Shutting Them Up

Tuesday, June 05, 2012 /by

RfPARIS—There are exciting days in tennis, and then there are days like this, when you don’t know where to look. The French bamboozled us again by scheduling the two men’s quarterfinals—both of which looked like blockbusters—at exactly the same time. I spent much of the afternoon flicking my eyes from one screen to the next and back again. There was one moment when Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer faced crucial break points at the same time; their service motions were perfectly in sync. Later, Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga held simultaneous match points. What can a tennis fan do at a time like that?

I did get out to both courts long enough to feel the atmosphere of two dueling French audiences. One got what it wanted (even if it didn’t make the object of its obsession happy the whole time), and the other didn’t. After all of the chanting and booing and “Allez!”s, and the bittersweet cheers for their countryman as he hid under a towel, it was Federer and Djokovic who survived again to reach yet another Grand Slam semifinal. Here's what their wins felt like.

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The crowd inside Court Suzanne Lenglen isn’t cheering for a countryman. It’s cheering for an idol, a man referred to by at least one Parisian this week as “Jesus.” If anything, this makes the fans more obsessive and intense. A French player is a family member, someone you love and occasionally hate, someone you’ll support and defend at most times, but who you can also scold and jeer if they let you down. Federer isn’t family; nor is he like a favorite local French sports team. He’s something more here, something more distanced and inarguable. He's the Truth.

At the moment, late in the second set, the Truth is losing. Federer is trying everything against his hot-hitting opponent, Juan Martin del Potro. He's scrambling and stabbing balls back as only he can. Federer has roused himself from a sluggish start, and gone up a break in the second set, only to give it back. He's beaten del Potro on hard courts four times already this year by using his chip and his drop and getting the tall Argentine out of position along the baseline. Today, though, he’s mostly trying to belt with del Potro, to come over his backhand and push him off the baseline with his forehand. The match has the feel of the one they played in the 2009 U.S. Open final. As in that one, from up close you can get see how del Potro's knocking Federer onto his back foot. Before the match, the Argentine, who is nursing a bad knee, said that his strategy was to, “try to play an unbelievable match.” As the second set heads toward its conclusion, his plan is working. He has his own loud fan base here, and like him, they're holding their own.

It's the second point of the tiebreaker, and del Potro lasers a flat forehand crosscourt as hard as any ground stroke that’s been hit at this tournament. The points now have a desperate quality; each man knows that the longer the match goes, the better Federer’s chances are. Del Potro is, for lack of a more original phrase, hitting the cover off the ball, from both sides, in both directions. Federer is fighting for his life on defense; half of his shots appear to be blind stabs, but he wins rallies with them. Late in the tiebreaker, Federer does something that he rarely does: he grunts. Late in the tiebreaker, after he’s lost a point in which some noise was made on a close call midway, Federer does something even more surprising: He tells at least one member of the Lenglen crowd—a crowd that’s much closer to the players than the one in Chatrier—to “Shut up!”

Asked about the outburst later, Federer says he felt like he should have won the set earlier, and that he was frustrated to be “stuck in a breaker,” when “Juan Martin is playing well, hitting hard, and I’m on defense.”

“Obviously I was emotional,” Federer continues, a bit sheepishly. He has not only told someone in his most devoted audience to shut up, he’s done it in English.

“I was, you know, sometimes upset,” he concludes.

Federer loses the tiebreaker, but it’s del Potro who is somehow deflated. He immediately begins to slow down as the third set begins. He loses his first service game on a double fault, and hangs his head as if it’s him, rather than his opponent, who is down two sets. Del Potro will win just five more games, as Federer takes control of the rallies and mix up his serves. He wins the fourth set 6-0 in under half an hour.

Federer, relieved, is expansive in his analysis later. “I knew it was going to be tough,” he says. “I've still been struggling to find my rhythm. [I was] trying to figure out how to play a guy who returns from so far back on a slow court. Do you try to serve through him? Which I tried—didn’t work. Or do I try and move it around a little. And that worked a bit better, but it was really in the mix-up that I found success.”

As for del Potro’s drop off, it remains a mystery. Pressed on whether his knee affected him, he refuses to bite: “No,” is all he says. He chalks the loss up to his poor serving, and Federer’s improvement, yet del Potro took a painkiller at the end of the second set, and there were moments when he wasn’t running for routine shots. And while he was blitzed off the court in the fourth, he came back and competed in the fifth. An Argentine journalist who knows del Potro says this is one of the few times that he has no idea what happened to him.

Asked what he’s going to do next, del Potro says, “I’m going to rest.”

Asked about his upcoming semifinal with Djokovic, Federer speaks for both of them, and for us. “We’re looking forward to it,” he says. The truth, from the truth.

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In Chatrier, the crowd is both more formal and more festive today. For the first time in the tournament, the lower tier is a sea of fashionable hats and suits. Meanwhile, in the upper, there’s a near-constant agitation from one corner or another to do the Wave. Even the two groups' chants of “Tson-ga!” come at slightly different times, as if they're echoing each other. Yet all of the energy in the building is directed toward Jo, perhaps the most quintessentially brilliant and flawed French tennis player of all. The tension is hard to take. When the match reaches its most excruciating moments, an older man in the row in front of me takes off his beret and begins to bite it.

Tsonga reacts the way most French players react to the support here: He rides it at times, and lets it ride over him at others. Sometimes a long chant will produce an inspired winner, other times it leads to a duffed volley into the bottom of the net. After an indifferent first set—he appears to be out of position on roughly half of his shots—Tsonga has a 6-5 lead in the second. He’s taken the match from Djokovic, with a string of rifled backhands and lunging, improbable drop volley winners that the Serb can only applaud. There are enough great shots that Djokovic has to find new ways to show his appreciation. He begins by clapping his racquet strings, but soon moves to the thumbs up sign. Tsonga reaches set point and, like a quarterback, quiets the anxiously stirring crowd by holding up his racquet. When he breaks for the set a few minutes later, it seems that all 15,000 people—including the beret biter below me—shoot their arms out from their sides at once.

From that point on, it seems to be Tsonga’s match. Djokovic is laboring, in these cold and heavy conditions, to get the ball through the court. At important moments, he’s tentative and lacks the confidence you would expect from a No. 1 player, and the winner of the last three majors. In the final game of the third set, the bottom drops out. Djokovic rushes a backhand long, and another into the net. There’s nothing but uncertainty in his body language. On set point for Tsonga, Djokovic has chances to come forward, but he waits too long. He moves in only when he has no other choice, and is passed. He stands, as he has for much of the last two sets, and stares up at his player’s box. His mom and dad and coach and girlfriend can only stare back. Even his lone supporter in the top section, a man who dutifully stands up and waves a Serbian flag after every point Djokovic wins, is silent.

The same scenario seems destined to play out in the fourth set. Serving at 4-5, Djokovic begins with two errors. His parents clap slowly; they don’t communicate much confidence. At 15-30, Djokovic hits the tape, which takes the ball long. It’s double match point. As a roar goes up, people turn to each other and smile nervously—is this it? The photographers in the press section warn reporters not to stand up if the match ends. They need a shot of the celebration.

Djokovic, groaning with each shot like a man about to keel over, makes his way to the net. Tsonga has a look at a backhand pass, but Djokovic guesses right and angles a forehand volley away for a winner. On the next point, Djokovic hits a good first serve and puts a forehand away into the corner. He’s suddenly a different player, a man with no fear, with nothing left to lose. Djokovic holds with two service winners. There’s a sense of disbelief that the match is still going.

Afterward, Tsonga remembers his pass as his best chance. “I had one passing shot to finish it,” he says with a slight smile. “But he chose the good side. It’s like this. I mean, it’s tennis.”

Two games later, Djokovic again appears to be on his last legs. Two more match points for Tsonga come and go. The second one is the diciest for Djokovic. A ball skids off the center service line and throws off his timing, but he guides it over safely and wins the point with an overhead.

The worst for Jo is still to come, in the tiebreaker. He wins four straight points, including one with a broken string, and another with a brilliant flick backhand crosscourt, to go up 4-2. But instead of continuing to attack, Tsonga backs up and hopes that Djokovic will miss. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Djokovic over the last four majors, it’s that if he's up against a wall, he stops missing. It’s true again, as he comes back to win 8-6. Of particular note is the return of serve that he hits off a very good Tsonga delivery at 6-6; few other players in the world could have done it as well, and it draws a forehand error. This is, essentially, Djokovic's version of Federer’s “Shut up!” The crowd barely makes another peep, as a gutted Tsonga goes down 6-1 in the fifth.

What is it with Djokovic? His is not the traditional mental toughness, where every point is played with maximum persistence. His, like Serena Williams’ similar style of brinksmanship, is more of the daredevil variety; it’s an instinctive, rather than methodical, way of competing. Not surprisingly, Djokovic himself is at a loss to explain how he does it.

“There is really not a rational explanation,” he says quite rationally, “or a word that can describe what you’re supposed to do when you’re match points down. It’s…I guess…trying to be mentally tough and believing in your shots. I don’t want to be wise now and say, 'OK I know how to play when I’m match points down.' Because as I said, there is no explanation. I’m just going for the shots. I’m glad I was aggressive.”

Djokovic says that Tsonga also deserved. The French crowd, sometimes so cruel to its family members, agrees. As Jo sits hunched on the court, his towel over his head, they rise and chant his name. When he finally takes the towel away, there are tears in his eyes. He says he wishes he could have won for them.

In his press conference, Tsonga is subdued but lucid. It’s the toughest loss of his career, he tells us.

“You get all kinds of feelings going through your mind,” Tsonga says when he's asked how he felt during the fifth set. “You want to break your racquet. You want to shout. You want to cry. You want to laugh and say, ‘Oh come on, that’s a joke. How could I lose this match?' You want to wake up.”

It appears that he has woken up, and accepted the loss. At the end of the presser, Tsonga is asked to give “a few words in English for your fans in the U.K.”

“Now it’s time to have a cup of tea,” he says without missing a beat. The reporters laugh and Tsonga breaks into a grin.

Greatest victory and toughest defeat: It could have gone either way.

"One of us had to win," Djokovic says.

"It's tennis," Tsonga says.

There's no rational explanation for either.

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