PARIS (Reuters) - The last time Maria Sharapova dropped the opening set of a match 6-0, an Olympic dream was trampled. On Wednesday a similar drubbing provoked a champion’s response as the Russian kept alive her hopes of a second successive French Open title alive.
Thoughts of her humiliating defeat at Wimbledon by Serena Williams last year returned as the misfiring Sharapova surrendered the first set of her quarter-final against Jelena Jankovic in 28 minutes before recovering to win 0-6 6-4 6-3.
As expected Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic set up a siesmic semi-final clash after comfortable wins against Stanislas Wawrinka and German veteran Tommy Haas respectively.
Seven-times champion Nadal, roaring back into top form after a poor opening week, crushed weary-looking Swiss Wawrinka 6-2 6-3 6-1 while world number one Djokovic was made to work harder by Haas before polishing off the 35-year-old 6-3 7-6(5) 7-5.
With Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Spaniard David Ferrer enjoying comprehensive wins on Tuesday all four men’s quarter-finals at Roland Garros were won in straight sets for the first time since 1948.
In contrast all the women’s last-eight ties have been tightly contested, even Victoria Azarenka’s 7-6 6-2 defeat of Maria Kirilenko which featured a 76-minute opening set.
That Sharapova pulled round a match in which she managed just 14 points in a first set to move through to a juicy-looking semi-final against Azarenka spoke volumes for the fighting spirit of the four-times grand slam champion.
“I wanted to put that chapter behind me,” Sharapova said.
“It was certainly nice to change that around, because I wasn’t doing much in that first six games.”
World number two Sharapova will be wary of making such a slow start against Azarenka on Thursday.
The Belarussian enjoys a 7-5 career record against Sharapova and says she is beginning to fall in love with clay after reaching her first semi-final at Roland Garros.
“I still don’t have any ring on my finger,” she said when quizzed about her relationship with the Parisian clay courts.
“But I feel like we made a step forward.”
Sharapova made 45 unforced errors against the feisty Jankovic but having worked her way back into the match she showed her class with some sizzling winners when it mattered.
At 3-3 in the third set she stretched her long limbs to hook an impossible-looking backhand winner and then broke serve with a piercing forehand down the line, holding her celebratory fist-clenched salute as courtside cameras clicked their appreciation.
She then fought off a break point in the next game with a nerveless swinging volley off a Jankovic moon ball, breaking the Serbian’s spirit in the process as she moved on to reach the semi-finals here for the fourth time in 11 attempts.
“Sometimes you just have to get the job done, and I did today,” Sharapova said.
A repeat of last year’s women’s final between Sharapova and Italian Sara Errani is still on the cards, although Azarenka and world number one Serena Williams, who faces Errani, will have plenty to say about that.
Nadal had never lost a set against Wawrinka, who was bidding to become the first Swiss to last longer at a grand slam than Roger Federer since 2002, in their nine previous matches and was never in danger of doing so on Wednesday.
Wawrinka broke French hearts when he came back from two sets down to defeat Richard Gasquet in the previous round, but the ninth seed looked leg weary as Nadal unleashed the kind of tennis that has made him virtually unbeatable at Roland Garros since winning the first of his seven titles here in 2005.
“It’s always been the case. The deeper I go the better I play usually. It’s always been the case. It’s the same this year. It’s the same old story,” Nadal, who labored through his opening rounds here, told a news conference.
The form that has led to five claycourt titles already this year has returned just in time for an earlier-than-normal clash with Serbian Djokovic, who he beat in the final here last year.
Despite virtually owning Roland Garros where his only defeat in 58 matches came against Robin Soderling in 2009, current world number four Nadal came in seeded three and the draw has thrown up a clash which has the feel of a title-decider.
“It’s the semi-finals and doesn’t matter if it’s against Novak or against another player, because the player who wins is not going to be the champion of Roland Garros. It’s just a semi-final,” Nadal told reporters.
Djokovic played down the implications of meeting Nadal in the semis after ending Haas’s bid to become the oldest man to reach the last four at Roland Garros since 1968.
“I can’t affect it. It’s the draw. It is what it is,” he said before elaborating on what will be required to end Nadal’s bid to become the first man to win the same grand slam tournament eight times.
“We are in good form. This is it, you know. This is the biggest matchup of our Roland Garros 2013 campaign for both me and him,” he said. “I need to be very disciplined and focused in order to get emotionally, physically, and mentally ready for that match.”
Haas gave it his best shot against Djokovic, pushed him hard in the second set on a sun-bathed Suzanne Lenglen court and even broke the Serb when he served for the match but ultimately the exertions of the past week and a half caught up with him.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by John Mehaffey