The most telling thing about the uncompetitive fifth set of today's quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Jo Wilfried Tsonga is that it hardly needed to be played, and both players knew it. That accurately—and cruelly—underscored the fact that despite being a five-setter, this match was truly decided in just one big set, the fourth.
Tsonga had four match points in that fourth set, and failed to convert any of them. Granted, all of those match points were against then-struggling Djokovic's service games at 4-5 and 5-6, but still; at the time, both men were playing tennis of extremely high quality, the best the match would produce. And when Tsonga failed to close the deal and subsequently let a tiebreaker slip through his hands, the match was clearly over. The final score read 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-1.
In fact, you could throw out the bookend sets. Djokovic dominated them, and it looked for a while like he would make short work of a tight, sluggish opponent who seemed paralyzed by the occasion. Djokovic led 6-1, 3-1 at one point, but Tsonga miraculously popped to life. He pulled level at 4-all and eradicated a break point to eke out a tight game for a 6-5 lead.
Serving to get into a tiebreaker, Djokovic fell behind 15-40, but he wiped away the first break point with a winning smash. Tsonga made a service return error, but made up for it by attacking a Djokovic second serve and ultimately forcing a passing shot error. That gave Tsonga another break point, and this time he smacked a cross-court forehand that was just too hot for Djokovic to handle. 7-5, Tsonga. Suddenly, it was a match.
Both men played some terrific tennis in the next two sets. Tsonga was broken early in the third, giving Djokovic a 2-1 lead. But any notion that the Frenchman was spent was erroneous. Although Dj0kovic bolted ahead 40-love in the next game, Tsonga roared back, reeling off five straight points for a break. In retrospect, this was Djokovic's low point. Under pressure in his quest to become the only living man other than Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles at once, he appeared to buckle exactly when he needed to keep his foot on Tsonga's neck and press down.
The men went at it hammer and tong for the next seven games. Tsonga produced a big hold at 5-5 thanks to a pair of groundstroke errors by Djokovic on critical break points. He forced a high-backhand smash error and hit a service winner to escape with the game, and made a big push that enabled him to break Djokovic for a 7-5 win for the second set in a row.
By then, Djokovic was gasping and, bouyed by the partisan crowd, Tsonga looked strong, fresh, and ready to notch one of the greatest wins a French player has produced on court Philippe Chatrier in decades. When Tsonga held the first game of the fourth set thanks to a Djokovic error, the top seed just shook his head and laughed. It seemed suspiciously like gallows humor.
Tsonga got into trouble in the fifth game, mainly because of his inability to stick more first serves. He found himself down 15-40, but got the first ball in twice to earn service winners. He went on to hold, and dismissed another break point when he served at 4-all and saved the game.
Down 4-5 (match game for Tsonga), Djokovic fell behind 15-40. That created match point No. 1 for Tsonga. It proved his best chance; in a quality rally, Djokovic cleaned the line twice before he put away a cross-court forehand volley to stay alive. He boldly hit a forehand winner on the next match point to get to deuce, after which he hit two service winners to hold.
Tsonga played a terrific next game, holding with authority. He reached match point again in the next game with a sharp cross-court forehand passing shot for 30-40, but during the next point he got caught out of position and drove a forehand into the net. A huge forehand blast produced Tsonga's fourth match point, but Djokovic dismissed it with a smash winner. After a Tsonga error, Djokovic maneuvered Tsonga out of position and reached the haven of the tiebreaker with an inside-out forehand winner.
Djokovic scored a mini-break to start the tiebreaker, but Tsonga would not go away. He fought back, and a Djokovic inside-out forehand error off Tsonga's service return gave the Frenchman a 4-2 lead. But Djokovic ran off the next four points to go up 6-4. He couldn't quite close it out, but another mini-break that gave Djokovic a 7-6 lead with serve to come was too much for Tsonga to overcome. Tsonga made a backhand error after a brief rally to send the match into that fifth, anti-climactic set. The less said about that one the better.
The big takeaways from this match are that Tsonga was able to match Djokovic's firepower in the most significant and decisive portions of the match. As well, Djokovic will certainly pay for taking his proverbial eye off the ball when he led by a set and a break. His heroics in the critical moments of the match were praiseworthy; his occassional lapses—particularly that one that allowed Tsonga to break back early in the third set—ominous.
Djokovic showed signs of tightness, probably due to the historic nature of what his win at Roland Garros would mean, in his last two matches. Warrior that he is, he can ill afford the loss of nerve or focus, because the most demanding test is yet to come.