PARIS (AP) — Sometimes, when everything's on the line, it's easier to play like there's nothing to lose.
Novak Djokovic knows that drill.
Four times on a gray, drippy Tuesday at Roland Garros, Djokovic got ready to serve on the red clay and listened to the French fans cheer against him, knowing they were one point away from watching their beloved countryman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, take down the top player in tennis.
On all four of those match points, Djokovic summoned something — not simply a great shot but the fortitude to hit it — to keep himself in the match.
A tightrope walker if ever there were one, the top-seeded Djokovic stole away with a 6-1, 5-7, 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-1 victory. His hopes for the "Novak Slam" are intact.
He also got his refresher course on how precarious these things can be.
"I mean, if he would win, he would deserve the win, no doubt," Djokovic said. "But that's sport. The one that mentally pushes more in some moments and obviously gets a bit lucky, gets the win. That's how it goes."
Djokovic will play No. 3 Roger Federer in the semifinals, a rematch from last year, which also marks the last time Djokovic lost a Grand Slam match.
On Tuesday, Federer overcame a two-set deficit for the seventh time in his career, rallying for a 3-6, 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-0, 6-3 win over No. 9 Juan Martin del Potro.
"You just try to push further and it's not easy," Federer said of the art of his comeback.
Eight months ago, Federer was on the cusp of knocking Djokovic out of another tournament — the U.S. Open — serving with two match points and the crowd cheering him on.
Back then, Djokovic clenched his jaw and gave the smallest of smiles. Then, he unleashed on a wide serve of Federer's for a clean winner. Saved the next point, as well, and a few days later, ended up a U.S. Open champion — joining five players, including Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras and Martina Navratilova, as the only ones to win America's championship after facing match point at some point during the two weeks.
Asked to explain it back then, Djokovic said: "In big matches, the winner is decided by small margins, a couple points. I guess the winner is the one who believes in victory more."
His reasoning wasn't all that different this time around.
"There is not really any rational explanation or word that can describe what you're supposed to do when you're match points down or you're very close to lose the match," Djokovic said. "I guess it's trying to be mentally tough and believing in your shots."
Earlier in the day, the women's matches were routine compared to what the men did.
No. 6 Samantha Stosur defeated No. 15 Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-1 and No. 21 Sara Errani made her first Grand Slam semifinal with a 6-3, 7-6 (2) victory over 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber. Asked whether she's surprised Errani made it this far, Stosur replied: "No, not necessarily."
On Wednesday, the rest of the quarterfinals take place: No. 2 Maria Sharapova vs. No. 23 Kaia Kanepi, No. 4 Petra Kvitova vs. 142nd-ranked qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova, No. 4 Andy Murray vs. No. 6 David Ferrer and No. 2 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 12 Nicolas Almagro.
On paper, Nadal still looks like the man to beat — a six-time winner at Roland Garros who has dropped only 19 games to his first four opponents, while Federer and Djokovic have played a combined 19 sets between them over their last two matches.
Of course, on paper, Djokovic was all but done on Tuesday. But twice while serving down 5-4, then twice again while serving down 6-5, he made the shots to save the match. The fifth set was academic and the thousands of fans who had been yelling "Tsonga, Tsonga, Tsonga," quietly filed out before the match was over.
When Djokovic converted his only match point — a backhand winner down the line past his exhausted opponent — he let out a guttural scream, bent backward and shook his fists over and over.
Tsonga slumped in his chair and draped a towel over his head.
"You want to break your racket. You want to shout. You want to cry," he said. "You want to laugh and say, 'Oh, come on, that's a joke. How could I lose this match?'"
But yes, that just happened.
"I don't want to be wise now and say, 'OK, I know how to play when I'm match points down,'" Djokovic said. "Because as I said, there is no explanation. I'm just going for the shots."