As the chilly evening air swirled, and raindrops fell, and the thousands of spectators pulling for his opponent hushed, Novak Djokovic stood a single point from exiting the French Open.
A single point from losing to France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros.
A single point from losing the chance to pursue a fourth consecutive Grand Slam title, something no man has done in 43 years.
Steeling himself with so much at stake, Djokovic came through, taking that crucial point thanks to an overhead that skimmed off the baseline to set up a putaway volley. Seconds later, he faced the same predicament — one point from defeat — and came through again, this time with a leaping forehand that barely landed in. All told, Djokovic faced four match points against Tsonga and won each one, extending the contest until seizing control for good.
Djokovic won his 26th Grand Slam match in a row Tuesday, coming back and beating the fifth-seeded Tsonga 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-1 to set up a French Open rematch against 16-time major champion Roger Federer. A year ago in the semifinals at Roland Garros, Federer ended Djokovic’s 43-match winning streak, the last time the Serb lost at one of tennis’ four most important tournaments.
”Tennis is very mental. Lots of emotions,” said the No. 1-ranked Djokovic, who won Wimbledon last July, the U.S. Open last September, and the Australian Open in January. ”If you’re playing a top player, a home favorite, and you have a crowd that’s supporting him, you have to face these things. Physically, we’re all fit, all hitting the ball well. But mentally, it’s just a matter of a point here, a point there. That’s sport. The one that mentally pushes more in some moments — and gets a bit lucky — gets the win.”
Federer also fashioned a come-from-behind victory, and while he never was confronted with a match point, he did drop the first two sets before getting past No. 9 Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-0, 6-3.
After taking that big lead, del Potro — who upset Federer in the 2009 US Open final — appeared to be hampered increasingly by a left knee that was heavily wrapped in white tape, although he refused to place any blame there afterward.
”He called the trainer, but he didn’t take a timeout, so I didn’t know what they were talking about, if he got painkillers, or what happened. So I was just trying to focus on me, really, because I was in trouble. He wasn’t,” said Federer, who won his only French Open title in 2009.
”Maybe his knee was (a problem). I don’t know,” Federer continued. ”But doesn’t matter how bad that knee is. Maybe he can just sit on it and just say, ‘OK, here, take the two next sets … and then I’ll come back in the fifth set and I will destroy you.’ ”
The pivotal moment, then, was the fifth set’s opening game, a 10-minute test. Del Potro held a break point, but Federer dismissed it with a forehand winner, then held.
Del Potro called that his ”chance to win,” and deemed Federer’s response there ”huge.”
The pair of riveting five-set men’s quarterfinals were quite a feast for fans after the light fare of the women’s straight-set quarterfinals.
No. 21 Sara Errani of Italy entered Tuesday with an 0-28 record against top-10 opponents but reached her first Grand Slam semifinal by defeating No. 10 Angelique Kerber of Germany 6-3, 7-6 (2). Errani’s best results have come in doubles, and she’s also into the French Open semifinals of that event with Roberta Vinci.
Errani now faces US Open champion Sam Stosur, who is seeded sixth. Stosur eliminated No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia 6-4, 6-1, taking the last six games and 13 of 14 points in one stretch. Asked whether she’s surprised Errani made it this far, Stosur replied: ”No, not necessarily.”
The last quarterfinals are Wednesday: No. 2 Maria Sharapova vs. No. 23 Kaia Kanepi, No. 4 Petra Kvitova vs. 142nd-ranked qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova, No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 12 Nicolas Almagro, and No. 4 Andy Murray vs. No. 6 David Ferrer.
Nadal is trying to become the first man to win seven French Open championships.
Djokovic is chasing history, too: Only two men, Don Budge in 1938 and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, claimed four major trophies in succession. They did it within a calendar year. Djokovic’s feat wouldn’t be considered a true Grand Slam because it’s spread over two seasons, but it would be remarkable, nonetheless.
After Djokovic cruised through his first seven service games Tuesday, winning 29 of 36 points, Tsonga got back into the match by breaking twice late in the second set, including the last game, drawing a standing ovation at Court Philippe Chatrier.
”That’s when the momentum changed,” Djokovic said.
Fast-forward to the end of the third set, and again, Tsonga broke Djokovic in the final game, again earning a long, loud celebration in the stands.
But Djokovic wouldn’t go quietly.
About 10 minutes after erasing Tsonga’s first two match points at 5-4 in the fourth set, Djokovic dealt with two more at 6-5. He got some help on No. 3, when Tsonga dumped a forehand into the net. Djokovic slammed home an overhead near a line on No. 4. When he held serve to 6-all, Djokovic roared.
Tsonga missed a backhand to end the ensuing tiebreaker, sending them to a fifth set, and Djokovic strutted to the changeover, baring his teeth and shaking his right fist. When Djokovic’s backhand closed the match 4 hours, 9 minutes after it began, he reared back on his heels and pumped both arms, then pounded his chest.
”As a tennis player, this is what you live for,” he said. ”This is what you practice for all these years.”
Afterward, the crowd chanted Tsonga’s name, trying to lift the spirits of a player who hoped to give France its first male champion at a Grand Slam tournament since Yannick Noah in Paris in 1983. Tsonga sat on his green bench, a towel covering his head.
”I was tired. I was frustrated. I was disappointed,” said Tsonga, who lost to Djokovic in the 2008 Australian Open final. ”You want to break your racket. You want to shout. You want to cry. You want to laugh and say, `Oh, come on. That’s a joke. How could I lose this match?”’
Djokovic has a way of making foes wonder.
Next in his way is Federer. About three months after last year’s epic French Open semifinal, they met in the US Open semifinals, and Djokovic erased two match points that day en route to the championship.
So the question after Tuesday’s escape act was obvious: How does Djokovic manage to be at his best when the pressure is greatest?
”There is really not any rational explanation or a word that can describe what you’re supposed to do when you’re match points down or when you’re losing and you’re very close to lose the match,” Djokovic said. ”It’s, I guess, trying to be mentally tough and believing in your shots.”