Parisian fans were rhythmically clapping and chanting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's name while the finish line was flickering before him in the third-set tiebreaker today.
Tuning out the crowd, Kei Nishikori caught Tsonga in a runaround, then calmly pulled the plug on the Frenchman's quest to qualify for the ATP World Tour Finals in the process. Blown out in the opening set, Nishikori denied two match points in the decider, surprised Tsonga with a second-serve ace to earn a match point of his own, then closed a dramatic 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (7) victory when his weary opponent shanked his eighth double fault of the evening.
It was a match of wild moment shifts and electric shotmaking. Tsonga, who needed reach the round of 16 to sustain his shot of qualifying for London, was achingly close to setting up a clash with French No. 1 Richard Gasquet, who won earlier. But Nishikori, who was overwhelmed in the opening set, was almost untouchable on serve in the final set in subduing a fatigued and increasingly creaky opponent.
The 2008 Paris champion scored his first career win over Nishikori in Shanghai earlier this month and broke in two of his first three return games to build a 5-1 lead. Playing with command, Tsonga showed the entire shot spectrum, punishing his inside-out forehand, angling off slick drop volleys, and even lofting a rainbow lob winner. Tsonga won 18 of the last 23 points, closing with an ace out wide to roll through the opener in 25 minutes.
Unfazed, Nishikori, who is so light on his feet he sounds like a shadow when he moves, inflicted damage driving the ball down the lines to hold at love for a 2-1 second-set lead. Tsonga lost his range, dragging a forehand wide and dumping a pair of double faults to donate serve at love. Nishikori backed up the break for a 4-1 lead, winning eight of 10 points by tormenting Tsonga's backhand.
But Tsonga would not go down easily. He withstood a barrage of inside-out forehands to his weaker backhand wing, and when he finally got a look at a forehand, he blasted it up the line for triple break point, eventually breaking back for 3-4. Tsonga rallied enough to force a tiebreaker, where he led 3-2, but bumped a backhand volley into the tape to lose the mini break while in a winning position at net.
Nishikori has shrewd court sense, can change direction of his shots sharply, and often baited Tsonga into trying to hit his erratic two-hander down the line. Three straight errors from the Frenchman, including two from that shaky backhand side, gave Nishikori set point, and he leveled the match when Tsonga jerked a backhand wide.
Tugging at his shirt sleeves, the slight Nishikori, who is listed 50 pounds lighter than Tsonga, took treatment for his left leg before the third set began, but midway through the decider Tsonga's movement was much more labored. Nishikori held at love in five of his six service games in the final set; the only two points he lost on serve before the tiebreaker came on double faults.
Still, the match was on Tsonga's racquet when he unloaded a massive inside-out forehand for his first match point at 6-5, only to wince and clutch his leg after dumping a double fault into net. Staring down a second match point, Nishikori caught Tsonga running around his backhand with a second-serve ace down the middle for 7-all. Another ace down the middle brought Nishikori to his own match point, and when Tsonga clanked another double, the duel was over and so was Jo's season.