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.
By that point, one significant upset already was complete Sunday: The No. 1-seeded woman, Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, was headed home after losing to No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-2, 7-6 (4), busting a racket on the way out the door.
Asked afterward what she’ll do to recover from the defeat, Azarenka replied sarcastically, “I’m going to kill myself,” then added: “This tournament is over for me. What’s to recover from?”
It seemed reasonable, if ever so briefly, to ask in the afternoon whether the tournament might soon be over in the fourth round for Djokovic and Federer, too. In the end, of course, the answer was no.
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 do with better-than-expected play by Seppi, who knocked off No. 14 Fernando Verdasco to get past the third round at a major tournament for the first time.
So after they shook hands at the net when Djokovic finally closed out the 4-hour, 18-minute win, the Serb 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 was 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 or No. 18 Stanislas Wawrinka, who also will resume Monday, with Tsonga leading 4-2 in the fifth set.
In the women’s quarterfinals, Cibulkova earned a spot against U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur, who ended 19-year-old unseeded American Sloane Stephens’ best Grand Slam run 7-5, 6-4. No. 21 Sara Errani of Italy beat two-time major champion Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-0, 7-5, setting up a match against No. 10 Angelique Kerber of Germany, a 6-3, 7-5 winner over unseeded Petra Martic of Croatia.
Azarenka’s loss means that Maria Sharapova, scheduled to play her fourth-round match Monday, can move up to No. 1 in the rankings by reaching the final.
Asked what went awry, Azarenka replied: “Pretty much everything, really. I don’t know how to describe my performance, really, today. It wasn’t satisfying at all. … But I guess it happens.”
Even to the best of the best.
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 this day.
“I will never forget this moment,” Goffin said. “I hope I will have a lot of moment like this.”