PARIS - There was a moment, a little past 4 p.m. on a dank and dreary Sunday at the French Open, when the gray sky above appeared to be falling on some of the best of the best.
A listless Novak Djokovic, looking very little like someone ranked No. 1 and bidding to become the first man in 43 years to win four consecutive Grand Slam titles, was trying to work his way out of a two-set deficit against 22nd-seeded Andreas Seppi of Italy on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Even more astonishingly, a flummoxed Roger Federer, owner of a record 16 major championships, was trudging to the sideline after dropping his first set against 109th-ranked David Goffin of Belgium, a 21-year-old kid thrilled merely to be sharing Court Suzanne Lenglen with his idol. Goffin, it must be noted, was a "lucky loser" — a player beaten in qualifying who got to make his Grand Slam debut only because someone else withdrew.
French Open (May 27-June 10)
Rain or shine, clay or mud, Sunday or Monday, Rafael Nadal rules Roland Garros. The man they call "Rafa" won his record seventh French Open title on Monday, returning a day after getting rained out to put the finishing touches on a 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 victory over Novak Djokovic, and deny Djokovic in his own quest for history — the "Novak Slam." Full story
For quite some time, Djokovic missed shots this way and that, then shook his head or yelled at himself or spread his arms wide with palms up as if to ask, "What's going on here?" He finished with 81 unforced errors in all, exactly his total for his first three matches combined. But Seppi's not nearly as accustomed to these stages or stakes, and Djokovic pulled out a 4-6, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 victory, his 25th in a row at a major tournament.
"One of those days where ... nothing is working," Djokovic said. "I could not get into the rhythm."
He began to turn things around by breaking serve to begin the third set, and he kept on doing that, nine times in all.
"Maybe I could have started the third set better. I could have done a little more there," Seppi said. "But he returns very well, and gets serves back almost always, which makes things difficult."
Djokovic recognized that part of his problems early on had to with better-than-expected play by Seppi, who knocked off No. 14 Fernando Verdasco to get past the third round at a major for the first time.
So after shaking hands at the net when Djokovic finally closed out the 4-hour, 18-minute win, he applauded Seppi and pointed toward the Italian, telling the crowd to salute him.
The third-seeded Federer, the 2009 champion at Roland Garros, did that one better after his 5-7, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 victory, giving Goffin a tap on the head and a pat on the backside when they were done playing, then hugging him at the crowd's behest during an on-court interview.
What a thrill for the Belgian, who unabashedly spoke earlier in the tournament about having photos and posters of Federer up in his bedroom as a child.
"I've had an extraordinary week," said the slender Goffin, who might be mistaken for a ball boy. "The icing on the cake was to play here against Roger."
Once Federer seized control in the second and third sets, the outcome never really seemed in doubt. In the last set, Goffin won one point with a touch volley, then raised his index finger - signaling No. 1 - and, to the delight of roaring spectators, bowed to all four corners of the arena.
Later, Goffin explained, it felt as though "the stadium was on fire."
Federer's quarterfinal opponent will be No. 7 Tomas Berdych or No. 9 Juan Martin del Potro, whose match suspended because of darkness with 2009 U.S. Open champion del Potro ahead, two sets to one. Djokovic, meanwhile, will face No. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of No. 18 Stanislas Wawrinka, who also will resume Monday, with Tsonga leading 4-2 in the fifth set.
Federer found the wind troubling on a day the temperature was in the 60s, but he made sure to compliment Goffin.
"He's got great potential in terms of his touch and the way he reads the game," Federer said. "I'm impressed."
Whatever happens for the rest of Goffin's tennis career, no matter what life has in store, he'll always be able to say he got to play against his favorite player, one of the greatest in history - and took a set off him, no less.
Goffin will always have his moment.
"I will never forget this moment," Goffin said. "I hope I will have a lot of moment like this."
Rafael Nadal is currently ranked fourth in the world, but has had a dominant run lately as he has won seven of the last eight French Open titles. Mary Carrillo thinks we’re in store for a Nadal-Djokovic final.
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