PARIS - Irritated by the home crowd's heckling, James Blake took the unusual step of inviting a spectator out of the stands to see for himself that one of French teen Gael Monfils' shots landed out.
In truth, Blake's biggest obstacle Sunday wasn't the fans, it was Monfils himself, a 6-foot-3 blur on the baseline who advanced to the fourth round with a 6-2, 6-7 (2), 7-6 (1), 5-7, 6-4 victory over the last U.S. man in the French Open. Venus Williams is now the only American still playing.
Monfils is "faster than anyone I've ever played against," the No. 8-seeded Blake said. "He gets so many balls, especially on this surface, with it being that slow. Makes you win the point a few times. I just didn't do that."
For a while, it looked as if Williams might be joining Blake on the next flight out of town.
But after making 19 unforced errors in the first set against No. 7 Patty Schnyder, Williams came back to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, with a lot of success at the net. Had Williams lost, there would have been zero Americans in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros for the first time in the 38-year Open era.
"Lone flag waving gently in the wind," said Williams, aiming for her sixth Grand Slam title but first at Roland Garros.
Her quarterfinal opponent will be 17-year-old Nicole Vaidisova of the Czech Republic, a big hitter who eliminated No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-2, much to the chagrin of the French fans. Williams might have caught another break when 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova, a possible semifinal opponent, blew a 5-1 lead in the third set and lost 7-5, 2-6, 7-5 to Dinara Safina, Marat Safin's younger sister.
Given her grit, Sharapova's collapse was surprising. Mauresmo's? Not so much. This is, after all, the major where she's had the least success, something she freely admits is a direct result of playing in front of a home crowd. Once again, she received plenty of support. Once again, she acknowledged with a sigh, "I wasn't able to keep up my end of the bargain."
U.S. men haven't had much success lately in Paris, either, though that's more likely a result of emphasis on hard courts over clay back home.
"You have to give the Americans a break, too. They didn't grow up on this stuff, but they can still play on it, they can still be dangerous," no less an authority than top-ranked Roger Federer said. "It's just maybe they're not the big favorites like they are elsewhere."
That last statement applies to him, too: He's won each of the other majors at least twice but never been to a final at the French Open. Federer moved a step closer to completing a noncalendar Grand Slam by beating No. 20 Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, setting up a quarterfinal against No. 12 Mario Ancic.
Ancic - the last man to beat Federer at Wimbledon, in 2001 - vomited and was treated for cramps during his five-set win over No. 7 Tommy Robredo. No. 3 David Nalbandian meets No. 6 Nikolay Davydenko in another quarterfinal.
The women's quarterfinals are: Williams vs. Vaidisova, Safina vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova, defending champion Justine Henin-Hardenne vs. Anna-Lena Groenefeld, and Kim Clijsters vs. Martina Hingis or Shahar Peer, whose match was suspended because of darkness after they split the first two sets.
Monfils and Blake stopped Saturday night at a set apiece on Court 1, which holds 3,777 seats, most close to the action.
So Blake could hear most everything coming from the stands, including yelps in the middle of points and during his serving motion. The unfailingly polite Blake - he says "Thank you" to ballkids and calls out "Too good!" on opponents' winners - got rattled by the distractions, leading to a running conversation with chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
"If they're doing their rhythmic clapping or chanting, I don't mind that at all, and I'll play right through that," Blake said. "But it's when you're expecting it to be quiet and then there's one outburst that it can affect you."
Late in the third set, Blake put his hands on his hips and motioned to the crowd after a voice cried out right before he missed a volley. In the fourth set, Monfils placed a shot close to the sideline, and Ramos climbed down to inspect the mark in the clay. In the meantime, someone in the front row said something about the call, prompting Blake to wave him over for a closer look. Incredibly, the man did just that, hopping the short wall and ambling onto the court.
"I didn't understand what was going on," Monfils said. "It was funny, but it should not be done."
Serving at 4-4 in the fifth, Blake missed a forehand, then a volley, and Monfils hit a backhand passing shot to earn a break point. Then Monfils somehow got Blake's overhead back, if gently, and the American volleyed into the net. That settled things.
After the match, while Monfils was being interviewed by French TV, Blake renewed his argument with Ramos, asking why more wasn't done to control the crowd.
"Have you ever played the sport? Ever? Really? You don't think that was unfair?... I rarely argue with umpires," Blake said, "and when I do, I pretty much have a valid point."
Monfils won three of the four junior majors in 2004, and he's soared in the rankings since turning pro. Seeded 25th in Paris, he's won three consecutive five-setters and will face another 19-year-old, Novak Djokovic of Serbia-Montenegro, for a quarterfinal berth.
"I keep forgetting," Monfils said, "that I might be tired."
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