PARIS // Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer stayed on course for a mouth-watering French Open semi-final showdown today, but only after they survived fourth round scares at a chilly Roland Garros.
Djokovic staged an epic recovery to defeat Italy's Andreas Seppi 4-6, 6-7, 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 while Federer, the champion in 2009 and a four-time runner-up, dropped the first set against the Belgian David Goffin, the world number 109, before claiming a 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 win.
World No 1 Djokovic, bidding to become just the third man to hold all four majors at the same time, and the first since 1969, struggled in the cold conditions on Philippe Chatrier court against a player he had beaten seven times in seven meetings.
"I played very badly, but I won thanks to my fighting spirit," said Djokovic, after a 25th successive grand slam match win took him into the Paris quarter-finals for the sixth time.
"He was the better player for the first two sets and I was fortunate to come through. But even at two sets down I still believed I could do it and that's about the only positive I can take. It was one of those days when nothing worked."
A lacklustre Djokovic committed 77 unforced errors to Seppi's 81 before pulling through after four hours and 18 minutes.
He will next face either the French fifth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka, the 18th seed, for a place in the semi-finals. Tsonga and Wawrinka, who will resume their five-set tussle tomorrow after bad light stopped play.
The 25-year-old Djokovic has never got beyond the semi-finals in Paris and his discomfort on the testing red clay courts was starkly illustrated last year when a 43-match winning run was ended by Federer.
Today, his love-hate relationship with the venue looked set to slump to a new low. For the first two sets, he was heading for the biggest shock since Rafael Nadal had his perfect 31-match, four-title stretch smashed by Robin Soderling at the same stage in 2009.
But the top seed regrouped as Seppi, who had also played five-set matches in the second and third rounds, wilted.
Victory represented the Serb's third win from two sets to love down after pulling off similar escape acts against Federer in the US Open semi-final last year and in round two at Wimbledon against Guillermo Garcia Lopez in 2005.
"I didn't have a good start in the third and fourth sets. That's the only thing I could have done better," said Seppi, who was playing in his first grand slam last 16 match at the 29th attempt. Federer, the record 16-time grand slam title winner, booked his place in a 32nd consecutive quarter-final at the majors.
Contesting his 50th successive grand slam tournament, the third seed will take on either the Argentine ninth seed Juan Martin del Potro or Tomas Berdych, the seventh-seeded Czech, who were also locked in a tense battle when bad light halted their match tonight.
"I didn't know much about Goffin beforehand, but I know him a lot better now," said Federer, who was two points away from going down two sets to love against the Belgian, who used to plaster his bedroom wall with posters of the great Swiss.
The 21 year old was bidding to become the first man to reach the last eight on his grand slam debut since Alex Radulescu at Wimbledon in 1996. He was also the first lucky loser – an alternate on standby after being beaten in qualifying – to reach the last 16 of a major since countryman Dick Norman at Wimbledon in 1995.
"I came out of the qualifiers and I played my best tennis in my first three matches. Then playing Roger was the cherry on the cake," said Goffin.
"I won't hide the fact that I had photos of Roger everywhere on the walls of my bedroom. It was like a dream for me playing him here."
The men's fourth round will be completed today when the six-time champion Rafael Nadal, who celebrated his 26th birthday yesterday, meets Argentina's Juan Monaco.
Janko Tipsarevic, the Serb eighth seed, tackles the in-form Spanish 12th seed Nicolas Almagro.
Britain's Andy Murray, the fourth seed, faces the French 17th seed Richard Gasquet with David Ferrer, the sixth seed, taking on the 20th seed Marcel Granollers in an all-Spanish contest.
Victoria Azarenka did damage to her racket but failed to have much of an impact on her opponent.
The No 1 seed at the French Open fell 6-2, 7-6 to Dominika Cibulkova, the No 15 seed, on a windy, grey day at Roland Garros where the world’s top-ranked player hardly looked the part.
Azarenka, who won the Australian Open to start the 2012 grand slam season, pulled out a first game that went to nine deuces and took 15 minutes but did not capture any momentum in the process. Cibulkova rolled off six of the next seven games to take the first set. Then, she came back for a 3-2 lead after falling down a break early in the second.
Azarenka bashed her racket into the ground during the changeover and received a warning for racket abuse. Her frustration was still showing after the match, when, asked what she would do to recover from the loss, she said sarcastically: “I’m going to kill myself.”
She added: “This tournament is over for me. What’s to recover from? It’s [time] to really look forward and improve. That’s it.”
Down 6-3 in the second-set tiebreaker, Azarenka saved one match point. But on the second, Cibulkova drew her to the net with a drop shot, then passed her easily for the winner. The Slovakian dropped on to the red clay to celebrate. She had taken Azarenka to three sets the last five times they played, but her only win in that streak came in 2008 at Amelia Island in Florida – the last time they met on clay.
“Before, I was at least making something happen myself,” Azarenka said, when asked about those previous three-setters. “Today I couldn’t do it. All I could hope for is for her mistake. I couldn’t make anything myself today.”
Azarenka joins a large group of so-called favourites on the sidelines. The Williams sisters, the former No 1 Caroline Wozniacki and the former champions Ana Ivanovic and Francesca Schiavone are among those already gone.
Another former champion, Svetlana Kuznetsova, lost on Sunday to Sara Errani, the No 21 seed from Italy. Five women have won the last five grand slam titles and the last four majors have been won by first-time champions.
The only former champion left in the draw is Li Na. Errani’s next opponent is the 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber, a 6-3, 7-5 winner over Petra Martic. Kerber had only one victory in her previous four appearances at Roland Garros.
She now finds herself two wins away from playing for the title.
“It’s a new situation,” Kerber said. “I’ve played good from the beginning of the year. I think the players know right now who I am, and, yeah, I think nobody wants to play against me right now.”
Unseeded American teenager Sloane Stephens’ best run at a grand slam tournament came to an end in the fourth round with a 7-5, 6-4 loss to Sam Stosur.