French Open 2015: Tsonga bounces back over Berdych and pressure to set up Nishikori QF

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beats Tomas Berdych in four sets to reach the quarter-finals of the French Open

There was so little to choose between two of the big men of tennis that it seemed remarkable that current world No4 Tomas Berdych and former world No5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had never before played one another in a Grand Slam.

Both had more than a decade on the tour, Berdych had 10 titles to Tsonga’s 11, the former had reached 10 Major quarter-finals and the latter 12, and both had reached a Grand Slam final—though neither for several years.

But as Berdych headed to his 30th birthday, he was arguably in some of the best shape and form of his life. Already he was on a 35-9 run this year, had not fallen before the quarters in any tournament, advanced to the semis in no fewer than seven of them and the finals of three: Doha, Rotterdam and Monte Carlo.

And having not fallen outside the top 10 since he reached the Wimbledon final in 2010, Berdych played in Roland Garros at a new career-high of No4, and with an unbroken streak at Majors dating back to 2003.

Tsonga, on the other hand, had just turned 30, and found himself having to work his way back up the rankings after slipping—not for the first time—outside the top 10 after injury setbacks.

So less consistent, perhaps, but with such all-court flair that he has won Masters titles, in Paris and last year in Toronto, and has reached the final of the World Tour Finals as well as the Australian Open.

The extra factor here, of course, was the wind and the French crowd. Berdych has one of the highest ball tosses in the game, so the blustery wind was no great help.

And after such a frustrating start to the day—over two hours of rain delays—and the exit of their only women’s seed in the first match, the Philippe Chatrier court wanted nothing more than for this most popular of players, Tsonga, to make it to the quarter-finals—and possibly beyond.

For a country so rich in talent in the men’s game, it has been a frustration that there have never been more than two Frenchmen in the quarter-finals here in the Open Era. It’s 25 years, indeed, since just two reached that stage together, and since the French champions’ heyday of the 1940s, only one man has lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires: Yannick Noah in 1983.

Tsonga, along with compatriot Gael Monfils who would follow him onto court, were perhaps their greatest hopes of moving at least one of those milestones along. But pressure is a double-edged sword. The support of the crowd buoyed Tsonga through the opening two and a quarter hours, only to grip him like a vice as he served for the match.

Tsonga looked every inch the winner from the moment he broke in the fourth game of the first set, sat out a brief rain delay, and headed on to a 6-3 set in 46 minutes.

He looked even more comfortable in the second set, breaking in the opening game as Berdych struggled to find range and rhythm from the baseline. The Czech managed to hold after a fight in third game but Tsonga again broke him in the fifth and served out the set, 6-2, in a tidy 37 minutes.

The third set was close, with Berdych serving first and finding some better form to hold the edge all the way to 4-4. But all at once, the Frenchman had a break point and he grabbed it to leave himself the chance to serve out the match.

The two men sat like bookends, both gazing into the middle distance. Now was the test of nerves, and now the pressure got Tsonga in its grasp while the French crowd demanded victory with a huge Mexican wave.

A double fault put Tsonga 0-30 down, and a sequence of second serves put him at Berdych’s mercy. A final forehand long and it was 5-5, and another spate of rain could not deny a tie-break.

Even there, Tsonga took the lead, 3-0, but Berdych rose to the occasion, fired a backhand winner down the line for 6-4 and drew an error from the Frenchman to take the set, 7-6(5).

The momentum shift continued, and Berdcyh broke with a terrific drop-shot retrieval to lead 3-0 with the clock now heading toward 7pm. The chances of Monfils-Federer taking to the court looked increasingly slender, while their compatriots Stan Wawrinka and Gilles Simon were already into a second set on Lenglen court, after No5 seed Kei Nishikori had raced past Teymuraz Gabashvili, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, to reach his first French Open quarter-final, and the first by any Japanese man since 1933.

But the scenery suddenly took another unexpected turn with a break back by Tsonga in the sixth game, and an even more unexpected turn when he broke in the eighth for a 5-3 lead.

The Frenchman would have another chance to serve it out, and whether it was simply having no time to sit at a change of ends and think about the moment, we may never know, but this time he served to perfection: two aces, a winning serve and a powerful forehand to draw a last error from Berdych: 6-3.

So Tsonga reserved one French spot in the quarter-finals, and despite the lateness and coolness of the hour, Monfils would begin to try and do the same. But the result would not be decided for another day…

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