The baying and cheering of the French crowds on Court Phillipe Chatrier were only just enough to carry their Frenchman through a dramatic late-night match at Roland Garros.
Had Josselin Ouanna been playing the familiar Marat Safin of recent months, they would have expected their man to win the final set with relative ease.
But today, they were treated to a Safin who had no intention of going out with a whimper. He was here to make a bang.
Safin has shown great fragility at key points on many occasions in his long tennis career. Having conceded a two set lead, and a break in the decider, it was odds-on that the volcanic Russian would eventually erupt and fire his shots wide of the lines.
Today, he did not.
Challenged here in a four and half hour match by French qualifier Josselin Ouanna— ranked 134rd in the world—Safin might have let rip with the racket and his temper in frustration.
Today, he did not.
What Safin and Ouanna did produce was a fifth set of such extraordinary quality and competitive spirit that it should be played to teenagers coming up through the ranks.
For Ouanna, it was only his second tour level win on clay, and he showed extraordinary maturity and confidence to pull back one of the finest and most charismatic tennis players of the last decade.
Game after game edged them to 9-8, and Safin served yet again to stay in the match.
He did not put a foot wrong, but his relatively unknown opponent played the shot of his life time after time, as though in a Groundhog Day replay. And the crowd was simply never going to allow Ouanna off the court as the loser.
Safin could have done no more. He appeared as fast and alert at the end the match as at the beginning, and he ran the court to a powder in retrieving Ouanna's stunning shots. Yet he was eventually beaten, no doubt believing that the gods of tennis had condemned him to some netherworld.
There are few occasions when the platitude “this is what tennis is about” is actually fitting. This was one of those occasions.
Today, Safin showed the tennis and the courage that, on a different day, and in a different tournament, might have carried him to a glorious conclusion.
It will be doubly tragic, then, if such a fine match of tennis marks the last French Open he plays.
Tragic, first, that he lost so early and to a qualifier. Tragic, second, that he lost when playing some of his best, most consistently focused tennis, despite the pressurised atmosphere, the late hour, and an opponent who challenged his character to the limits.
It will remind everyone on the tour that, should he finally retire this year, he will be sorely missed.
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