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Sunday Bloodbath at Roland Garros

Roland Garros had been enjoying lovely weather throughout the first week so far. It just did not feel right. Something had to give. And so Paris awoke to thick clouds, heavy winds and cold weather. Suddenly, the bright orange gladiatorial arena of Phillip Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen had changed its color. At dark red, it gave the familiar look of the graveyard which had once soaked up Roger Federer two years ago at the hands of Robin Soderling. The signs were ominous.

Victoria Azarenka had looked grumpy and cranky all week. Despite not winning any titles throughout the European swing, she had still played well enough to reach two finals, losing only to the best in Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. And now she faced another opponent, against whom she had never felt comfortable despite having a stellar head to head record. Dominica Cibulkova has been the Tomas Berdych to Azarenka’s Rafael Nadal. She nearly slayed the champion at Miami, and the heavy conditions today gave her the perfect opportunity to complete the unfinished task. She hit through Azarenka not afraid to go for her shots — she won the match point with a classic drop shot followed by a fierce backhand cross court winner — which she later affirmed, “I was proud of the way I went for my shots even in the tiebreaker.” As for Azarenka, she looked grumpy, cranky, tried to break her racket, then did break her racket (after four painful attempts) and the mindset carried over to the press, “I’m going to kill myself.” when asked how would she recover. Azarenka is not exactly comfortable on grass, and now without any grass court tune up for her, it is going to be equally tough for her at Wimbledon. As for Cibulkova, with Stosur, Stephens, Kerber and Errani left in her part of the draw, she must be fancying herself to one up her semis performance in 2009.

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The bloodbath continued at Chatrier. Novak Djokovic did not look at home. Thick blocks of mud popped up loosely from his shoes — rather than smooth sand granuels in sunny conditions. The court was left with deep patches of foot marks when he slided and it was trouble for him right from the start.

Andres Seppi plays a lot like Murray. He has short, compact swings, lacks pace on his shots but creates heavy angles, has good consistency and movement on clay. In short, exactly the kind of game that bothers the world no. 1. Coupled with the wind, it was hard work for the Serb as his slices floated long, the lack of pace did not allow him to take those fast, authoritative swings on backhand as he usually does, and even his return game went off. But unlike his counterpart on the women’s side, he never was baffled by the uncharacteristic calm — during the points and between points — of his opponent and bided his time even when he went down two sets to love, looking ripe for an upset. Despite being under the weather, he showed his Djokovician moments for a good part of the last three sets, and fought hard — against the opponent, weather, crowd and himself — for the rest. He was subdued right from the start till the end. His loud roars and chest pumping were absent, instead his acknowledgment after the match was more an expression of relief. He knew that 77 — seventy seven — unforced errors will not exactly get him the Djoker slam. Thankfully, every day is a new day in tennis. The important thing is to remain alive to experience the new day. Which Djokovic did.

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Side by side, Federer was battling it out, too. He said it is “strange” to play somebody who calls him his idol, even though “it has happened before.” It becomes even more difficult against someone who has nothing to lose, and bravely goes for his shots. It worked as David Goffin took the first set — yet another set Federer has lost this tournament — and led 5-4 in the second. At 15-30, he had an open court to put away a short backhand. A set point for yet another 2-0 lead against a heavy favorite was apparent. Goffin, the lucky loser — as John McEnroe reminded us at least 100 times during the match — must have had a thought of it too, as he put that backhand into the net.

The thought was there, but the hope vanished away after that. Federer won the second set 7-5, and cruised through the next two. Goffin played as well as he could in those two sets, but one could sense that neither he, nor Federer believed that the lucky loser — there, I said it again — had even a slight chance. Goffin delighted everybody as he fought valiantly. He even drew an extended applause after winning a point he should have lost at least three times, and then enjoyed it to the fullest by acknowledging the crowd for about half a minute. Even the maestro was “impressed”, as he gave him a great handshake and unruffled his hair after reaching his 32nd straight quarterfinal in a major.

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Lots of blood was shed on the two show courts today. One champion fell to it. Two others, while still alive, were heavily wounded. It wasn’t pretty to watch. One would hope that this was the only customary graveyard setting that Roland Garros has to show every year. And that it would bring back the bright orange gladiatorial arena come Monday.

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