Having never previously lost to Marcos Baghdatis, No.6 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gave the Philippe-Chatrier Court crowd a scare before turning the match around.
Tsonga gallops back to deny Baghdatis
If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try, try, try again. For a dangerously long while in the second round at Roland-Garros 2016 it seemed as if that was the lesson being dished out to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the unexpected hands of Marcos Baghdatis. Not once in six career encounters between these two had the Cypriot denied Tsonga more than a single set, never mind actually won. This time relentless use of the drop shot from Baghdatis had the No.6 seed looking at a two-set deficit. But by then Baghdatis was flagging, and Tsonga galloped back to win 6-7(6), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 for the 100th Grand Slam singles win of his career. He will face Ernests Gulbis in third round.
"I prefer it when it's easier," said Tsonga ruefully. "He just played perfectly, tactically in the first two, and he pushed me to give the best of myself - 68 drop shots. Over five sets that's a lot of running to the net, very tiring. It made me feel like I'm still good physically. It never felt simple. I was calm. I remained calm because the game is like that. In my head I was thinking, Oh, oh, that's really a bad start. But then also I thought I have to remain serene. If it's the best-of-five sets, it's physically tiring. I adapted to these dropshots, which means that the first 40 dropshots were quite smart, but the other ones were less smart."
Did this meeting of two former Australian Open runners-up ever really amount to an out-and-out crisis for Tsonga? Probably not. The first two sets frustrated him, but it evolved into a straightforward waiting game. This was the third time in his career that the Frenchman has returned from two sets down, but every omen was against 30-year-old Baghdatis. The former world No.8 was bidding to reach the last 32 here for the first time in six years, knowing that he had not beaten a top ten player at a Slam for nine very long years, and also that he had lost 12 of his last 13 matches against top ten opposition. Update: make that 13 of the last 14.
All the same, the first two sets were fascinating stuff. From the outset, it required no tennis smarts whatsoever to spot that the Cypriot's gameplan was to deploy the dropshot as often as possible. Early on it worked a treat, leaving Tsonga flat-footed time and again. But even after he got wise to it, Baghdatis continued the tactic, and while his success rate with it fell, he was repeatedly doing damage. The Frenchman levelled from an early break, and when he had set point in the tiebreak it seemed the match was set to play out simply. But he fluffed two successive forehands, and instead it was his opponent who got the job done.
Even before that first set was decided, it felt palpably certain that Tsonga would break early in the second, no matter who had won the first. So it proved at the earliest opportunity, and Tsonga celebrated by changing his shirt from plain black to the dazzling zebra design favoured by his kit supplier. Baghdatis, meanwhile, summoned the trainer for brief treatment to a cut on his left shin, accidentally inflicted by the sweep of his own racket.
By now the Cypriot's body language was permanently that of a man on the brink of exhaustion - but that was proven to be deceptive when he passed Tsonga at the net to break back, and then thoroughly outwitted him at the net for another breach. He not only served out to love, but secured the set with an ace, to leave Tsonga frowning and the Chatrier crowd baffled.
Yet in fact the show was all but over. Too many mistakes entered Baghdatis' game, and in textbook style Tsonga played the big points well. A chance for a Cypriot break came and went at the start of the fourth, and once again Baghdatis was all about the drop shot, undeterred by the increasingly fruitless results. Loose play delivered the break, and by the time they were into the decider, Tsonga was striding purposefully about the court as if to suggest that a five-setter had been part of his cunning plan from the outset.