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Sharapova, Djokovic grind out opponents to reach French Open semis

Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Maria Sharapova was one game from defeat before she seized the match from Garbine Muguruza.

PARIS -- Four thoughts from the first set of quarterfinals at the 2014 French Open:

• Early last week -- with her nemesis, Serena Williams, out of the draw -- Maria Sharapova became the favorite to win the women's title. And she's played like it, alternately dominating opponents and grinding them out on the clay. Today it was latter. Down a set and 4-5 in the second to the exquisitely talented Garbine Muguruza of Spain, Sharapova simply (cliché alert) refused to lose. For the second time in two matches, she staved off defeat, won the second set and then took control of the match, closing out a shift of dirty work, 1-6, 7-5, 6-1.

"I thought I didn't do much in the first set to hurt [Muguruza]. She was doing many things well," Sharapova said. "I also knew that the match wasn't over. I still had a fair bit of time to change things around. Little by little I started playing a bit better, started getting in the court a little bit more, playing a little bit more aggressive, serving better than I did in the first set, returning as well, giving myself more looks at break points."

Sharapova may polarize, but her appetite for battle is indisputable. Having transformed herself into -- dare we say it? -- a clay-court specialist, she's now two victories away from her second title at Roland Garros.

WERTHEIM: Sharapova, men's top seeds earn top grades in French Open midterm report

• Speaking of fighters whose marketing is at odds with their tennis... Eugenie Bouchard, the ascending Canadian, ground her way to a three-set win, as well. Though she was down in all three sets -- including 4-1 in the third -- against Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro, Bouchard dictated play throughout the match. Two games from victory, Suarez could not ferme la Bouchard, as it were. Like Sharapova, Bouchard simply raised her game and did not allow her aggression to diminish, eventually serving out the match and reaching her second-straight semifinal at a Grand Slam.

"At the end of the day, whether I win or lose, I want to at least leave it all there and try and at least battle," Bouchard said. "I'm proud of the way I did that in both the first and third [sets] She's a great player and a really good clay courter, as well. I knew it was a tough battle, and I'm just proud of the way I stayed in there."

We've all overplayed the joke that while there are no Americans left, Bouchard is a North American and thus close enough. But, in seriousness, she ought to be a source of inspiration to many players, including Americans. She's not physically imposing. She does not have a remarkable backstory. She simply has a clean game and a fearlessness on the court. The networks may like the Sharapova-Bouchard match-up for ratings reasons. Tennis fans should enjoy a clash between two of the game's better fighters.

Bouchard: "I don't think the tennis tour is the place to have friends."

• Players talk about "small margins of error" when maneuvering shots or aiming for a corner of the service box. But there are also small margins of error in matches. Milos Raonic played generally unimpeachable tennis against Novak Djokovic. He didn't miss many shots. He showed off his improved movement. He stuck to his fightplan. But his second serve wavered, a played a few tight points in the second-set tiebreak. Against the best in the game, that's sufficient margin to win. Djokovic took advantage and won the first two sets 7-5, 7-6. In the third, Raonic, visibly demoralized, capitulated 6-4. Djokovic advances to the Final Four of the French Open for the fourth-straight time, still on course for a showdown in the final with Rafael Nadal. It's also worth nothing that Nadal must win the title to remain the world No. 1.

• Coming into today, the last eight times Roger Federer lost at a Grand Slam, the opponent was then vanquished in the next round. The Curse of Roger, was broken -- emphatically -- today by Ernests Gulbis. The Latvian slugger continued his roll here, beating Tomas Berdych 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 in three unexpectedly straightforward sets. Operating at peak efficiency, Gulbis was the better player on every dimension. Long known as one of tennis' great unfulfilled talents, Gulbis' gifts have finally crystallized here. His head has yet to betray him (at least not on the court.) If he continues his bold ballstriking and first-strike tennis, he has a real shot to knock off Djokovic in the semis. And with his win today, he'll likely break into the ATP's top 10 for the first time in his career.

NGUYEN: Everything you need to know about Ernests Gulbis

Best of three bites:

• Muguruza plays for Spain but was born in the Caracas. We had heard before the tournament that the Venezuelan Federation was making an aggressive bid for her services, and it's suffice to say the price went up.

Francis Tiafoe, the American 16-year-old, may have lost in the boys draw, but he got a treat today when he practiced in court five with Rafael Nadal. He must have done OK because Nadal asked for him again on Wednesday.

Caroline Wozniacki had her fun in Miami and is now headed back across the Atlantic to prepare for her grasscourt season. It's nice to see her enter the New Haven event.

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