Commentary

How Novak Djokovic cheated death

Updated: June 5, 2012, 9:31 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

PARIS -- When it was time to win the match, Novak Djokovic needed just one chance, and it was over.

When he is closest to losing, Djokovic seems to remind himself that deep in his heart, he does not believe that he can be killed on a tennis court, cannot be beaten, will not yield the final point. Until the end, when he could no longer sustain the fight, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, weary and honorable, had played his best, most inspired tennis, even better than when he shocked Roger Federer at Wimbledon nearly a year ago. When the inevitable became mounting fact in a doomed fifth set, Tsonga said he thought to himself it was a "joke" that he was to lose this match, for he had done virtually everything required to win. The fans took the journey, shared his confidence and so desperately they wanted to erupt -- for themselves and for him, and it was a towering Djokovic, raising a fist high each time he had beaten elimination, who simply would not let them.

Four times Tsonga was a point from taking everything from the history-driven Djokovic -- his French Open title hopes and the honor of becoming the first player to hold all four Grand Slams since Rod Laver in 1969. Tsonga had the chance to become a first-time French Open semifinalist, to become the first Frenchman to win at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah in 1983.

Four times Djokovic staved off elimination, including an epic service game at 4-5, 15-40 when he faced double-match point but ended with him staring at his box, again unbroken.

"There really isn't any rational explanation or a word that can describe what you're supposed to do when you're match points down or when you're losing or very close to losing," Djokovic said, who has now won 26 consecutive Grand Slam matches. "It's trying to be mentally tough and believing in your shots. So, I don't want to be wise now and say, 'OK, I know how to play when I'm match points down,' because I said, there's no explanation."

[+] EnlargeJo-Wilfried Tsonga
Thomas Coex/AFP/GettyImagesJo-Wilfried Tsonga's fans reveled in his every winning move until the inevitable end.

Yet at the baseline, after ripping an uncontested backhand down the line on match point that gave him a pulsating 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1 victory, Djokovic roared majestically, a sound and image that has become commonplace now that he is a master at cheating death. He walked to his chair, thumping his heart with his right fist, a gesture that has lost virtually all of its power in sports -- baseball players do it after a worthless base hit in a 10-1 game -- but Djokovic, over the past year, and especially of this tournament, has returned its authenticity.

Tuesday at Roland Garros was an evening of incredible shot-making and power tennis, both on Court Philippe Chatrier and on Court Suzanne Lenglen, where Roger Federer was down two sets to Juan Martin del Potro. With Djokovic and Federer nearing defeat only to respond with rousing rebounds, the universe may have been better for the drama, but in the end, the best players won. Two of the big four are in the semifinals with Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray playing Wednesday. Both of the titans were pushed, and yes, the two will play each other Thursday in the semifinals, a rematch of last year, when Federer ended Djokovic's 43-match win streak.

Federer is the last man to silence Djokovic in a major and the one who indirectly created his air of invincibility. It was Federer who famously served to oust Djokovic from the U.S. Open in the deciding fifth set last year. Djokovic not only erased the first match point on a blistering crosscourt return that Federer or tennis fans will never forget, but once he evened matters, he also never allowed Federer to sniff victory again.

Tsonga did not lose the match as much as Djokovic refused to let him have it. Tsonga played tentatively and scared in the first set, losing 6-1 in about 30 minutes. Just when it appeared he would become a stick figure in the Djokovic drama, Tsonga seized the moment, becoming, as Djokovic called him days ago, a "big-match, big-stage player."

Down 2-0 in the second set, Tsonga fought and played with desperation and heart, powering serves and placing Djokovic on the defensive. The two played like heavyweights, trading crushing forehands that produced waves of breathlessness from the crowd and expectant gasps that nearly interfered with the punishing rallies. With Djokovic, the point never ends. His defense and return of serve again reminded anyone that there is still no better performer in the business.

Tsonga could not match Djokovic's technical precision, and his 61unforced errors ultimately cost him the match, yet he did not wilt. When Tsonga is distracted, playing down to his competition or lacking belief, he will initiate a change in the point with slices or drop shots. He will roll his backhand tentatively instead of launching into it with his 220-pound frame. Usually, such flights from concentration cost him. His drop shots are weak and artless, hanging at the service line to be put away.

Against Djokovic, however, Tsonga fought hard on both wings and proved once more that he has major material. He did not blink against the moment or against the formidable pressure from Djokovic.

Throughout the match, it became clear that Tsonga was playing inspired, championship-level tennis. The crowd at Chatrier grew more ambitious and emboldened, sensing that something special, something historic and personal was occurring, made even more thrilling when an ominous, steady rain threatened the saga. Tsonga was theirs, and he was going to carry them. They sang for him and hurt for him. When the match ended, fans waited for him, gave him a standing ovation as he sat with a towel over his head and Djokovic stood nearby.

On Sunday, Djokovic came back from two sets down to defeat Andreas Seppi, but Seppi is not a player of Tsonga's caliber. Djokovic's ability to summon the focus and execution as the pressure increases only adds to his formidable aura.

"Well, I'm disappointed," Tsonga said. "I'm disappointed, but now it's over. I can't play the match again, so I'm eliminated. It's a bit of a shame because I was pretty close. I'm not going to regret many things in that match. I gave everything I had. I fought as much as I could. Unfortunately, at the end I had no energy left in my legs. That's it. That's the way it is. It is the worst defeat of my career."

That is the way it is with Djokovic, who always seems to have one more shot than the other guy, one more step in his legs, one more beat in his heart, one more way to quiet the crowd. It is a champion's will; it is not an illusion or hyperbole. He is the proof. He is the one still standing.