As one French Open champion surprisingly departed Roland Garros, another took a massive step towards a landmark title.
Maria Sharapova, last year’s winner, had overcame illness to reach the second week but she couldn’t get past an inspired Lucie Safarova on Monday.
Sharapova fell 7-6 (7-3) 6-4 to the 13th seed in the fourth round, making it the Russian’s earliest exit in southwest Paris since crashing out in round three in 2010. Later, world No. 1 Serena Williams barely avoided an upset defeat, again, rallying to beat fellow American Sloane Stephens 1-6 7-5 6-3.
But having survived three tricky matches in a row – and with only one other top-10 player remaining in Ana Ivanovic – Williams is now the substantial favorite to lift the title Saturday and bag a 20th major.
Stopping Williams at this juncture of grand slams is difficult, as her rivals will attest.
In men’s matches, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic set up a much-anticipated quarterfinal clash with nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal on Wednesday, while Roger Federer cruised into a showdown with fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, and Andy Murray also progressed.
Safarova struck 34 winners to go along with only 22 unforced errors in a match pushed back to Monday because of rain. The Czech sealed the affair with a vicious cross-court forehand to reach the quarterfinals at Roland Garros for the first time, ending a run of four straight defeats against the second-ranked Sharapova.
“I felt like I had small openings,” Sharapova told reporters. “I just wasn’t able to keep that level up today. She was able to do that for a longer period of time.
“She was the much more aggressive player. She took the time away from me, created her angles and I didn’t. That was the difference today.”
Sharapova had last week refused to conduct post-match interviews on court because she wanted to preserve energy and her shrieks when striking the ball were largely muted as she battled a cough. But Sharapova has never been the type to make excuses, and she wasn’t about to begin Monday.
“I’m still a competitor no matter what,” she said. “I’m going to do everything in order to go out and give it my best, and I think I did the best I could. Today it wasn’t enough, because my opponent had a different gear than I did.”
Safarova next confronts Spanish 21st seed Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Italy’s Flavia Pennetta 6-3 6-4 in another fourth-round clash. Muguruza stunned Williams at Roland Garros in 2014 on the way to a maiden grand slam quarterfinal.
Stephens, meanwhile, ousted Williams at the Australian Open in 2013 and her deep ground strokes – coupled with fine defense – threw a scare into Williams on Philippe-Chatrier court. Williams, mind you, hit 15 unforced errors and five winners in the first set.
Yet like Saturday, when Williams overturned a first-set deficit against Victoria Azarenka in a tense affair, the 33-year-old hung tough and then elevated her game.
An elbow injury has hampered Williams’ booming serve – she withdrew during a tournament in Rome last month – but it surfaced at the right moment in the third. Down a break point at 4-3, an ace and another fine serve helped her hold for 5-3. Stephens’ last opportunity evaporated.
“I’m serving where I’m not worried if I can serve or not, so I’m definitely serving a lot better and that helps me out a lot, too,” Williams told reporters. “It’s not 100% but it’s definitely so much better than it was in Rome and the week before and earlier.”
In the last eight, Williams faces 2012 French Open finalist Sara Errani, who cruised against Germany’s Julia Goerges 6-2 6-2. Even though Williams came within two points of losing to Errani on clay in the Fed Cup in April, her record versus the diminutive Italian stands at 8-0.
Opportunity knocked for Belgium’s Alison Van Uytvanck and Romania’s Andreea Mitu, who met in the fourth round: Van Uytvanck is ranked 93rd and Mitu 100th, and combined they’d tallied one grand slam win entering the French Open.
Van Uytvanck – who hails from the same nation as former French Open queen Justine Henin – prevailed 6-1 6-3. The 21-year-old will next play Swiss 23rd seed Timea Bacsinszky. Bacsinszky, enjoying her best season on the tour, upset enigmatic Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 2-6 6-0 6-3 in Monday’s final singles match.
Nadal is firmly the king of clay, since he has won an unprecedented nine French Open titles since 2005.
The Spanish sixth seed, who is battling to regain top form, booked his spot in the quarterfinals by beating American Jack Sock 6-3 6-1 5-7 6-2.
Though Nadal was broken when he attempted to serve out the match at 5-4 in the third and dropped his first set of the tournament, he recovered in the fourth.
About 10 minutes later, the surging Djokovic finished off Richard Gasquet 6-1 6-2 6-3 to achieve a 24th consecutive grand slam quarterfinal. The Serbian is seeking to complete a career grand slam with his first Roland Garros success.
He is 0-6 against Nadal at the French Open.
“But on the other hand, I was close a couple of times,” Djokovic told reporters. “And the fact that I have had a great season this year and I’m feeling good from every aspect of my game allows me to have belief and reason to go on the court and try to win.”
Federer set up an all-Swiss tussle with his friend Wawrinka when he completed a four-set win over local hope Gael Monfils 6-3 4-6 6-4 6-1. They were tied at one set apiece when darkness halted play Sunday.
Monfils had toppled Federer in their previous two encounters but with the Frenchman saying he was ill, the 17-time grand slam winner needed only 64 minutes to put him away. Monfils lost 11 consecutive points in the fourth.
Not lingering on court figures to assist the 33-year-old Federer, since he plays Wawrinka on Tuesday.
Federer, the 2009 champion, admits he’s thought about lifting the trophy again Sunday.
“It would be unbelievable,” he told reporters. “Clearly those thoughts also creep into my mind sometimes and (I) go, ‘How would that feel again?’ Then again, you’re like, ‘Let’s not go that far down the tournament yet.’”
If third seed Murray is to win a maiden French Open, he’ll have to beat David Ferrer for the first time on clay. Murray – with a perfect record on the surface this season, winning two titles – ousted France’s Jeremy Chardy 6-4 3-6 6-3 6-2 to make the quarterfinals, while 2013 finalist Ferrer crushed U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic 6-2 6-2 6-4.