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Steve Flink: Djokovic and Federer do battle again

6/5/2012 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS—I watched the first nine days of this French Open back home on television, and then flew from New York to Paris in time to catch two stirring men’s quarterfinals contests today that no one really could have envisioned. Both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer fully expected to be tested by a pair of worthy adversaries named Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin Del Potro. No one expected either Djokovic or Federer to carve out routine triumphs at this stage of the tournament. Djokovic had, after all, endured an arduous five set appointment with Andreas Seppi on Sunday, rescuing himself from two sets to love down for the third time in his illustrious career to defeat the plucky and enterprising Italian. Federer had drifted within two points of trailing two sets to love against the audacious Belgian lucky loser David Goffin before he came through to win in four sets. That victory was preceded by two other four set triumphs by Federer that did not reveal him at his best.

As fate would decree, the No. 1 and No. 3 seeds were both stretched to five sets, and Djokovic needed to save no fewer than four match points to remain alive in this tennis tournament and register his 26th consecutive match victory at a Grand Slam event. Not since Federer toppled Djokovic in a stirring, four set semifinal at Roland Garros a year ago has the Serbian met defeat at a major. And yet, Tsonga outplayed Djokovic in many ways on a court that was slowed down considerably by the cool and damp air. In the end, Djokovic prevailed with one of the signature competitive performances of his career. In a manner strikingly reminiscent of his semifinal and final round victories at the Australian Open earlier this year, Djokovic was masterfully composed and unfailingly professional in the trenches. In securing his third crown in Melbourne, Djokovic upended Andy Murray from two sets to one down in the semifinals, and then rallied courageously and improbably from 4-2, 30-15 down in the fifth set against Rafael Nadal in the final.

Those were towering triumphs of the mind, and proof that Djokovic has grown by leaps and bounds as a competitor on the big occasions. This win today over an inspired and ultimately unlucky Tsonga was of the same class as his Australian Open successes, a gritty display of poise under the most burdensome kind of pressure. Here was Djokovic, battling with integrity to overcome one of the sport’s premier athletes in front of an audience that was clearly and irrevocably on Tsonga’s side. In many ways, the atmospherics of this particular tennis match transcended the world’s most prestigious clay court tournament. Facing a singularly charismatic Frenchman on his country’s most heralded stage in the quarterfinals of Roland Garros was in essence comparable to a Davis Cup match for the players and the fans.

The spectators cheered heartily and unreservedly for their man, and Tsonga did not let them down. He put on a stupendous performance, and brought himself to the very edge of victory. Tsonga was outclassed and soundly beaten by a concentrated Djokovic in the opening set, which swiftly went the Serbian’s way. The Frenchman held his serve to make it 1-1, but that was his only game. It lasted barely over twenty minutes. Djokovic quickly established a 2-0 second set lead, and soon moved to 4-2. He seemed on the verge of a comfortable straight set triumph. But Tsonga drew even at 4-4. With Djokovic serving to stay in the set at 5-6, the Serbian became apprehensive. He lost his serve, and it was one set all. Yet Djokovic got back on song speedily, breaking for a 2-1 third set lead. Once more, he did not press his advantage, falling into a tentative pattern when it appeared he was ascendant. Tsonga broke back for 2-2. They stayed on serve until 5-6 again, and once more Djokovic failed to serve his way into a tie-break. Djokovic was entirely too conservative off the ground, and a surging Tsonga would not let him get away with it. Tsonga broke in the twelfth game with both consistency and aggression, and the Frenchman had a two sets to one lead.

Djokovic was well aware of just how dangerous that moment was. Tsonga—buoyed by the partisan crowd, enervated by his unusually precise and purposeful play from the back of the court, bolstered by some judicious use of the drop shot—put himself right where he wanted to be late in the fourth set. With Djokovic serving at 4-5, the Serbian was down 15-40, double match point. On the first one, he released a solid bounce overhead that Tsonga handled well. Djokovic punched a backhand volley short, and Tsonga tried to pass him down the line. Djokovic read that play perfectly, and punched a forehand crosscourt volley impeccably into the clear. At 30-40, Djokovic connected with an excellent serve that set up a trademark forehand winner.

He held on for 5-5, but at 5-6 the world’s No. 1 player was back under duress in the worst possible way. At 30-40 in that twelfth game, he trailed match point for the third time, but held his ground until Tsonga missed off the forehand with a nice opening at his disposal. Tsonga promptly garnered his fourth and last match point, but Djokovic’s pride and perspicacity were evident again at a critical juncture. He used his inside out forehand to open up the court, and then came in to put away another overhead. Djokovic brought himself into a fourth set tie-break with a lot of momentum on his side. He won the first two points of that sequence, but lost the next four. Tsonga was up 4-2. Then Djokovic swept four consecutive points to reach 6-4.

Djokovic was serving at that stage but Tsonga made his way forward and provoked an errant backhand pass from the Serbian. Tsonga took his service point for 6-6, and stood two points away from a four set victory.  But Djokovic kept his return of a first serve relatively low, making Tsonga dig that ball out in the wind. Tsonga drove a forehand approach long. Now at set point for the third time, Djokovic sealed the set on a Tsonga backhand down the line that found the net. It was two sets all. The French crowd in Chatrier Stadium seemed to fall into a collective sigh. They could sense that the physicality of Djokovic was going to be too much for Tsonga, and that assumption was on target.

Djokovic bolted to 3-0 in the fifth set at the cost of only four points. Tsonga no longer had the legs to stay with the indefatigable Djokovic. Djokovic got tight at 3-1, 40-15, netting a backhand down the line, then double faulting. But he held on, broke for 5-1, and recorded a 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-1 triumph. After an exhausting meeting with Seppi in Sunday, Djokovic needed four hours and nine minutes to subdue a gallant Tsonga, who played the finest clay court tennis of his career. Although Tsonga made 61 unforced errors compared to only 34 from Djokovic, the fact remains that the Frenchman was disciplined, highly charged, and as tactically astute as he has ever been on a slow court. His two-handed backhand has never been better, his forehand was deep and penetrating, and he stayed with Djokovic in the long rallies steadfastly.

Now the stage is set for Djokovic to confront Federer for the fifth time in the last seven Grand Slam tournaments. Djokovic has upended Federer in the semifinals of the last two U.S. Opens, saving two match points in both of those five set comeback victories. He also stopped Federer at the 2011 Australian Open semifinals in straight sets. The only loss Djokovic suffered at the hands of Federer in this stretch at the majors was at the 2011 French Open, when the Swiss played one of his best matches of the season to catch Djokovic off guard in a four set semifinal. Djokovic came into that contest after four days off when his quarterfinal opponent defaulted. He was out of sync and Federer was dazzling in many ways, most importantly on serve. It was probably his best serving match of 2011, and Federer beat Djokovic in four sets before losing the final to Nadal.

Federer surely feels as fortunate at Djokovic to even be in the semifinals. He made an inauspicious start against Del Potro, who was striking the ball ferociously off both sides and looking much stronger and surer from the back of the court. Del Potro broke Federer twice on his way to a commanding 4-1 first set lead, dropped the next two games somewhat timidly, and fell behind break point in the eighth game. Federer was a point away from getting even at 4-4, but Del Potro stepped up here with some high level ground stroke aggression to rush the Swiss into a mistake. Del Potro held on for 5-3 and then broke Federer for the third time as Federer made consecutive unforced errors off the forehand to drop that game, and with it the set.

Federer had not yet found his range off the forehand, while Del Potro was hitting through the ball beautifully and making a very slow court appear much faster than it actually was. In the second set, Federer broke for 3-2 but then dropped his own delivery at 15, inexplicably slicing a forehand into the net when he was in an offensive position. That set went to a tie-break, and Del Potro was breathtaking in that sequence. He raced to 4-1 behind the weight of his ground game and some big serving. Federer took the next two points, but the Argentinian blasted an inside-out forehand winner for 5-3. Federer closed the gap to 5-4, and was serving, but he lost the next two points as Del Potro overpowered and outmaneuvered him from the baseline.

At two sets to love down, matters looked bleak for the 2009 champion, who rallied valiantly from two sets to one down to beat Del Potro on that occasion. Federer had made the climb back from two sets down six times before over the course of his career, but he did not seem likely to wage that kind of rescue mission this time. But Federer grabbed an early service break lead in the third set. Del Potro stopped chasing anything too wide, and Federer bolted to a 3-0 fourth set lead. Del Potro held in the fourth game and had a break point in the fifth, but could not convert. From 4-2 in the third set, Federer swept the next twelve points. He elevated his game handsomely while Del Potro—preoccupied with the taping on his knee—virtually surrendered.

Only in the fifth set did Del Potro come alive, while Federer was flowing freely again and sensing he was going to win. In the opening game of the fifth set, Federer missed a couple of routine inside-out forehands. He realized Del Potro was looking to make one last push to salvage the match. Federer saved two break points in that opening game of the fifth set, and that was that. He broke for 3-1 and held the rest of the way to cast aside Del Potro 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-0, 6-3.

The Federer-Djokovic semifinal on Friday will be fascinating.  Both men will benefit from two days off, particularly Djokovic, who has labored so long and hard across his last two unexpectedly difficult matches. He recently ousted Federer in a straight set semifinal on clay in Rome, but there will be much more riding on the outcome of this contest. Djokovic sorely wants to become the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to win four majors in a row. He has never won the French Open and is determined to add this title to his growing collection. And he does not want to waste his heroics of the last two rounds. Even with a couple of days off, he could be physically compromised. But Federer has not looked comfortable for most of this tournament.

It ought to be a blockbuster of a battle. Federer wants to replicate the magic he produced a year ago, while Djokovic hopes to make amends for that defeat, which ended his season opening 41 match winning streak. The winner of the Federer-Djokovic semifinal will probably get no bargain, because the man standing on the other side of the net in the final on Sunday afternoon will almost surely be one Rafael Nadal. But the feeling grows that we are in for something extraordinary on Friday when the Swiss and the Serbian take each other on. I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else but Paris right now.