MELBOURNE Jan 18 (Reuters) - France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga raced into the last 16 of the Australian Open with a 7-6 (7-5) 6-4 6-2 victory over Gilles Simon on Saturday, bringing an end to his compatriot's remarkable run at Melbourne Park.
While a string of players dropped out early in the first week with niggling injuries in the sweltering conditions, the whippet-thin Simon earned the right to call himself one of the toughest men in tennis.
The 29-year-old badly twisted his right ankle at the Kooyong Classic exhibition tournament in the week before the year's first grand slam began and was hobbling around on crutches last weekend.
Given his game is built around his ability to scurry around the court to chase down the ball, Simon was seriously considering withdrawing from the tournament ahead of his first round clash with Germany's Daniel Brands.
In "really bad condition", he said he had been "at the limit" as to whether he could go on court but somehow overcame the pain in his ankle and temperatures exceeding 40 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit) to beat Brands in an epic five-set encounter.
The 18th seed had to come back from a two sets to one deficit, saved seven match points and finally beat Brands 16-14 in the fifth after more than four-and-a-half hours on court.
Simon's recovery was tested even further on Thursday when he was taken to another four hour, five-setter by Croatia's Marin Cilic in sweltering conditions to set up his clash with Tsonga.
Given his condition, Simon knew he had to go for broke against the sometimes slow-starting 10th seed but when Tsonga edged the first set tiebreak 7-5 the writing was on the wall.
Simon is never one to give up but Tsonga upped his game when necessary and sealed the victory when he whipped a forehand winner across the court from the tramlines after one hour and 53 minutes.
"It's always difficult when you play a friend, I've known him since we were nine or 10," said Tsonga, a 2008 finalist at Melbourne Park, who next meets sixth seed Roger Federer.
"It's like we create a little war." (Additional writing by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by John O'Brien)