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Vulnerable stars on collision course

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Rafael Nadal acknowledged he needs to

CHRISTOPHE GUIBBAUD / ABACA PRESS / MCT Enlarge Image

Rafael Nadal acknowledged he needs to "play better" if he has a shot of winning his eighth French Open after having trouble with the 27th seed.

PARIS -- For the third time in three matches this year in the French Open, Rafael Nadal hardly looked himself for a set.

Unlike in the first two rounds, Nadal won his opening set Saturday, albeit barely. The takeaway, even after another victory, was the same: The owner of a record seven titles at Roland Garros is not the dominant force he usually is at the clay-court tournament.

"If I want to have any chance," Nadal acknowledged after beating 27th-seeded Fabio Fognini of Italy 7-6 (5), 6-4, 6-4, "I really need to play better."

Hours later, the man Nadal beat in last year's final and could meet in this year's semifinals, No. 1 Novak Djokovic, seemed vulnerable, too. Walking to his changeover chair at 4-3 in the third set of a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win against No. 26 Grigor Dimitrov, Djokovic stretched his right arm -- the one he has used to win six Grand Slam titles -- several times. He then was treated by a trainer, who applied ointment and gave Djokovic a massage near the shoulder.

Two games later, the match was done, Djokovic was into the fourth round, and he raised that arm in his typical victory celebration.

His mood would shift dramatically soon. When Djokovic left the court and went to the locker-room, he was told that his first coach -- Jelena Gencic, 76, who began working with little Nole when he was six -- had died in Belgrade, Serbia, earlier Saturday. Djokovic issued a statement through the tournament saying that he would not be able to attend a post-match news conference.

"His team kept the news secret from him until after the match," ATP spokesman Nicola Arzani said. "He just broke down. He was very, very, very close to her."

As they approach each other in the draw, Nadal now meets No. 13 Kei Nishikori -- the first Japanese man in the fourth round of the French Open in 75 years -- while Djokovic faces No. 16 Philipp Kohlschreiber. The other matchups on that half of the bracket after a wild Saturday in Paris: No. 12 Tommy Haas against No. 29 Mikhail Youzhny, and No. 7 Richard Gasquet against No. 9 Stanislas Wawrinka.

Haas let a record 12 match points get away from him in the fourth set, then saved one in the fifth. He eventually pulled out a 7-5, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-7 (10), 10-8 victory over 19th-seeded John Isner, the last American man in the field and the player best known for winning a 70-68 fifth set at Wimbledon three years ago.

"These long matches seem to follow me," said Isner, whose last five Grand Slam appearances ended with losses in five-setters.

"In hindsight, probably would have been better to lose in straight sets," he added, "because I feel terrible right now."

In Nishikori's victory, his opponent, France's Benoit Paire, was assessed a point penalty for getting coached. The same thing happened to Marina Erakovic during her loss to No. 17 Sloane Stephens, one of four U.S. women into the fourth round.

That's the most since four also made it in 2004; five made it a year earlier. She's joined by 54th-ranked Jamie Hampton, who stunned 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova 6-1, 7-6 (7); 67th-ranked Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who also won Saturday; and 15-time major champion Serena Williams, whose fourth-round match is Sunday.

Stephens gets the most intriguing matchup with a quarterfinal berth at stake, taking on defending champion Maria Sharapova on Monday.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2013 B12

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