Like champions, Djokovic, Federer rise to moment in five-set wins
Standing in the middle of a stadium filled with Parisians chanting his name, Tsonga tried the breathing ritual that is a new part of his training. Djokovic stood upright, inhaled and exhaled himself and then let fly.
In the women's draw, every underdog has its day. In men's tennis, this qualifies as a grand upset: The No. 5 seed... playing on home soil... taking out the No.1 seed... playing on perhaps his least favorite surface... would be momentous.
Yet, down match points four times, Djokovic simply played with conviction that all but screamed, "Somehow I'm going to win this thing." Good players -- even great players -- become average when down match point. Djokovic only gets better. We saw it at the U.S. Open last year. We saw it again Tuesday evening in Paris. On each of the four occasions, he aimed for the smallest of targets, hitting them every time. Even on the boldest attempts, shots landed on the lines, as if guided by GPS. If any of them misses by inches, Djokovic goes home. He did not.
"It's a matter of just a couple of points here and there that will decide winner," Djokovic said after the match. "That was the case. If he would win, he would deserve the win, no doubt. But, you know, that's sport. The one that mentally, I think, pushes more maybe in some moments, and obviously also gets a bit lucky, gets the win. You know, that's how it goes.
Tsonga didn't choke. Djokovic simply met the moment. He pulled out the fourth set. The fifth set was a mere formality, seven games between a man brimming with confidence and one with a broken spirit. After winning his 25th straight Grand Slam match, Djokovic continues his pursuit of The Novak Slam.
If the Tsonga-Djokovic match highlighted tennis' game-of-inches virtues, the other men's match on Tuesday exposed tennis' razor-thin margins in a different way. As Tsonga and Djokovic battled in the big house, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro battled at the opposite end of the complex. For two sets, Federer looked, well, like a man in his 30s having a rough day at the office. And he couldn't hide it. For the first time in memory he grunted audibly. At one point, someone in the crowd blurted out during a point. "Shut up!", Federer uncharacteristically yelled back.
Unlocking a forehand that should require a permit to possess, del Potro hit through, around, beyond and sometimes over Federer. The Argentine won the first set 6-3 and the next 7-6. "When you hit 30 years old, there are just more and more days when you can't get it done," ESPN announcer Chris Evert, very reasonably, explained to a group watching in the television compound. "Sometimes it's the body. Sometimes it's mental."
Then the script flipped. Federer began finding his shots. Confidence begot confidence. Just as important, del Potro's left knee, wrapped in a bandage the size of a sleeping bag since the first point, began acting up. Those infinitesimally margins? This applies to physical health too. A player performing at anything less than 100 percent is vulnerable. When del Potro's physical level slipped, his game plummeted. After offering 90 minutes of dominating tennis, del Potro all but vanished and Federer moved into semis, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-0, 6-3. While del Potro gamely refused to blame the defeat on injury, his immobility was clear to anyone watching. That included Federer who praised his opponent: "He fought like a hero."
Before fully attributing Federer's victory to del Potro's drop, consider: We don't see Federer pulling up lame like this. We don't see him bandaged and calling for the trainer. Some of this, surely, is good genetics. But some of it is off-court preparation and professionalism. Seeing a fine player like del Potro wilt only underscores Federer's consistent health. This is his 31st Grand Slam semifinal -- including a streak of 23 straight -- maybe his most underrated record.
While Djokovic and Federer exalted after their victories today, their happiness in surviving should be tempered by this: The other man in their tier, Rafael Nadal, has barely been tested. Tennis might be a game of inches. For both Djokovic and Federer, they'll have to go up several levels to touch the defending champ.
? Lots of discussion here. Martina Navratilova told me her theory. "The men have irrational confidence. They're not as good as think they are. The women have an irrational
I also think there's validity to the best-of-three, best-of-five probability 101 argument. (Look at Federer today!) The bigger the sample set, the more likely it is that the better player will win.
? Look at mixed doubles, not regular doubles. But I see both sides here. Raymond is ranked No.1 in conventional doubles and has all sorts of trophies in mixed. But, yes, Serena is hardly a hack at doubles.
? I just got asked virtually the same question by a Danish reporter. Was Wozniacki's French Open a success or a failure. My response:
"Sadly, I would say failure. I thought that her fall in the rankings might have been a disguised blessing and -- absent the pressure of being a top seed -- she could quietly maneuver her way through the draw. Obviously that didn't happen and she didn't even live up to her No. 9 spot. Also, Wozniacki is such a fun, lively, optimistic presence (especially when contrasted, frankly, with the current No.1) and her sunny disposition is part of her appeal. It was therefore a little disappointing to see her "did you go to school?" tantrum with the chair umpire -- this a few weeks after refusing to shake the umpire's hand in Miami. A small offense in the grand scheme of things. But one hopes her spirit/good-naturedness hasn't been affected by her fall in the rankings."
? His uncle, Jerry, was an assistant coach for Bob Knight in the 80s.
? Company man that I am, check out the SI Tennis podcast. Otherwise, check out The Moth, This American Life, Hang up and Listen.
? You got it:
? Nitin of Hyderabad, India: "Upsets? I still haven't gotten over Lori McNeil's beatdown of Steffi Graf in the first round of WImbledon 1994. I believe that was the first time a defending champ had been bounced from the first round of a slam."
? Elizabeth Fort, New York City, "Re: Probability: Listen to the Math Guy on NPR for a little insight. Every time that a coin is flipped, the odds are reset, and it is 50/50 once again. The next flip isn't added into the first flip (so it's not the chance within 2 flips). And if things are random, you get streaks within randomness. The Monty Hall tidbit is interesting too. Here's the story:"
? An update on Prince. Check out page 7 of the digital copy.
? Press releasin': "The Texas Children's Ticket Turnback program at the 2012 US Men's Clay Court Championship at River Oaks Country Club earned $20,570 for the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute.
? Jordan Duncan Greenwood, South Carolina: No tennis players here, but how are these for look alikes? Sebastian Nadal and Paul McCartney.