But the two protagonists had all the elements to make this a special event. The French fans were looking for a man to reach the French Open final for the first time since Henri Leconte in 1988 and, beyond that, the first French winner in 30 years—Yannick Noah in 1983.
Fans of the Spaniard were willing Ferrer to his first Grand Slam final from his sixth semi-final. Now 31 and playing his 42nd consecutive Major, his 11th straight French Open, this looked his best ever chance to break that personal barrier. He did not face one of the ‘big four’ for the first time.
The contrast of styles was compelling, too. Tsonga favours aggressive, all-court tennis, backed up by a power serve and forehand, and married to great touch off the ground and at the net. And since taking on new coach Roger Rasheed, he was also showing a new confidence and patience that took him past Roger Federer in the quarters.
Ferrer, though, has enjoyed a renaissance in the last couple of years, developing his game beyond the limitations of the baseline with a bigger serve and some net skills, and he had gone deeper in the Slams last year than ever before. He reached not only his first French Open semi last year but also his first Wimbledon quarter-final and second US Open semi—and then won his first Masters title on the indoor hard courts of Paris.
And with Nadal absent with injury, he became the top-ranked Spaniard for the first time in his career. Few begrudged his late succes: He has long been respected both on and off court for his work-ethic and his modesty:
“If I pull through, it’s going to be my first final in a Grand Slam, but that’s one match I have to play. It’s going to be a difficult match, a very interesting match. I do realise it’s not the first round of a small tournament. It’s a semi-final. But I’m not going to start dreaming and celebrate before it’s time.”
Yet most of those watching this match would be cheering on his opponent, and that was a burden Tsonga had to overcome:
“Everybody’s expecting a lot from me since the beginning of this tournament, not only this tournament, but every day, so I’m used to it.”
Perhaps it was the weight of expectation, or perhaps it was that he had already achieved what he called ‘a dream’ in beating friend Federer to reach his first French Open final. But right from outset, he could not reproduce the form that had brought him this far without dropping a set.
Ferrer hustled and bustled his way to a 3-0 lead with an early break in just 11 minutes. Tsonga’s serve, usually such a weapon and a platform to his aggressive tactical game, fired at only 50 percent and his forehand time and again flew long or found the net.
Ferrer faced a single break point in the fifth game but survived it and went on to serve out the set 6-1. Little wonder the atmosphere was so subdued: This Tsonga was not the man who had thrilled Paris three days before.
Tsonga came out more aggressively in the second set and broke in the second game to begin just as Ferrer had in the first, with a 3-0 lead. But the strong, fast Spaniard came back at him to break in the fifth, keeping Tsonga off balance on serve by stepping into the baseline to return the ball on the rise and with vicious top-spin penetration. So a 140mph serve from the Frenchman did not throw his opponent off and Ferrer broke again, only to concede the break straight back.
Despite the to-ing and fro-ing of serves, this phase produce the best and most competitive tennis of the match. Still only an hour old, they edged to 4-4, each saving break points, and throwing in deft drop shots. It became, briefly, entirely riveting and the French cheered every winning point from their man as they edged to a tie-break.
Ferrer, though, has never looks so confident in his game, so willing to attack and ghost into the net, even on his opponent’s serve. His winner count was smaller than Tsonga’s—the Ferrer way is to pound with depth, angle and variety to every part of the back court and jump on a short return to finish—but his error count was also impressively low. In this 13-game, 58-minute set, he made just 10 to Tsonga’s 25. Helped by four more French errors, Ferrer took the set comfortably, 7-3.
Tsonga began to look as though the world was against him—and several times some dubious line-calls did go against him. But the eager, energetic body language of his quarter-final was notably absent in the final set. Even at the net, Tsonga’s kingdom against most men, Ferrer as often as not outplayed him, and did so to break for a 3-1 lead. By the end of the match, he would have notched up 17 winners from 22 net plays.
Soon, then, it was 5-2 and Tsonga, even now, blew a 40-0 lead on serve with two errors off the ground and a double fault—his 56th unforced error of the match.
Ferrer slammed a backhand down the line, a la Nadal, for match point and another winner finished the job, 6-2.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Ferrer: He joyously threw himself on his back to celebrate a fresh milestone in his long and determined career, his first Grand Slam final, but most of the stadium was already heading for the exit.
And by the time Ferrer beamed through his on-court interview, the arena was barely half full, but his pleasure was in little doubt:
“To be in the final is a dream. I am very, very happy. I am not too tired, which is very important for a final against Rafael Nadal—I am sure I will fight a lot.”
Of that, there is no doubt—and he will need to. He takes a 4-19 match deficit against his compatriot into the final, his last win coming against a wounded Nadal at the Australian Open two years ago. His only clay-court win? Their very first match in 2004.
And yet the man who seems to get better, like wine, with every year, may take some confidence from forcing Nadal to three sets at their last two meetings, last month in Rome and Madrid. What he will not want to remember is their match at Roland Garros last year. Ferrer, on that day, won only five games.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas