Sharapova Joins Nadal, Djokovic in French Quarterfinals

Defending champions Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova joined men’s top seed Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the French Open without dropping a set.

Nadal celebrated his 27th birthday by beating Japan’s Kei Nishikori, the No. 13 seed, 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 yesterday as the wind swirled around the main Court Philippe Chatrier. The Spaniard had his worst start to the French Open, dropping 48 games in the first three rounds.

“It’s a very special moment to celebrate my birthday here on the center court at Roland Garros,” Nadal said as he was presented with a five-tier cake topped with rackets and balls. “Today I played a little bit better than the previous day, which is important to me.”

Nadal next plays Switzerland’s Stanislas Wawrinka, who overcame a two-set deficit to beat No. 7 Richard Gasquet of France 6-7 (5-7), 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 8-6. Wawrinka is the most successful clay-court player this season after Nadal, with 23 wins. He has yet to beat the Spaniard in nine meetings.

Russia’s Sharapova had no problem against Sloane Stephens, the No. 17 seed from the U.S., winning 6-4, 6-3. Stephens, 20, the youngest woman inside the top 20, reached the Australian Open semifinals at the start of the season by beating women’s top seed Serena Williams, who plays Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia today in a quarterfinal matchup of former champions.

Italy’s Sara Errani, last year’s runner-up at Roland Garros, faces Agnieszka Radwanska, the No. 4 seed from Poland.

Men’s No. 2 seed Roger Federer of Switzerland takes on France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the last eight today, when fourth-seeded David Ferrer plays fellow Spaniard and No. 32 Tommy Robredo.

Djokovic’s Tribute

Earlier yesterday, Djokovic overcame a slow start before beating No. 16 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. He’ll play 35-year-old Tommy Haas in the quarterfinals.

After the match, Djokovic paid tribute to his former coach, Jelena Gencic, who died at the age of 76 last weekend. After winning his previous round, Djokovic canceled his post-match news conference because he was upset about her death. Gencic, who discovered him at age 6, also coached Grand Slam champions Monica Seles and Goran Ivanisevic.

“It hasn’t been easy, but this is life,” Djokovic said, when asked how Gencic’s death affected him. He called her “the best coach” for generations of young tennis players and “an inspiration” to him.

Haas beat Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 to become the oldest men’s quarterfinalist at Roland Garros since 1971.

‘Great Success’

Haas dropped out of the top 800 two years ago when he struggled with hip and shoulder injuries. After climbing to No. 2 in the rankings in 2002, he missed the entire 2003 season because of a shoulder injury that needed surgery twice.

“What I’m really proud of is that I reached the quarters here for the first time, not knowing if that was ever going to be possible,” Haas said. “It’s a great success for me.”

Youzhny was so frustrated by his performance yesterday that he smashed his racket into pieces on his bench. Last year, he wrote “sorry” in the clay after taking only four games against Ferrer in a third-round match.

In the women’s draw, Russia’s No. 12 seed Maria Kirilenko ended the run of unseeded American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 7-5, 6-4.

Mattek-Sands, one of four U.S. women in the fourth round, ousted former champion Li Na of China last week. The 28-year-old Minnesota-born player is coming back after dropping out of the top 200 early in the season because of injuries last year.

“I have a lot to build on from this, so I’m happy with my tournament,” Mattek-Sands said in a news conference.

Azarenka Advances

Kirilenko’s next opponent is Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, who eased past former title holder Francesca Schiavone of Italy, 6-3, 6-0. Unseeded Jamie Hampton of the U.S. lost 6-0, 6-2 to former top-ranked Jelena Jankovic of Serbia.

“It’s been always the most challenging for me, but I feel like I’m finally understanding what I need to do to improve,” the third-seeded Azarenka, who has never reached the last four in Paris, told reporters. “I feel it’s a process, but I’m on the right way.”

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