Second seeds Henri Kontinen and John Peers defeated Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau 7-6(3) 7-6(6) on Tuesday in a nail-biting encounter that kept their hopes of progressing to the knockout stages of the ATP Finals alive.
With both pairs having suffered defeat in the opening round of “Group Eltingh/Haarhuis” last week, the stakes were high in this Tuesday afternoon clash at the O2.
Defending champions Kontinen and Peers, who recently lost the #1 spot after a disappointing quarterfinal exit in Paris, seemed riddled with nerves as Rojer and Tecau dominated the opening exchanges. After going down to 15 in the opening game, Peers managed to cling onto his serve, knifing a gutsy first serve down the middle at deuce which Tecau could only push into the bottom of the net.
While Tecau and Rojer looked energetic, hungry, Kontinen and Peers were tentative, apprehensive. A little too hesitant at the net, the pair frequently succumbed to the buoyant Rojer’s fine reflexes.
However, courtesy of a couple of crisp crosscourt return winners off Kontinen’s racket, Tecau’s serve suddenly looked vulnerable. A theatrical bass note reverberated around the arena, and the scoreboards were set alight with the words “Deuce Deciding Point.” Tecau duly dumped a second serve into the net.
The match remained on a knife edge, and the pressure on the second seeds soon crucially told at 5-4. Despite a delicate forehand volley winner, Peers was unable to recover a 0-40 deficit on his serve, Tecau crushing yet another forehand return onto the New Zealander’s toes.
Straightforward holds followed and, to the London crowd’s delight, the set moved into a tiebreak. Whereas the opening stages had been tight, cautious, the third seeds became inexplicably wasteful. Two Rojer double faults handed their opponents a 4-1 lead. After a set left sorely lacking in service quality – Kontinen and Peers making a meagre 52% of first serves, and their opponents 58 – the Fin was ruthless, sending a fierce second serve down the middle, before delivering the first ace of the match to set up five set points. Peers swiftly obliged, crunching a forehand volley down at Rojer’s feet to secure the tiebreak 7-3.
Kontinen and Peers’ nerves now quickly settled, and at 2-1 they broke Tecau’s serve, Kontinen floating a high return back only for the World #8 to dump his backhand volley into the net.
The third seeds looked increasingly listless. At 4-2, some sharp Tecau reactions set up a promising 0-30 lead. But it seemed destined to be a match of missed opportunities for the pair, both men slapping their returns into the net. The bounce in Rojer’s step was quickly fading; the pair’s returns, lacking the aggression of the first set, were now lithely cut out by their opponents. Kontinen and Peers raced into a 5-3 lead.
But this match was nothing if not unpredictable. A loose Peers double fault at 40-0 – only picked up by Rojer’s challenge – quickly turned into a full-blown escape job, Tecau sealing the break back in style with a blistering backhand return winner.
There heroics looked like they were going to be immediately undone, however, with Peers carving out another two match points. But Rojer held his nerve with two deep, penetrative first serves setting Tecau up for an overhead and forcing Kontinen into a backhand error.
The Fin, still nonchalant as ever, held to love, and some loose volleys from Tecau gifted another match point. But the bizarre role reversal continued, with the Romanian sending a fierce slice serve down the middle beyond Peers’ despairing reach.
However, the Dutchman would once again fail to hold his nerve in the tiebreak. With a tight first volley gifting a mini-break, Rojer then dumped another in the net on the stretch at 2-1. Kontinen and Peers, on the other hand, showing off their big match pedigree, delivered some superb netplay – the Fin with a fabulous double-handed improvisation to clinch a 5-3 lead.
Unbelievably, three more match points came and went before finally, at 7-6, with a net cord sending Rojer scrambling to cover, Peers fired a forehand half-volley cross court into the open space to clinch the match.
It wasn’t flashy tennis – far from the bright, Las Vegas lights of the Finals – but it was a thoroughly professional display. Kontinen and Peers hit less winners, more unforced errors, and won fewer points. It was a masterclass in winning ugly; when there’s 1500 points to defend, it’s certainly a results-based business. They will play Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut in their final group stage match, while Rojer and Tecau will go up against Ryan Harrison and Michael Venus.
LastWordOnTennis would like to thank O2 Sports, the sponsor of the O2 arena, for giving us the tremendous opportunity to attend several sessions of the ATP Finals.
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