KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – 6-3, 6-2? Oh, dear, sometimes the score does not do justice to a tennis match. Yes, Rafael Nadal defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga by this apparently decisive score line in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open on Wednesday but it reflects so little of what happened on court.
Nadal had to use every ounce of his energy, pace, power and his increasingly attack-minded tactical acumen to hold off the dynamic Frenchman who had beaten him in such sensational fashion in the semifinal of the Australian Open in 2008.
Both players came out of the locker room like greyhounds out of the trap. Time to get the feel of the court in the night air? Work your way into the match, perhaps? Bah! Who needs that stuff? These two heavyweights were up on the baseline and even into the net, pounding forehand and backhand winners from the moment the umpire said 'Play!".
And after 15 minutes of quite breathtaking tennis, the score was still only 1-1. Nadal eventually clung onto his opening service game but it took him 10 minutes and he needed to ward off three Tsonga break points. As the Mallorcan admitted afterward, there was big pressure on his serve because Tsonga went after his second delivery with no-holds-barred returns, cracking winners all over the court.
And there was no doubt that Tsonga was having the better of those early exchanges. He held his serve to love in both the third and fifth games while Nadal was under constant pressure. But consistency has never been Jo's strong point and suddenly he was in trouble at 3-3; netting a forehand on the run and then putting a bad backhand volley into the net on break point.
But that did not deter Tsonga, who unleashed a majestic backhand winner down the line in the next game and then set up another break point by forcing Nadal to err on a forehand. But Nadal, maintaining a pattern that has become a feature of their matches, wiped away the danger with an ace and eventually hung on for 5-3. By the end of the match Nadal would have saved all eight break points the Frenchman had against him, bringing the total in their last two encounters to 14.
How does he do it? "I don't know," Rafa shrugged with a broad grin. "You have to be a little lucky, no?"
Well a little lucky -- but a great fighter with plenty of self belief as well.
Tsonga's next break point came in the fifth game of the second but by then he was mixing the brilliant with the banal; thrilling the crowd with his wonderful athleticism and fluffing the kind of shots that no one can afford against Nadal.
In the end, the score started to mirror reality but it had taken a long time and there was no disguising Rafa's joy in the moment of victory as he punched the air and leapt across the court to acknowledge the thunderous applause.
"It was a very important victory for me," said Nadal who is working hard to adjust his largely defensive game to the demands of quicker hard courts. "Amazing going on court with this atmosphere. Full court. Crowd very emotional for me here. I'm very happy to play at this level against a very difficult opponent like Jo."
Nadal admitted that he would have to play his best against Andy Roddick in the semifinal, especially after the manner in which the American No. 1 dismissed Nadal's compatriot Nicolas Almagro 6-3, 6-3 with a devastating display of service power.
Earlier Kim Clijsters had ensured that the intriguing prospect of an all-Belgian semifinal between the two former world No. 1's on the comeback trail would come to pass by beating Australia's Samantha Stosur 6-3, 7-5. Prior to that Justine Henin had come through a tough duel with the new world No. 2, Caroline Wozniacki, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4.
Henin praised the young Dane's ability to keep changing the pace of her shots and then went on to pour oil onto the ruffled waters that have sometimes flowed between herself and Clijsters -- two contemporaries who come from opposite ends of the country -- Henin from the French side; Clijsters from the Flemish.
Henin was adamant in squashing any talk of bad blood between them. "When we were young we were quite close, traveling together," said Henin. "I have good memories of Kim. And then you arrive at the top and both want to win. But we never miss respect for each other. Never, ever, ever. Even if people talk about it, we never had any problems, Kim and I. Now we grew up a lot, actually. We are more mature than in the past."
Clijsters was also eager to stress her admiration of her rival. "I have always had a lot of respect for Justine," said Kim. "She has huge talent. I think I can learn a lot from her."
The pair played a terrific match against each other in the final of the Sony Ericsson WTA tour event in Brisbane back in January. "We had a great time in the Brisbane final," said Clijsters who won that encounter. "Now we'll just have to see who's better on the day. I know I'm going to have to raise my game if I am going to beat her."