Another day on red clay, another figure in the black for Rafael Nadal. The statistics will show that Lleyton Hewitt yesterday became the Spaniard's 57th successive victim on terre battue, but any impression that the French Open's defending champion is having an easy ride here would be thoroughly misleading.
Nadal won 6-2, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in three hours and 17 minutes. It was nearly two hours less than he had needed to subdue Paul-Henri Mathieu in the previous round - and it was achieved despite an official warning for taking too long between points - but at times Hewitt provided a challenge that was every bit as demanding as that set by the gun-blazing Frenchman on Saturday.
As a counter-puncher Hewitt has a game similar to Nadal's, but there is more subtlety and style to his play and a greater variation in tactics. Both are magnificent retrievers who never know when they are beaten, but whereas the Spaniard bludgeons rivals into submission with the sheer weight of his shots, the Australian is more likely to send his opponent scurrying into all corners of the court before wielding a killing blow with a stiletto.
Nadal could not cope with some of the acute cross-court angles Hewitt found and on occasions was even faced with the rare sight on clay of a player following his serve into the net. The former Wimbledon champion served beautifully for two and a half sets and it was only after he was broken at 4-4 in the third that Nadal started to take charge as the Australian's recent lack of matches took effect.
Having had his year disrupted by injuries, Hewitt will go into the grass-court season encouraged by his displays here. He had played only one match on clay before arriving in Paris, a first-round defeat in Portschach to Marcos Daniel in which he suffered an ankle injury which almost ruled him out of Roland Garros.
"When I look back on it in a couple of days there will be a lot of positives I'll take out of this, especially as I didn't even know whether I was actually going to be able to play here a week and a half ago," Hewitt said. "I went out there and gave everything I had. I felt that I was striking the ball well and I'll be a lot more confident going into Queen's than I probably was coming into the French Open."
It was Nadal's first victory over Hewitt in four attempts - the Australian is one of only five players who have met him more than once who have a superior head-to-head record - but the Spaniard did not feel he had been at his best. "I felt tired today," he said. "I lost concentration at times, probably because I was more tired than usual."
Nadal's quarter-final opponent will be Novak Djokovic, who is having an excellent tournament. The 19-year-old Serb knocked out his third seeded opponent in a row when he beat Gael Monfils 7-6, 7-6, 6-3. The Frenchman, who appeared at his post-match press conference wearing an Arsenal shirt ("it's because of the sponsors", he said), had reached this stage with three successive five-set victories but was troubled by an injury to his left thigh which needed regular attention.
Earlier this year Djokovic played a key role in Serbia and Montenegro's victory over Britain in the Davis Cup in Glasgow. His mother spoke to Lawn Tennis Association officials during that visit about the possibility of the family (Novak has two tennis-playing younger brothers) moving to Britain on a permanent basis. Novak played down speculation here about his representing Britain in the future but did not rule out the possibility.
You would have got long odds on Julien Benneteau being the last French player left in either the men's or women's singles but the world No 95 took his place in the quarter-finals when Spain's Alberto Martin retired with a back injury after only six games. Benneteau now plays Ivan Ljubicic, the No 4 seed, who beat Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo in four sets.
Men's quarter-finals line-up
* 1 Roger Federer (Swit) v 12 Mario Ancic (Croa) * 3 David Nalbandian (Arg) v 6 Nikolay Davydenko (Rus)
* Julien Benneteau (Fr) v 4 Ivan Ljubicic (Croa)
* Novak Djokovic (Serb-M) v 2 Rafael Nadal (Sp)
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