Djokovic advances to French Open quarterfinals

PARIS — Novak Djokovic will leave the looking ahead to others. If he’s to be believed, the No. 3-ranked Djokovic has more immediate concerns than a possible French Open semifinal against No. 2 Rafael Nadal or final against No. 1 Roger Federer.

First things first at Roland Garros for Djokovic: a quarterfinal against Ernests Gulbis, set up by three-set victories for both men Sunday. Never heard of Gulbis? Djokovic has. Knows the 19-year-old kid from Latvia quite well, in fact.

They go way back, having shared adventures on and off the court a few years ago at coach Niki Pilic’s tennis academy in Munich, Germany.

“He was destroying me in practices. I couldn’t win a match. Practice? No chance,” Djokovic said, then added with a wink and a smile: “So all the pressure’s on him, OK? He’s the favorite.”

Sure, Novak. Actually, because their careers have followed completely divergent paths, Djokovic knows full well he must be considered the overwhelming pick in what will be his first professional meeting with Gulbis.

Djokovic — who beat No. 18 Paul-Henri Mathieu 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 Sunday — reached the U.S. Open final in September, then knocked off Federer en route to winning the Australian Open in January. He’s reached the semifinals at four consecutive major championships, cementing his status as part of the trio of men head-and-shoulders above the rest.

“I’m … a Grand Slam champion. Get a lot of respect and appreciation from the players,” said Djokovic, who is 3-7 against Nadal, including exits from the past two French Opens. “It’s a different approach. I have more confidence and I believe much more in myself.”

And Gulbis? He came to Roland Garros with a 7-10 record this season and never had been past the fourth round at a Slam until beating Michael Llodra 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3 on Sunday.

“I played better and better,” said the 80th-ranked Gulbis, who eliminated No. 7 James Blake of the United States in the second round.

Gulbis used all of his 6-foot-3 frame to uncork 11 aces and 18 passing shot winners against Llodra.

“Very powerful serve,” Llodra said. “You can’t see exactly where he’s going to serve.”

Like Djokovic, Nadal is rather familiar with his next opponent, No. 19 Nicolas Almagro, and had nothing but nice things to say about him.

“One of the toughest opponents on clay,” Nadal said. “Probably going to be my toughest match this week.”

The three-time defending champion reached the quarterfinals by hammering out the most lopsided of his 25 consecutive French Open victories, 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 over No. 22 Fernando Verdasco. Oddly enough, Nadal’s opponents so far this year all were left-handed, the first time a man has faced four consecutive southpaws at a Grand Slam tournament in the 40-year Open Era.

That certainly hasn’t given Nadal any problems. He did, however, get a bit of a scare while warming up after a 50-minute rain delay one game into the second set. Nadal felt dizzy, and a tournament official, doctor and trainer all came out to check on him.

Nadal ate some bread and bananas, and then, he said, “I started feeling better and better.”

Almagro was a 7-6 (0), 7-6 (7), 7-5 winner over 145th-ranked Jeremy Chardy, a wild-card entry who combined with Mathieu and Llodra to make France 0-3 for the day.

The second set ended with an unusual — and potentially dangerous — sight. Angry that he couldn’t get to a ball in time after Almagro’s shot clipped the net, Chardy violently spiked his racket. It bounced 10 feet in the air, cleared the net and landed not far from Almagro.

The Spaniard picked up the racket and handed it to Chardy as they went to the sideline to sit between sets.

As with the men, all four women’s matches Sunday were settled in straight sets. No. 2 Ana Ivanovic had the easiest time, putting together a 6-0, 6-0 victory over Petra Cetkovska, and was joined in the quarterfinals by No. 3 Jelena Jankovic, No. 10 Patty Schnyder and qualifier Carla Suarez Navarro.

The players responsible for the two biggest surprises of the tournament lost. Schnyder beat No. 27 Katarina Srebotnik, who eliminated Serena Williams, and Suarez Navarro beat No. 26 Flavia Pennetta, who eliminated Venus Williams.

“I thought the match would probably be a bit more difficult,” said the 132nd-ranked Suarez Navarro, the first woman since 2001 to reach the French Open quarterfinals after needing to qualify for the tournament.

She now meets Jankovic, who got a massage from a trainer for pain in her shoulder and neck during a 6-3, 7-6 (3) victory over No. 14 Agnieszka Radwanska.

“I was struggling at the end,” said Jankovic, who lost five consecutive games in the second set. “I was just trying to guide the ball with my arm, which was not enough. I needed to go for it, even though I had pain.”

And as for her game plan against Suarez?

“Never seen her play before,” Jankovic said.

Gulbis is becoming less and less of an unknown quantity, which is his explanation for a rough second season on tour.

“First year, I was just a newcomer. Nobody knew me. Nobody knew the way I play. Nobody knew how to play against me,” he said. “Now people, players, they already know me a little bit. They know the way I play, so it’s a little tougher.”

Djokovic will do his best to remember Gulbis’ game when they meet Tuesday, so he can take another step toward another match against Nadal.

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