June 06, 2012 | 05:21 AM
Before getting to the drama of how today unfolded with two great men's semi-finals played simultaneously on show courts, you might be curious why the Roland Garros schedules are as they are. To understand this, you might as well understand something about how Roland Garros seems to operate.
Is Roland Garros run by bureaucratic socialistes - like the rest of France today - or does the French Federation de Tennis simply care more about the paying fans and the players than they do about television broadcasters, sponsors and advertisers?
I'd say both are true, judging by the way they schedule the matches. Like Wimbledon, they don't have the luxury of night sessions to sell. Without a royal box to please in their main show court, they do what no other major would do: schedule marque matches (Fed v Del Potro, Joker v Tsonga in this case) opposite each other on the two main courts (Chatrier and Lenglen). This guarantees sell outs in both courts and gives almost twice as many ticket holders a treat. It also allows for the fact that one long 3 out of 5 set singles match and a women's singles match is usually more than enough tennis for anyone to watch in a day, and it allows working people to attend after a half day, as the matches don't begin until 2pm (only the finals start so late at Wimbledon). As for the players, the winners today have an equal two days of rest before their semis on Friday will be played, though both semis will be played on the larger show court, Chatrier. Although the other men's semi-finalists emerging from the two quarters tomorrow (Ferrer v Murray, Rafa v Almagro) will only get one day of rest, at least their time off is equal to each other, which is not always the case in other majors.
As a result, for the first time I can recall at a major, two huge contests reached dramatic double match points at the exact same moment (Fed led 5-3, 40-15 in the 5th, while Tsonga was up 40-15 with Joker serving at 5-6 in the 4th). This would not happen at any other major, but if it did, whoever was responsible for the scheduling would be fired. In France, it was probably seen as something special, like Venus crossing the path of the sun once in a century. In any event, no FFT official has gone to the guillotine yet.
For details on how the ticketing works for Roland Garros, look for my post after RG ends - it is too long and complicated a story to tell in the midst of the exciting tennis - it supports my view that RG is run by bureaucrats with at least some socialist sensibilities.
JOKER, who like FED seemed to have been dithering during his first four matches (losing the first two sets to Andreas Seppi in the last round), came out today playing tight tennis. Making but one error, he ran off with the first set 6-1 by allowing Tsonga to accumulate errors (12) and frustration while the Frenchman hit but a single winner. As the 2nd started, Joker was still besting him in every aspect of the game, and got quickly up a break 3-1.
Meanwhile, FED accumulated even more errors than break points in his first set with Del Potro, and lost it 6-3 in spite of De Potro not finding the range on easy FH opportunities while showing Fed the weaknesses the Swiss has exploited to beat him 11 of 13 times (the last 5 times without the loss of a set). Each player made more than twice as many errors as winners, but Fed got too few first serves in (48%) and ended up winning half as many first serve points as the Argentine.
In Fed's 2nd set, both men played better tennis, finding the range with their weapons and exchanging a single break, but Fed still put too few first serves in play and continued to give up more points when he did get them in play (Delpo lost only 8 points on first serves in the first two sets; Fed lost 14). Solid defense and nerves from Delpo gave Fed a couple of set points, but with Delpo playing his most commanding tennis, the set went to a breaker. After getting Delpo on the defense at 4-5 in the breaker, he'd been visibly angered by a fan line call that distracted him into making a needless forehand error that put him down double set point. Delpo served it out 7-4, going up 2 sets.
Tsonga improved and broke back to 4-4 in the 2nd, able to keep the initiative on serve with a combination of the kind of stunning shot-making and defense he'd shown in coming back from two sets down to beat Fed at Wimbledon last year. Jo never faced another break point in the set (Roger never earned one against him in the 3 sets he lost to Jo at Wimbledon), and pressured Joker at 5-6 on the Serb's serve. He was unable to convert his first two set points, but took the set 7-5 on a Joker error on the third opportunity.
Joker had reason to be frustrated as he had played the 2nd set at a high level - making half as many errors while hitting more winners than Tsonga and taking more points overall. But his frustration would only increase in the 3rd set when Jo outplayed or matched him in every category, putting him on the defense and eventually breaking him for to take the set 7-5 and lead 2-1.
Twice before Fed had come back from down two at RG, but never against someone as strong as Delpo. He started the 3rd with determination and fire, while Delpo needed a medical time-out for knee treatment and saw his first serve percentage fall. Taking over 60% of the points and facing only one break point, Fed won the 3rd 6-2 in barely 30 minutes, using his precise gound strokes to force Delpo to cover too much court.
As a result of the wear and tear, Delpo stopped moving in the 4th and allowed the result to be even worse (0-6), winning just 8 points total in a 23 minute set. The question was whether he could even go through the motions of playing a 5th set. To his credit, Delpo rallied a bit at the start of the 5th and held two break points in the first game, but the Federer Express kept moving forward.
A little over 30 minutes later, while Fed was holding double set point at 5-3, the 4th set seemed to have gotten away from Joker. The Serb had held 3 break points at 2-2, and been up 40-15 on Jo's serve at 4-4, but Jo's incredible defense had gotten inside Joker's head - he'd missed some routine opportunities to gain the lead from the net - and Jo's huge cuts at groundstrokes ended long exchanges in his favor when his balls found the corners, out of even Joker's reach. At 4-5, Joker made three costly errors to go down 15-40, double match point. It was precisely the moment when Fed held double match point in his 5th set.
By this time, television coverage was taking place on two channels. The TC had been flipping back and forth between the two matches, while ESPN2 had come on to cover Federer's match on tape delay but decided to go live with what might be the upset of the #1 seed. Only ESPN3 (online) kept with live coverage of the Federer match. It was a unique bi-focal drama, in my experience.
Fed finished Delpo on his second match point to resolve the tv problems. While he was being interviewed on court in french on ESPN3, Joker was playing his way out 4 match points on his serve the same way he'd played his way out of double match on Federer's serve at the Open last year: by playing his most aggressive tennis, seeming to swing as hard as he possibly could. As miraculous as his return of serve forehand winner against Fed was at 15-40, what he did and had to keep doing today against Jo was even more stunning:
- at 15-40, Joker attacked viciously, seeming to disregard the dimensions of the court, the laws of probability and the reality of nerves under pressure against a man who now seemed able to counter almost any initiative with his own: his 120 mph forehand skidded off the baseline; somehow, Jo returned it to force Joker to volley not once, but twice for the point.
- at 30-40, Joker put everything he had into a first serve which came back short; he followed it up with an untouchable cross court forehand of the variety he'd missed on set point in the 2nd set.
When Tsonga earned a 3rd match point at 5-5 in the set, a vicious exchange from both players seemed to give just enough of an opening for Tsonga's forehand down-the-line, but he netted it.
Two points later on a 4th match point, Joker attacked again, this time finishing with a gutsy overhead.
After two big serves, Joker had evened the set at 6-6 - but the suspense wasn't over. The men exchanged leads in the breaker to 6 - 6, with Tsonga coming back from down two set points this time. But that was all he had. Joker won the breaker 8-6, and 30 minutes later the match was his to book-end the match with another 6-1 set, a mirror image of the 1st. He'd broken on both his chances in the 5th, and Jo had failed to earn a break point, hitting but two winners.
Joker added to the distinction of winning his 26th Major match in a row and being 18-5 in 5 sets matches: by adding 4 hours and 10 minutes more to his total time on court at Roland Garros this year, with over 14 hours, Joker will be leading all other contenders remaining in the draw unless tomorrow's matches set new records (exceeding 6 or 7 hours in length). Fed's hours are up there, but two short of Joker: should the two play another 4 or 5 setter in their semis, it's impossible to think this won't have consequences on their ability to outlast Rafa in the final.
RAFA, who plays Almagro tomorrow, may be extended in a set or two as he was by his opponent here in 2010, but the way he's been playing, the odds of him losing a set are very slim (he's lost 19 games so far in 4 matches, and only two sets to Almagro in 7 encounters). Arguably, he needs some competition to be sharp for his final two matches. He is now 49-1 at Roland Garros.
While Murray finished looking sharp against Gasquet, who he's basically owned in the last 5 years, he starts at a disadvantage to Ferrer on clay: though he leads their H2H 5-4, he's lost all 3 on clay. Should he begin the match slowly, with his back in questionable condition, he'll be a distinct underdog.
Sam Stosur returned to the form that won her the Open with a spectacular win over Serena - polishing off Azarenka's nemesis, the #15 seed, 5'2" Cibulkova, 6-4, 6-1. Sam is 48-0 in majors after winning the 1st set.
In the other quarter a dark horse Italian, 21st seeded Sara Errani, a doubles specialist who is no higher than 4th in Italy, defeated favorite #10 Angelique Kerber 6-3, 7-6 (2) to notch her first ever win over a top 10 player (after 28 losses) and reach her first major semis. Sara was a surprise quarterfinalist in Australia this year, but had not before gone beyond the 2nd round in the French.
Stosur will be a heavy favorite to reach the final, where either Sharapova or Kvitova is likely to be her opponent. They are heavy favorites in their quarters tomorrow:
Maria v #23 Kanepi (who upset Wozniacki in 3 sets)
Kvitova v qualifier Shevdova (who upset Na Li in straight sets)