Roger Federer has been getting used to early exits at grand slams but rated his French Open loss to Ernests Gulbis as the most disappointing of the lot.
Having made 36 consecutive slam quarter-finals, Federer has failed to reach the final eight at three of the last four tournaments.
The sequence ended at Wimbledon last summer with his stunning second-round loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky, and he was then beaten in the fourth round at the US Open by Tommy Robredo.
In Paris, Federer came out on the wrong end of a five-set battle with Gulbis in round four, losing 6-7 (5/7), 7-6 (7/3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3.
“For every match you can’t necessarily explain why you lost,” said Federer.
“Sometimes you’re more disappointed, sometimes less. I’m not mad, but I’m not happy, either. Because I missed too many opportunities. I did not play like I wanted to play.
“This time I was in good shape, and I think I could have done better. That’s why I’m probably even more disappointed this time.”
Gulbis appears to have left his playboy reputation behind him, if not his penchant for causing controversy, and is finally living up to his considerable talent.
From outside the top 130 in the rankings at the start of last season, Gulbis has climbed to a career-high 17 and is unbeaten in France this year having won titles in Marseille and last week in Nice.
He said: “It’s probably the most important win, especially because it was five sets.
“I beat him before, but it was a three-set match. So for my confidence and just for me as a tennis player, a five-set win over Roger Federer, it’s really big.”
The lightbulb moment for Gulbis came at a Challenger tournament in Eckental in Germany in November 2012.
“I asked for a wild card,” he said. “I didn’t get the wild card. I had to play qualifying. I made the final there, so it was an OK week, but it was the end of the year and in the middle of nowhere. It was winter, it was really depressing, and I thought, ‘I start to do something or for what I do this’? So that was one big question. This is the answer.”
Gulbis probably should have won the opening set but Federer fought back, and the outcome might have been very different had the Swiss taken either of two set points serving at 5-3 in the second.
On the first, Gulbis admitted he got lucky as Federer sent a smash right to him, but three points later the Latvian had the break back and he went on to win the set on a tie-break.
Another key moment came with Federer leading 5-2 in the fourth set.
Gulbis went off court for treatment to his back and hamstring and, although Federer did take the set, his momentum had gone and a service break at the start of the decider ultimately cost him the match.
Federer was suspicious Gulbis may have used the break tactically, saying: “He didn’t look hurt in any way. But if you can use it, you might as well do it.”
Gulbis, though, insisted that was not the case.
“I’m not big on medical time-outs,” he said. “I don’t like to take it, but I take it when it’s really necessary. It probably was my third medical time-out in my life.”
The crowd willed their favourite Federer on, and Gulbis admitted the hostility towards him had curbed the wilder side of his personality – not withstanding one broken racquet.
“One is nothing for me,” said the 25-year-old with a grin.
The Latvian moves on to play sixth seed Tomas Berdych, who continued his impressive progress through the draw with a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win over John Isner.
Federer will have a week to spend with his family before defending his title on grass in Halle and then moving on to Wimbledon, where he believes he is a genuine title contender.
He said: “Mentally I have already switched to the grass.
“I think when I’m healthy, like I have been now for the last six to nine months, I think clearly I can decide the outcome of the matches more than I could last year. So I’m very excited about my chances for Wimbledon now this time.” Second seed Novak Djokovic also looked to have a tricky test against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Federer in the quarter-finals last year.
But Djokovic needed less than an hour and a half to win 6-1, 6-4, 6-1 and set up a last-eight clash with Milos Raonic, who is through to his first grand slam quarter-final.
Meanwhile, women’s title favourite Maria Sharapova got herself out of a tight spot to beat Sam Stosur and reach the quarter-finals.
It appeared that there might be another major shock on the cards when Sharapova dropped the opening set, but the 2012 champion fought back to win 3-6, 6-4, 6-0.
Stosur’s form in the first three rounds had been terrific despite an accident in the gym the week before the tournament that left her needing five stitches in her leg. But her head-to-head record against Sharapova read played 15, won two, making the Russian a big favourite.
It did not look that way in the opening set, however, as Stosur dominated with her big serve and forehand and Sharapova was left scrambling around behind the baseline.
She broke serve at the start of the second set but, after receiving a time violation, gave it back three games later, and it was Sharapova who was looking under the most pressure.
However, her US Open victory in 2011 as an honourable aside, Stosur has frequently cracked mentally under pressure, and it was the same again here.
Serving at 4-4, she played a terrible game, Sharapova held to take the set and then made it nine straight games to clinch victory.