By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Just as the top four men's seeds seemed set to contest the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time in 20 years, dashing Frenchman Richard Gasquet fired a broadside of backhands straight through the script on Wednesday.
Defending champion Novak Djokovic, seven-times title holder Roger Federer and home hope Andy Murray all kept to their side of the bargain with straight sets wins. But Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, the French Open champion, let the side down.
Then again, there was no shame in a 6-4 4-6 3-6 6-4 11-9 defeat against a daring man playing one of the matches of his life in a contest dubbed "the battle of the backhands".
Gasquet, a former world junior champion who has fallen short of the heights expected of him, served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set but fourth seed Wawrinka broke back, gesturing with a finger pointed to his head that he had the mental edge.
But Gasquet, whose trademark single-hander, like Wawrinka's near identical backhand stroke, has the purists purring, showed remarkable resolve to withstand a barrage.
With Wawrinka a proven warrior and a bona fide member of the elite after winning the 2014 Australian Open and succeeding Rafa Nadal as French Open champion, you feared the worst for Gasquet.
As the backhands fizzed diagonally across the net with ever-increasing intensity the 21st seed kept his nose in front.
Five times Wawrinka held serve to stay alive.
At the sixth time of asking, however, Gasquet forged 0-40 ahead and, although two match points went begging, Wawrinka fired a backhand long to end the duel.
"It was very difficult for me to lose that serve at 5-3," Gasquet, who destroyed Andy Roddick at the same stage in 2007 only to lose to Federer in the semi-final, told reporters.
"I kept fighting. That made the difference."
While Gasquet in full flow has always been a joy to behold, his mental fortitude has been questioned.
He lost to Australian Nick Kyrgios here last year despite having nine match points and two years ago at Roland Garros he went down 8-6 in a fifth set to Wawrinka.
"It's a revenge for me a little bit," he said. "It's great to win. After 2007, it's been a long time."
"I'm proud because there are big players in the semis. I'm the worst when you see Federer, Djokovic and Murray."
Gasquet will have to scale the same heights, and some, to have any hope of reaching his first grand slam showpiece at the 43rd attempt as Djokovic awaits in the semi-final.
A few weeks ago on Paris clay he managed only six games against the world number one Serb who clinically took U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic apart 6-4 6-4 6-4 on Wednesday.
After Djokovic's scare against Kevin Anderson in the previous round, when he extricated himself from a deep hole, Djokovic cruised into his 27th grand slam semi-final after extending his domination of Croatian Cilic to 13-0.
"I'm hoping I have that extra gear. I'm hoping it can come out now in the semi-finals," the 28-year-old said.
Federer was more inconvenienced by a couple or irritating rain delays as he swept past Gilles Simon in the day's first Switzerland v France contest on Court One, winning 6-3 7-5 6-2.
The only blot was finally dropping a service game after 116 successive holds stretching back to last month's Halle Open.
Third seed Murray, playing in the quarter-finals for the eighth year in a row, was kept on his toes by the only non-European in the last eight, Canada's unseeded Vasek Pospisil, but with a royal audience in the shape of Prince William and his wife the Duchess of Cambridge he delivered a 6-4 7-5 6-4 win.
He has faced nobody ranked higher than 23 so far but things are about to get considerably trickier with second seed Federer looming on Friday.
The last of the Swiss maestro's 17 grand slam titles reduced Murray to tears on finals day in 2012, though a few months after that Murray beat the Swiss on Centre Court to win Olympic gold.
"It will bring back those memories of a great summer for both of us," Federer told reporters.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)