We got a jump on the clay season’s traditional opening day this weekend. There, spread out behind Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Ryan Harrison as they kicked off the U.S.-France quarterfinal tie on Friday afternoon, was the famous, crystalline view of the Mediterranean from the Monte Carlo Country Club. It’s officially springtime in tennis again, and it came a couple of weeks early in 2012.
For the first set, the play from both men lived up to the location. Tsonga and Harrison traded early nerves and early breaks, but settled in quickly after that. Tsonga, with more size and easy power than his opponent, was the aggressor. He used his forehand to move Harrison and never hesitated to finish points at the net—the Frenchman was 33 of 44 on the day from that position. But Harrison hung in with his own forehand and energetic scrappiness, which were just enough to compensate for a shaky second serve. Harrison put himself in jeopardy with four double faults in the first set, but didn’t pay a price.
Instead, as often happens, it was a little bit of luck that decided it. With Harrison serving at 5-6, 40-30, one point from a tiebreaker, a Tsonga passing shot caught the tape and popped upward; Harrison couldn’t handle it. Despite saving one set point with a perfectly measured drop volley—so perfectly measured that it brought an incredulous smile to Tsonga’s face—Harrison finally caved to his opponent’s attack. On his second set point, Tsonga worked his way forward with inside-out forehands and finished with a stiff-armed backhand volley winner.
Tsonga, in a pattern that held through the first three sets, was shaky again to start the second. But when he saved two break points with two forehand drop volley winners at 1-1, he was energized, and Harrison was temporarily deflated. In the next game, Harrison’s serving woes finally caught up with him. He committed his seventh and eighth double faults to be broken—and broke his racquet in half in response. Tsonga cruised through the second set 6-2.
Credit Harrison for shaking off the disappointment of the first and the anger of the second and finding his best tennis in the third. Again, Tsonga’s play dipped at the start of the set, but this time Harrison capitalized. After three games, Tsonga had made 10 unforced errors—he had 19 for the set—and Harrison was up 3-0, and pumped up again.
In the end, though, Tsonga had more weapons at his disposal. He served bigger—a huge service winner saved a break point at 3-1 in the second set—controlled the front of the court, and used his forehand to create more. Harrison had no answer for Tsonga's forehand drops shots and passes today. The key was the first game of the fourth set, when Tsonga, still nervy, survived a two-deuce service game and held with an emphatic overhead. In the next game, he broke with another smash. Harrison’s last chance came when he earned a break point at 0-2, but his forehand return sailed long.
Still, this was a credible, encouraging performance for the teenage Davis Cup rookie. Harrison showed that he could push back against a Top Tenner, and that his athleticism and determination should work for him on what will never be his best surface—the Louisiana kid didn't look at sea out there by the Med. Harrison made Jo get tight right until the end, and made him come up with some of his best some to seal it. Serving at 4-2, 40-30 in the fourth, still not out of the woods, Tsonga put together a masterful mix of all-court defense and offense to hold for 5-2. A few minutes later, France was up 1-0.