PARIS — Four times, the stands at Roland Garros were ready to erupt, a beloved Frenchman standing one point from beating the world’s top player and ending his quest for history.
Four times, Novak Djokovic had an answer for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
And so, instead of Tsonga Time at the French Open, Djokovic is still on the road to the “Novak Slam.”
Top-seeded Djokovic overcame four match points, to say nothing of the wildly partisan crowd, for a 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-1 victory over Tsonga that ended near twilight Tuesday in front of drizzle-soaked stands that had quickly emptied after the match points vanished and the final set had become academic.
“There is not really any rational explanation or word that can describe what you’re supposed to do when you’re match points down or you’re very close to losing the match,” Djokovic said. “I guess it’s trying to be mentally tough and believing in your shots.”
Djokovic did and got the win — his 26th straight in the majors.
After he converted his first match point — a backhand winner down the line — Djokovic leaned back and pumped his fists over and over. Tsonga, the No. 5 seed who had dreams of becoming the first Frenchman to win his country’s Grand Slam since Yannick Noah in 1983, sat with his head buried in a towel, while the few fans left chanted his name.
It was the end to a remarkable day of tennis that included third-seeded Roger Federer’s comeback from two sets down for a 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-0, 6-3 win over No. 9 seed Juan Martin del Potro. It marked Federer’s seventh career rally from down two sets to love. After both the winners rest their legs, they’ll meet with a spot in the final on the line.
“Well, I’m very disappointed for Jo,” Federer said. “I would have loved to play him here in Paris. I have a feeling that the crowd would have loved to see such a match. For him, it’s a disappointment. As for me, it’s nothing different as from last year. I’m playing Djokovic in the semifinal.”
Djokovic’s last Grand Slam loss came against Federer in that semifinal last year — a defeat that ended the Serb’s 43-match winning streak.
If Federer does it again, he’ll set the stage for his 17th Grand Slam tournament title, but his first since the 2010 Australian Open.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will try to set up a chance to join Rod Laver and Don Budge as the only men to hold all four Grand Slam titles at the same time.
“The good thing is that we both have two days off now to rest,” Djokovic said. “And I hope to have another great match like we did in 2011. It’s always a big challenge to play Roger. He’s a fantastic player, a big champion.”
By saving all those match points, Djokovic may have reminded tennis fans of the stunt he pulled at the U.S. Open last year. Federer held two match points in the semifinal of that one. Djokovic turned hard on Federer’s wide serve on the first one for a clean winner, then on the second, fought off a serve into his body to win the point. He then rolled off four straight games to set up a meeting in the final against Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic was just as aggressive with his back against the wall this time, never more than on the first match point, where he went for it on an overhead that skimmed the baseline, then moved in to put away an easy volley. He saved another one while serving down 5-4, then two more while serving from behind at 6-5. By the time he had closed out the fourth-set tiebreaker, the French fans had an idea of where things were going next.
They started vacating and Djokovic needed only 32 minutes to win the fifth set and close out a match that took 4 hours, 9 minutes.
“This level tennis is very mental. Lots of emotions,” Djokovic said. “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.”
Of course, if Federer had any major U.S. Open flashbacks on this day, it might have been to the 2009 final, when he was on top of the tennis world and del Potro met him in the final as a heavy underdog. The Argentine won that match and remains the only person other than Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to take a Grand Slam title between the 2005 Australian and today.
Federer improved to 7-0 in the head-to-head since then, but this was the first meeting at the French Open, where the clay courts were made even slower by damp, humid weather and occasional spits of rain.
That turned the first two sets into a time-consuming grind, and with del Potro playing with a heavily taped left knee, Federer figured time was on his side.
“I was happy that the first two sets took some time, because I did favor myself once the match got longer,” Federer said. “That’s kind of how it came.”
Things, indeed, changed dramatically and quickly. The third and fourth sets took a total of 55 minutes — only four fewer than the second set alone. Federer got a break right away in the fifth set, then served it out.
Earlier in the day, in the women’s quarterfinals, No. 6 Samantha Stosur defeated No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-1 and No. 21 Sara Errani made her first Grand Slam semifinal with a 6-3, 7-6 (2) victory over 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber.