published Sunday, June 1st, 2014

Federer loses to Gulbis in French Open's 4th round

Switzerland's Roger Federer reacts after missing a return during the fourth round match of the French Open tennis tournament against Latvia's Ernests Gulbis at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, on June 1, 2014.
Switzerland's Roger Federer reacts after missing a return during the fourth round match of the French Open tennis tournament against Latvia's Ernests Gulbis at the Roland Garros stadium, in Paris, France, on June 1, 2014.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

PARIS — Everything appeared to be under control for Roger Federer, just like in the old days at Grand Slam tournaments.

And then, suddenly, it wasn't.

One point from a two-set lead Sunday in the French Open's fourth round against 18th-seeded Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, Federer settled under a floating ball and prepared for what should have been a simple putaway. Except, suddenly, it wasn't. Federer sent a meek overhead toward Gulbis, who took advantage of the gaffe, ripping a backhand winner.

That was part of a four-point run that let Gulbis break serve and get very much back into the match, which he wound up winning 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 to end Federer's streak of nine consecutive quarterfinals at Roland Garros.

"A lot of regrets," Federer said. "I just couldn't kind of figure it out."

It also served as the latest reminder that Federer, now 32 and a father of four, is no longer the nearly infallible force who made it to the closing days of major after major.

"He's Roger Federer," Gulbis said, "but he also gets tight."

Didn't used to be the case. Federer, a 17-time Grand Slam champion, had not left Roland Garros so soon since 2004, when he was beaten in the third round by Gustavo Kuerten.

After that decade-old setback, though, Federer was a quarterfinalist at a record 36 consecutive major tournaments, a streak that ended with a second-round loss at Wimbledon last year. Federer also put together record Slam runs of 10 finals and 23 semifinals in a row.

Now he's bowed out before the quarterfinals at three of the last four majors.

"I think it was the biggest, probably, win of my career," said Gulbis, who most certainly could have dispensed with the word "probably."

Addressing spectators who sang Federer's first name between points as a sign of support, Gulbis said: "I'm sorry I had to win. I know all of you like Roger."

The result fit with the topsy-turvy nature of this tournament: Both reigning Australian Open champions, No. 3 Stan Wawrinka and No. 2 Li Na, lost in the first round; No. 1 Serena Williams left in the second round.

Gulbis now plays No. 6 Tomas Berdych, who eliminated the last American man, No. 10 John Isner. In another quarterfinal, No. 2 Novak Djokovic will face No. 8 Milos Raonic. Wimbledon champion Andy Murray and No. 24 Fernando Verdasco finished off third-round victories in matches suspended Saturday night.

In the women's quarterfinals, 2012 champion Maria Sharapova -- who won the last nine games against Samantha Stosur on Sunday -- will face 35th-ranked Garbine Muguruza, the 20-year-old Spaniard who stunned Williams last week, and No. 18 Eugenie Bouchard of Canada meets No. 14 Carla Suarez Navarro of Spain.

Gulbis last reached a major quarterfinal at the 2008 French Open. He's spoken openly about focusing more on enjoying the nightlife than perfecting his craft, and drew attention last week for saying he wouldn't encourage his younger sisters to pursue professional tennis because a woman "needs to think about family, needs to think about kids."

The fourth-seeded Federer's resume includes the 2009 French Open title, and he was a four-time runner-up in Paris to Rafael Nadal. But Federer made an uncharacteristic 59 unforced errors and was broken twice while serving for a set.

That included at 5-3 in the second, when Federer flubbed that key overhead.

"I was lucky, I have to say," Gulbis said about that point.

Said Federer: "Things got tough from then on for, like, a half-hour for me."

He lost the last five points of the second-set tiebreaker, and then dropped the third set, too.

Another key moment came when Gulbis left the court with a trainer to take a medical timeout while trailing 5-2 in the fourth. As he walked out, Gulbis motioned to Federer, as if asking for permission to go. When Gulbis returned, some fans jeered and whistled at him, and he pointed to his lower back as if to say, "Hey, I was injured."

At his news conference, Federer alternated between sounding a little perturbed about the lengthy intermission -- and resigned to the idea that what Gulbis did was within the rules.

"He didn't look hurt in any way," Federer said. "But if you can use it, you know, might as well do it."

After that break, the 25-year-old Gulbis displayed the powerful game that had many marking him as a future star when he was a teenager. He won 10 of the next 12 points, punctuating shots with exhales that sounded like growls, and tested Federer's backhand repeatedly.

In the last set, Gulbis raced to a 3-0 lead, thanks largely to Federer miscues. After one errant forehand, Federer swatted a ball in anger, a rare sign of exasperation from him.

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