Posted: Tue June 5, 2012 4:07PM; Updated: Tue June 5, 2012 4:54PM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>INSIDE TENNIS

Like champions, Djokovic, Federer rise to moment in five-set wins

Story Highlights

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer were both pushed to five sets at French Open

By different means, they dug deep to survive and will next face off in the semis

Federer ended Djokovic's 43-0 win streak in the French Open semis last year

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Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic fought off four match points to beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and reach the French Open semis.
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French Open 2012
Day 16
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PARIS -- "Tsonga-Tsonga-Tsonga" roared the crowd and then, inevitably, they broke into the wave, one of the few crazes from the 1980s still voguish in Paris. It was around 7:15 in the evening, the sky was spitting rain and France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga waited to return serve. Tsonga was deep in the fourth set, up 6-5 on Novak Djokovic who was -- all together now -- trying to become the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four major titles simultaneously.

Standing in the middle of a stadium filled with Parisians chanting his name, Tsonga tried the breathing ritual that is a new part of his training. Djokovic stood upright, inhaled and exhaled himself and then let fly.

In the women's draw, every underdog has its day. In men's tennis, this qualifies as a grand upset: The No. 5 seed... playing on home soil... taking out the No.1 seed... playing on perhaps his least favorite surface... would be momentous.

Yet, down match points four times, Djokovic simply played with conviction that all but screamed, "Somehow I'm going to win this thing." Good players -- even great players -- become average when down match point. Djokovic only gets better. We saw it at the U.S. Open last year. We saw it again Tuesday evening in Paris. On each of the four occasions, he aimed for the smallest of targets, hitting them every time. Even on the boldest attempts, shots landed on the lines, as if guided by GPS. If any of them misses by inches, Djokovic goes home. He did not.

"It's a matter of just a couple of points here and there that will decide winner," Djokovic said after the match. "That was the case. If he would win, he would deserve the win, no doubt. But, you know, that's sport. The one that mentally, I think, pushes more maybe in some moments, and obviously also gets a bit lucky, gets the win. You know, that's how it goes.

Tsonga didn't choke. Djokovic simply met the moment. He pulled out the fourth set. The fifth set was a mere formality, seven games between a man brimming with confidence and one with a broken spirit. After winning his 25th straight Grand Slam match, Djokovic continues his pursuit of The Novak Slam.

If the Tsonga-Djokovic match highlighted tennis' game-of-inches virtues, the other men's match on Tuesday exposed tennis' razor-thin margins in a different way. As Tsonga and Djokovic battled in the big house, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro battled at the opposite end of the complex. For two sets, Federer looked, well, like a man in his 30s having a rough day at the office. And he couldn't hide it. For the first time in memory he grunted audibly. At one point, someone in the crowd blurted out during a point. "Shut up!", Federer uncharacteristically yelled back.

Unlocking a forehand that should require a permit to possess, del Potro hit through, around, beyond and sometimes over Federer. The Argentine won the first set 6-3 and the next 7-6. "When you hit 30 years old, there are just more and more days when you can't get it done," ESPN announcer Chris Evert, very reasonably, explained to a group watching in the television compound. "Sometimes it's the body. Sometimes it's mental."

Then the script flipped. Federer began finding his shots. Confidence begot confidence. Just as important, del Potro's left knee, wrapped in a bandage the size of a sleeping bag since the first point, began acting up. Those infinitesimally margins? This applies to physical health too. A player performing at anything less than 100 percent is vulnerable. When del Potro's physical level slipped, his game plummeted. After offering 90 minutes of dominating tennis, del Potro all but vanished and Federer moved into semis, 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-0, 6-3. While del Potro gamely refused to blame the defeat on injury, his immobility was clear to anyone watching. That included Federer who praised his opponent: "He fought like a hero."

Before fully attributing Federer's victory to del Potro's drop, consider: We don't see Federer pulling up lame like this. We don't see him bandaged and calling for the trainer. Some of this, surely, is good genetics. But some of it is off-court preparation and professionalism. Seeing a fine player like del Potro wilt only underscores Federer's consistent health. This is his 31st Grand Slam semifinal -- including a streak of 23 straight -- maybe his most underrated record.

While Djokovic and Federer exalted after their victories today, their happiness in surviving should be tempered by this: The other man in their tier, Rafael Nadal, has barely been tested. Tennis might be a game of inches. For both Djokovic and Federer, they'll have to go up several levels to touch the defending champ.

Mail call

It seems to me the WTA unpredictability is not all that unpredictable. The women seem to play a much more go-for-broke style than the men. They hit the ball a lot flatter and also try to hit every ball at 95 percent of their capacity. The men play with much more spin and their average ball is usually a 75 percent shot. They usually go for the kill only after setting up a point. Given the style women play it's not that surprising that they can go completely off the boil much more frequently than the men.
-- Ananth Raghavan, San Francisco

• Lots of discussion here. Martina Navratilova told me her theory. "The men have irrational confidence. They're not as good as think they are. The women have an irrational lack of confidence and are better than they think they are."

I also think there's validity to the best-of-three, best-of-five probability 101 argument. (Look at Federer today!) The bigger the sample set, the more likely it is that the better player will win.

I don't have any particular investment in who gets selected for the U.S. Olympic team, nor do I find you to be excessively hating or loving anybody loving. But by what rubric are you evaluating Lisa Raymond (slam finals record 6-7) as a more accomplished doubles player than either Williams sister (slam finals record 12-0)? Total wins, service to Fed Cup and so on, sure - I'll grant you that it's certainly a legitimate debate. But stardom is hardly foremost among Serena's claims to mixed doubles entitlement here ...
-- Noah Baerman, Middletown, Conn.

• Look at mixed doubles, not regular doubles. But I see both sides here. Raymond is ranked No.1 in conventional doubles and has all sorts of trophies in mixed. But, yes, Serena is hardly a hack at doubles.

What do we make of Caroline Wozniacki's early exit? I thought she had a real chance at the French Open. Now I think she might never be a top player again.
-- Charles, N.Y.

• I just got asked virtually the same question by a Danish reporter. Was Wozniacki's French Open a success or a failure. My response:

"Sadly, I would say failure. I thought that her fall in the rankings might have been a disguised blessing and -- absent the pressure of being a top seed -- she could quietly maneuver her way through the draw. Obviously that didn't happen and she didn't even live up to her No. 9 spot. Also, Wozniacki is such a fun, lively, optimistic presence (especially when contrasted, frankly, with the current No.1) and her sunny disposition is part of her appeal. It was therefore a little disappointing to see her "did you go to school?" tantrum with the chair umpire -- this a few weeks after refusing to shake the umpire's hand in Miami. A small offense in the grand scheme of things. But one hopes her spirit/good-naturedness hasn't been affected by her fall in the rankings."

Love the podcast -- listen while washing dishes old-fashioned way. Have to know: Gimelstob's connection to I.U.?
-- Megan, Indianapolis

• His uncle, Jerry, was an assistant coach for Bob Knight in the 80s.

Thanks for recommending WTF with Marc Maron! Are there any other podcasts I should know about?
-- Brooke, Knoxville, TN

• Company man that I am, check out the SI Tennis podcast. Otherwise, check out The Moth, This American Life, Hang up and Listen.

Just read an amazing article in today's NY Times and viewed the related video about blind tennis and a program started by Sejal Vallabh, a 17-year-old high school junior in Newton, Ma., at the Perkins School for the Blind. I recommend you check it out and think it deserves a mention in the Bag.
-- Roger Jones, Waterbury Center, Vermont

You got it:

Shots, miscellany

• Nitin of Hyderabad, India: "Upsets? I still haven't gotten over Lori McNeil's beatdown of Steffi Graf in the first round of WImbledon 1994. I believe that was the first time a defending champ had been bounced from the first round of a slam."

• Elizabeth Fort, New York City, "Re: Probability: Listen to the Math Guy on NPR for a little insight. Every time that a coin is flipped, the odds are reset, and it is 50/50 once again. The next flip isn't added into the first flip (so it's not the chance within 2 flips). And if things are random, you get streaks within randomness. The Monty Hall tidbit is interesting too. Here's the story:"

• An update on Prince. Check out page 7 of the digital copy.

• Press releasin': "The Texas Children's Ticket Turnback program at the 2012 US Men's Clay Court Championship at River Oaks Country Club earned $20,570 for the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute.

• Jordan Duncan Greenwood, South Carolina: No tennis players here, but how are these for look alikes? Sebastian Nadal and Paul McCartney.

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