If the officials at the French Open thought they were doing their countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a favor by letting him be the headliner today, they were highly mistaken. Instead of the crowd being revved up for his semifinal against David Ferrer, they were exhausted after four hours of epic tennis from the warm-up acts, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. And those were the people who had stayed in the stadium. Most of the spectators, in need of a break, had vacated the stands completely. Jo was left all alone with the man known as the Little Beast, David Ferrer.
In truth, there probably wasn’t much that any audience could have done to make the early going any better for Tsonga, who looked like he needed a nap himself after waiting out Rafa and Nole. Everything fell apart for him in the second game. Serving at 0-1 and holding game point, Tsonga watched as a Ferrer return of serve clipped the tape and fell over for a winner. Jo, miffed, was broken, broken again for 0-4, and almost broken again at 0-5. Leave it to Ferrer to sit and stew all that time in the locker room, and still come out on fire. He wasn’t just out-running Tsonga through the early going, he was out-hitting him as well. Sleepy Jo was a step slow to everything.
As the second set started, though, it looked like he had woken up. With the crowd in their seats and “Allez”ing him on, Tsonga broke serve at love in the second game and rifled a forehand winner to hold for 3-0. He went up 30-0 on his serve at 3-1, but that’s when trouble struck again. Ferrer brilliantly anticipated a pass and knocked it off for a volley winner. Two points later, Tsonga flipped a backhand long and was broken. Except that Jo didn’t think his backhand had been long. Rather than putting it behind him, he argued pointlessly with chair umpire James Keothavong on the changeover. Agitated, Tsonga disputed another call in the next game, expressed his annoyance at the shadows on the court, and double-faulted to be broken.
It wasn’t over for Tsonga just yet. He shrugged that bad patch of play off, broke back, and reached set point on Ferrer’s serve at 4-5. Now Jo had the crowd revved up. Too revved up, in the case of one man. Ferrer, who waits for no one and nothing, played through the audience noise; as he tossed the ball to serve, someone yelled. Tsonga missed the return long and gestured in the direction of the perpetrator—he wanted the crowd loud, but only at the right times.
That would be Tsonga’s last best hope. With the match in the balance, he played a surprisingly passive, lethargic, and error-strewn second-set tiebreaker. There was more where that came from in the third set, as Ferrer came back from 40-15 down to break in the final game for a 6-1, 7-6(3), 6-2 win. A despondent Tsonga, who had played with such calm and confidence in beating Roger Federer two days ago, shuffled off to scattered boos and whistles; he had committed 56 errors and hit just 21 winners. Perhaps the letdown shouldn’t have been unanticipated—Jo is the fifth straight player to beat Federer at a major and lose his next match.
It was a day of disappointment in Chatrier, but not for one man. The hard-working, long-suffering, rarely-complaining David Ferrer, 31, reached his first Grand Slam final after losing five semifinals. And he deserved it: He was the better, more energetic, more aggressive player from start to finish today; he thrives in the hostile atmosphere of Davis Cup, and he thrived again in Paris. Ferrer controlled points with his ground strokes and finished them with deft drops and volleys. The baseline-loving Ferru was 17 of 22 at the net this afternoon.
Ferrer’s reward? A 24th match against his countryman Rafael Nadal. We can wait a day to remind him that he’s 4-19 in the first 23. Let him enjoy the moment. The man known, against his will, as the Little Beast has waited—and run and scratched and fought—long enough for it.