On Friday, before the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters began, I wondered if we should pencil Jo-Wilfried Tsonga into the final. My logic centered on the scheduling—Tsonga, a semifinalist via walkover, would face either John Isner or David Ferrer, who played the last, late quarterfinal match of the day. In addition, Tsonga, champion in Bercy three years ago, would be the overwhelming crowd favorite and is obviously quite comfortable on the French indoor court.
Isner advanced, notable in its own right—he had never before scaled the heights of a Masters semifinal. He should have climbed even higher, having earned three match points today against Tsonga. But that milestone will have to wait. Tsonga, no stranger to escape acts this year—remember Wimbledon?—pulled off another, edging Isner, 3-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (3).
As you might have guessed, none of Isner's three match points came on his serve. Isner served perfectly today, saving all seven break points he faced. But oddly, his signature shot wasn't dominating. Tsonga hit two more aces and won a greater percentage of points on both first and second serves.
It all speaks to how well Isner played after the serve. Leading 6-5 in the third set but trailing 40-15, Isner didn't simply concede the game to start the tiebreaker. With his serve, it'd be tough to blame him. But no; the American showed, as he's done for two full years now, why he's a consistent Top 20 player. Sure, a Tsonga double fault helped set up the first Isner match point (a tame forehand return into net), but a running backhand winner—Isner's second of the penultimate game, leaving Tsonga in disbelief—helped earn him another.
American fans might see Isner's performance as the takeaway from this match, even in defeat. There's nothing wrong with that—just like there's nothing wrong with U.S. men's tennis right now. But the vocal French faithful in the stands will side with their man's gutsy play. He saved the second match point with a combination of forehands, and the third by eliciting an Isner error. When Isner lost the first point of the decisive tiebreaker, I suspected momentum may have shifted too much. It did—Isner wouldn't get level again.
Let's not forget two other Tsonga triumphs today: He rallied to win from a set down, and prevailed in another tiebreaker against one of the tour's best overtime players. It sets up a final with Federer, who won his semifinal in much easier fashion. Based on that, you might think Federer should cruise to his first Bercy title. But we know what can happen when you assume.