on Nadal. Few will expect him to win, and he will almost certainly go home a proud man even if he loses. But there’s life in the old dog yet.
On the women’s side, too, a mature name has made waves. Schiavone, 30 in about three weeks, is the first woman from Italy to reach the semifinals at Roland Garros in 56 years. And the smile after she reached her own personal landmark spoke louder than any words.
Her Indian summer of a career began last autumn with a final in Osaka and the title in Moscow—only the second title of her career. Then she won in Barcelona this April.
How, at the age of 29, she has never broken into the top 10 is hard to understand. She’s a wiry powerhouse of talent, able to play with slice as easily as topspin, volleys as happily as ground strokes. Her drop shot and her single-handed backhand are a delight.
With no points to defend from last year’s French, she has, at last, an outside chance of breaking that top 10 barrier. All she has to do is win one more match!
Robin Soderling has been up to his old French Open tricks again.
Coming into Roland Garros this year, the tall, sardonic Swede had blown hot and cold. A finals finish in Barcelona was followed by early exits in Rome, Madrid, and Nice. Hardly ideal preparation for a Grand Slam.
But it was a similar story last year, and on that occasion, Soderling blew the tournament apart. First, he beat the outstanding clay courter, David Ferrer. Then he was responsible for the shock exit of Nadal.
He went on to beat Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Gonzalez to take a place in his first, and thus far only, Grand Slam final. On that occasion, he lost to Federer.
In the 2010 quarterfinals, the tables were turned. At the 13th time of asking, he defeated Federer, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, in two hours and 30 minutes.
What makes Soderling’s win even more impressive is that he generated a pace that one might expect from hot, dry conditions, but Roland Garros was once again cool and damp. Where Federer struggled to generate enough power through the court, Soderling was able to penetrate to the lines off both the ground and his serve.
This was a Soderling who looked both confident and aggressive. Perhaps he remembered Davydenko’s comment when the Russian beat Federer for the first time after 12 losses: “No-one beats me 13 times!” This was Soderling’s 13th attempt, and he never appeared to doubt that it was his turn.
He is almost into his second consecutive French final. The man most likely to await him there is Nadal. How much more confident is Soderling going to feel, knowing he beat that very man, in this very place, last year?