Do you have powerful memories of the 2013 Roland Garros second semifinal between David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga? If you are a Ferrer fan, you do, but if you weren’t specifically focused on that match on that day at that time, you probably wouldn’t have carried a strong recollection of the contest.
Remember: This was a Roland Garros tournament in which Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic played in the semifinals, not the final. They were also selected to play first on Semifinal Friday in Paris, because French television wanted Tsonga to be the prime-time match. (This is little different from Wimbledon putting Andy Murray in the second Wimbledon men’s semifinal, or the U.S. Open putting Andy Roddick in the second men’s semifinal.)
That reality — Rafole playing first, not second (which they would have done at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open, but not in France due to Tsonga’s place on the semifinal order of play) — shaped that Friday.
More precisely, it shaped the atmosphere inside Court Philippe Chatrier, and important part of the proceedings in Paris.
Nadal and Djokovic went 9-7 in the fifth set, unfurling a 4-hour, 37-minute battle royale which captivated fans and also left them emotionally drained.
Ferrer and Tsonga had to wait a long time to take the court for the biggest clay-court match of their lives, easily their best chance to make an elusive Roland Garros final. Ferrer, as a Spaniard, reveres Roland Garros. Tsonga cherishes the tournament because it is France’s major championship. It is his home major. Nadal was waiting in the final on Sunday. The road to that final did not have to go through Rafa or Djokovic. It was a career opportunity.
Both men probably figured the stadium would be electric when their semifinal began, but because Rafa and Nole had the tennis world buzzing, and because spectators very understandably sought some food or drink and wanted a chance to decompress after 4:37 of tension-soaked tennis between two legends of the game, the second semifinal began in a much more muted atmosphere.
So no, I don’t have a powerful recollection of Tsonga-Ferrer 2013 at Roland Garros. Moreover, this was at a time when Tennis Channel did not cover the second semifinal live. NBC tape-delayed the second semifinal, so I had to scramble to find a lagging, choppy stream.
Whether you were an American who couldn’t watch the match live on TV, or a resident of another continent who focused on the Rafole semifinal which preceded it, Tsonga-Ferrer in the 2013 French Open semifinals probably didn’t leave a very deep imprint on the mind or the imagination.
In a weird way, isn’t that an appropriate backdrop for the most important match win of David Ferrer’s career?
A part of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga very likely thought the Chatrier crowd would carry him through tough moments and provide an adrenaline rush which would catapult his game to greater heights. This was a reasonable expectation. Yet, when the Rafole semifinal changed the vibe inside the stadium, Tsonga was flat.
David Ferrer was prepared.
While Tsonga stumbled out of the blocks, Ferrer was crisp and efficient, roaring to a 6-1 lead. Tsonga gathered himself in set two and put up the kind of fight the crowd and most observers expected from him in a moment of such profound magnitude. Ferrer knew that if he lost a tight second set, the dynamics of the competition could completely change.
In his five other major semifinals, Ferrer ran into the Big Four. This was his one chance to impose his court presence and fighting qualities on an opponent who — though more naturally gifted than Ferrer — was not as consistent or disciplined. Ferrer needed to trust that his steadiness and patience would pay off in a second-set tiebreaker. If he could walk through the fire in those pressure-packed moments, he would almost surely cruise in the third set and win the battle of wills.
That is exactly what Ferrer did.
He pocketed the second-set breaker and mowed down Tsonga in the third to win, 6-1, 7-6, 6-2.
The major final which eluded him, and the Roland Garros final which he coveted, had finally been chased down.
David Ferrer has done a lot of chasing in his career. While he never chased down a major title or the Big Four in any big-tournament semifinal or final — with the sole exception of Rafael Nadal in the 2013 Bercy Masters semifinals — he ran past nearly all of his contemporaries.
He exceeded nearly all of his contemporaries not with flash or sizzle or magical shotmaking, but with that often-elusive virtue called consistency.
Replicating actions is a central part of sports for any athlete. The jump shot is the ultimate repetitive act in basketball. A set piece kick is something international footballers practice all the time. Cricketers and baseball players both learn how to swing a bat by practicing time and time again. Tennis players have to learn to be able to hit thousands and thousands of serves, forehands, and backhands so that they won’t break down under pressure.
David Ferrer was ready to be consistent, ready to play his normal brand of tennis, on a day when he had to force Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to play at a high level.
Was this match richly memorable for tennis fans and pundits throughout the world? No… and in a certain sense, that’s just the way David Ferrer liked it.