Novak Djokovic is out of the Rome Masters, Rafael Nadal might have been had David Ferrer not frozen for the 19th time in 23 matches against his Spanish friend, and Andy Murray still does not know if he is in the French Open.
Even Roger Federer did not get through this Roman adventure without anguish. The Swiss, cruising up until the quarter-finals, blew two match points and had to win a tie-break to beat the aggressive young Pole Jerzy Janowicz 6-4, 7-6 in their first meeting, which finished after midnight. We will hear a lot more of Janowicz.
Federer has the luxury of a semi-final against Benoît Paire, the Frenchman who dropped a single set in the quarters against Marcel Granollers, who caused a hobbling Murray all sorts of problems before the world No2 retired in the second round.
Murray's dilemma is the least clear-cut, as he emerged from an MRI scan on his troubled back in London on Friday knowing he has only a few days in which to decide if he will make it to Paris next weekend. The disc-related pain in his lower left back which has dogged him for 18 months and forced him to quit during his opening match in Rome this week clearly is serious enough for him to contemplate missing Roland Garros to give himself a chance of playing at Wimbledon at the end of June.
There was no immediate indication of what damage the tests revealed but Murray said on his departure from Rome he would be "very surprised" if he made it to Paris. There is supporting evidence: the absence in Rome of his coach, Ivan Lendl, and Murray's earlier commitment to an extra grass workout at Hurlingham, between Queen's and Wimbledon, also suggests he already doubted he would make much of an impact on clay this summer.
Djokovic had only himself to blame for losing to the sixth seed Tomas Berdych, whom he had beaten 11 times in a row since Wimbledon in 2010. After 71 minutes, the world No1 was serving for a place in the semi-finals, 6–2 and 5–2 up, when his concentration deserted him and the stubborn Czech, fists pumping and full of fire, roared back to force a third set.
An hour later, Berdych led 5-3 and Djokovic had to produce two bits of magic to stay in the match: a powered-down, away-swinging ace and an unreachable drop shot. Berdych squandered three match points before sealing it with an ace.
Djokovic, who beat Nadal to win the Monte Carlo Masters, then lost last week in Madrid to the rampant young Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, is still the main threat to the Spaniard in Paris, although he was bitterly disappointed with himself here.
"I know I can play well on clay but I shouldn't allow myself to have these moments during a match," he said. "You must congratulate your opponent and be moving on. The French might be my best chance yet, I hope so. I don't want to make any predictions."
Ferrer, though, cannot beat his Nadal jinx. He started tentatively, gathered confidence then wilted, a depressingly familiar pattern against Nadal, who wrapped it up 6–4, 4–6, 6–2 in two hours 46 minutes.Maria Sharapova, meanwhile, simultaneously wrecked the women's draw and gave Italians cause to cheer when she withdrew with an unspecified viral complaint before she was due to go on court in the quarter-finals against the local favourite Sara Errani.
So the sixth seed, who jumps to five in the world when the new rankings are announced on Monday – only the second Italian after Francesca Schiavone to get that far – reaches the semi-finals of her home tournament for the first time after two gifts, Sharapova's withdrawal following the injury retirement of Maria Kirilenko in the third round.
However, there will now be no showdown in the final between the two best players in the world, Sharapova and Serena Williams, not that the supremely confident American was probably much worried. No matter what happened in this tournament, she would not have lost her world No1 ranking and is in "the form of her life", as Laura Robson testified in defeat.
The British No1 was the only player to trouble her this week and on Friday Williams inflicted embarrassment on the unseeded Spaniard Carla Suárez-Navarro, giving up just two sets in 56 minutes to extend her winning streak to 22.
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image: © Ian Dick