City of Lights? Tell that to Tsonga

June, 4, 2012
6/04/12
3:52
PM ET
PARIS -- There was a thousand-watt smile on the face of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga as he and Stanislas Wawrinka walked off the court to the darkness Sunday night, but it was deceiving. In a world of remote-controlled spider cameras and retractable roofs, an event being called because of darkness is the last anachronism of the 21st century.

In his first-round defeat of German Cedrik-Marcel Stebe, a postponement helped Tsonga, who struggled to find his game, that spark that so often sends him into a world of unconscious shot-making. Tsonga is a powder keg of a tennis player. When the trail catches, as it did last year at Wimbledon when Tsonga came from two sets down to stun Roger Federer (and break the titanium-strength streak of Federer's 178-0 record when leading a match by two sets), Tsonga just might be the most dangerous player on tour.

Against Stebe, the gunpowder was wet. Tsonga's flair had abandoned him and neither technique nor reputation could save him. Stebe, ranked 90th in the world, had taken the second set and relegated Tsonga's most animated moments to him talking to himself about how everything was going wrong.

Then it got dark. The match was postponed, and the next day a refreshed Tsonga played like the world No. 5, winning 12 of 15 games, making short work of Stebe 6-2, 6-1 over the final two sets. Against Wawrinka, Tsonga struggled as he does against the unspectacular, stubbornly professional. He was alternately passive and energetic, focused and lost strategically, winning the first two sets, losing the next two and seemingly headed for an upset.

Then, suddenly, the match caught in the fifth set. Although Federer escaped David Goffin and retired to prepare for the quarterfinals, and Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro had their match called, Tsonga was on Court Philippe Chatrier, in front of his partisans, powering forehands, feeding off the crowd surge. He broke Wawrinka to serve at 4-2 when the sun went down. He smiled broadly at Wawrinka and the two walked off the court.

On Monday, when Tsonga returned, he was hungry but inaccurate, losing his lead quickly, and it looked as though the overnight break that saved him against Stebe would cost him against Wawrinka. The night before, Novak Djokovic, who would play the winner of the postponed match, said Tsonga was "a home favorite, the crowd favorite. He has big support, obviously. I think he's a big-match player. He loves the big stage, the pressure and everything."

Tsonga righted himself and won the last two games and will play Djokovic on Tuesday but without the proper rest. Nor will del Potro, who led Berdych when darkness fell. He will play Federer in the quarterfinals, also without a full day of rest.

The old tennis grounds will soon be demolished, lights and a roof to be installed over the coming years and matches called to darkness will disappear, but for now Djokovic and Federer were able to rest fully while Tsonga and Del Potro were not.





Murray faced more than just Gasquet

Opposing a Frenchman on Chatrier is akin to Paul Pierce shooting clutch free throws at Staples Center. The territory is partisan, the veneer of tennis gentility erased by nationalism. Our guy is playing on our court.

Tsonga fed off the energy earlier Monday, and in the afternoon, Andy Murray would learn much about himself in the hostile coliseum as Richard Gasquet sliced through him in their first set. Gasquet defeated Murray in Rome and had led in two previous meetings before falling. There was no meter accounting for how much the impassioned cries for their man bolstered Gasquet, but with each chant of "Allez, Ree-shart!", he played with passion, snapping his one-handed backhand, dissecting the court with the deft touch of a fencer.

Gasquet is another of the top French players who has a build of an architect, not a tennis player, and certainly not of one of the hulks that have come to dominate the game. Like Gilles Simon, Gasquet dresses leisurely, a departure from the flashy sportswear that defines the mega-endorsed player.

Gasquet took out Murray in an eye blink of a first set, 6-1, and the delirious French took to doing the wave after the set. It was clear that the afternoon would provide a defining moment for Murray, the No. 4 player in the world but without a major. Tortured by being good enough to be great, he is grouped with Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal but isn't exactly certain he belongs in that club -- evidenced even more by the happenings on Lenglen, where Nadal was dropping a merciless 6-2, 6-0, 6-0 beat down on Juan Monaco. Now, with his show-me coach, Ivan Lendl, watching, wearing a towel over cold arms, resting his head on his left palm, Gasquet was embarrassing him.

Body language means more with Murray, for he plays tortured by errors, obsessed with the most temporary of failures, like a single point in a single game, regardless of the bigger picture. The big three were through. Nadal needed a bit more than 90 minutes to finish Monaco, and Murray was left. He responded by silencing the partisans and dousing the wave, limiting and exposing Gasquet with an efficient final three sets (6-4, 6-1, 6-2), suggesting once more, despite the barbs from Virginia Wade, that maybe, just maybe, he does belong.

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