If you simply looked at the results, you might imagine it was business as normal in Paris on Tuesday. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer advanced to the semi-final of the French Open, just as they do in almost every Grand Slam tournament.
You had to be here to realise what a mind-boggling, soul-stirring day this was at Roland Garros. The men’s quarter-finals produced two of the most bewitching displays in the history of this great tournament. And the quirkiness of the scheduling meant that they were running simultaneously,
so that spectators at one match could track the progress of the other by the roars drifting across the grounds.
In pure tennis terms, Djokovic’s 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the greater feat, both because Djokovic saved four match points and because the quality of the ball-striking in the fourth-set tie-break was so pure.
Staged in the drizzle on Court Philippe Chatrier, this was also the main attraction for the home fans, because Tsonga was their last remaining hope for a French winner. They saw him deliver the best performance he has ever produced at a major tournament, a powerhouse display that moved Djokovic to applaud him off the court.
After a slow start, Tsonga turned the match around by rumbling into the net at every opportunity, as if this were not the French Open but a Wimbledon tournament from the late 1980s. It was an unexpected tactic, but it worked, and when Tsonga had the force with him towards the end of the fourth set, it looked as if he might torpedo his own pre-tournament prediction that “No Frenchman will win Roland Garros this year.”
But Djokovic’s greatest quality is his iron jaw. He absorbed everything that his opponent threw at him, and eventually wore Big Jo down with a combination of stoicism and rigid defence.
When the last point was won, Djokovic responded with one of his star-shaped, fist-pumping celebrations – the sort of intense release you only normally see when the tournament has been decided. This win must have meant even more because it kept the dream of the “Novak Slam” alive.
After dragging himself off court, Tsonga admitted that it was the toughest defeat he had ever had to swallow. “You want to break your racquet,” he said. “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 sort of want to wake up.”
But Tsonga was not the only man battling his emotions at Roland Garros yesterday. On the other side of this chic little triangle of Paris, Federer was locked in a battle of wills with Juan Martin del Potro, the sky-scraping Argentine who beat him in the final of the 2009 US Open. This was their fifth meeting so far this season. In the previous four, Federer had made del Potro look like a lumbering buffalo by taking the ball early and exposing his ponderous movement. But clay courts give a player more time to set themselves up for a piledriver. And del Potro is a master at that: he stays so low on his double-fisted backhand, driving his mighty biceps through the ball, that you would hardly believe that he is 6ft 6in tall.
As Federer slipped inexorably towards a two-set deficit, the great man became unusually fractious. The mask of serenity slipped as he muttered to himself in French, slammed a loose ball away with a forehand that nearly cleaned up a ball-kid, and finally yelled at the crowd to “Shut up!” after they had emitted an involuntary groan, under the mistaken impression that one of his delicate forehand slices was about to float long.
“Obviously I was emotional and I was sometimes upset,” Federer explained afterwards. “I was trying to push myself on, to try harder and to move faster, because I knew all those things could be crucial to the match.”
Perhaps those primal roars did release something in Federer, because he scored an early break in the third set, and started to take charge of the match. Equally important, though, was the state of del Potro’s heavily bandaged knee. The injury has bothered him all tournament, and his footwork
became even heavier than usual as he lurched to a 3-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-0, 6-3 defeat.
The women’s quarter-finals were rather outclassed in terms of quality, but Sam Stosur of Australia and Sara Errani of Italy both won in straight sets and will contest the first semi-final tomorrow.