PARIS — Less than 48 hours after learning of the death of his childhood coach, Novak Djokovic was on court at the French Open, determined to complete a career Grand Slam in honor of the woman he likened to a “second mother.”
Still grieving, Djokovic began shakily Monday. Six of the match’s first seven unforced errors were his. After one poor exchange, he chucked his racket hard enough to break it. He dropped a set for the only time in four matches so far.
After recovering quickly to dispatch 16th-seeded Philipp Kohlschreiber of Germany 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 and reach the quarterfinals at a 16th consecutive major tournament, Djokovic spoke from the heart about the passing of Jelena Gencic, who was 76.
“It hasn’t been easy, but this is life. You know, life gives you things (but also) takes away close people,” Djokovic said. “We were very close throughout my whole life, and she taught me a lot of things that are part of me, part of my character.”
“I feel even more responsible now to go all the way in this tournament,” said the No. 1-ranked Djokovic, who owns six Grand Slam titles but none from Roland Garros. “I want to do it for her.”
He’ll need to beat three more opponents to accomplish that, starting with 12th-seeded Tommy Haas, who at 35 became the oldest French Open quarterfinalist since 1971 by eliminating Mikhail Youzhny 6-1, 6-1, 6-3 in less than 1½ hours.
By the second set, Youzhny was so out of sorts he destroyed a racket by slamming it nine times against his sideline seat.
Haas is a four-time Grand Slam semifinalist who climbed to No. 2 in the rankings at age 24. But recent times have been difficult because of serious injuries and operations, including to his right shoulder and hip, and he missed more than a full season.
“Who would have thought two years ago I’d be in this position today?” Haas asked. “I wouldn’t have.”
He’s certainly persistent.
The 12 French Open appearances it took Haas to reach his first quarterfinal in Paris is a record. And he needed 13 match points in the third round to get past John Isner in five sets.
“It’s easy sometimes to … throw the white towel and say, ‘I’m done. I have achieved a lot of things. I don’t really have to worry so much financially and I can live a good life.’ But at the same time,” Haas explained, “maybe there was something in me still that said, ‘You know what? I can maybe still do something.’”
If Djokovic can get past Haas, he’ll find a familiar foe in the semifinals: seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, who played his first relatively routine opening set of the tournament and put together a 6-4, 6-1, 6-3 victory over No. 13 Kei Nishikori of Japan.