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Steve Flink: Four Men Leave Paris Smiling

11/13/2011 11:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Above all else, beyond any debate, according to all reasonable observers, the week belonged to Roger Federer. By virtue of his triumph at the BNP Paribas Masters event indoors in Paris, the Swiss collected a second ATP World Tour title in a row, secured a first Masters 1000 championship of the season, and brushed aside the tide of history by coming through at a tournament that had been a place of bad fortune for the Swiss across his entire career. Federer had played this event eight times as a professional but had never advanced even to the semifinals until last year, when he squandered five match points in an exhilarating encounter with Gael Monfils. He now has become the first player ever to appear in the final round of all nine Masters 1000 events. Moreover, Federer raised his winning streak to 12 match victories in a row since his jarring semifinal loss at the U.S. Open to Novak Djokovic as he garnered a third 2011 singles title.

To be sure, Federer, who lost his serve only twice in five matches and did not drop a set, played by far his highest quality tennis of 2011. As was the case a year ago at the end of the season, he seems revitalized and inordinately agile, driven by a surprisingly deep inner need to keep performing majestically, propelled by a champion’s outlook of quiet defiance toward his critics. Federer was first rate across the board. He capped a nearly flawless week by ousting the dynamic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 6-1, 7-6 (3) in the final. In the process, the 30-year-old’s youthfulness seemed restored, at least for the time being. His execution has not been this sound for a long while; his ball control off his renowned forehand was at peak efficiency. The Swiss was beaming after his 69th career tournament triumph in his 99th final. No one could blame him for the size of his contentment.

But Federer was not the only player to leave Paris wearing a smile and feeling a large sense of pride. Three others joined him in a celebratory mood. Tsonga, John Isner, and Tomas Berdych all shined in different ways at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy. Tsonga—the beneficiary of a quarterfinal default from Novak Djokovic— inspired Parisians enormously when he saved three match points to stop a gallant Isner in the penultimate round. That was clearly the match and moment of the week, and Tsonga’s temerity at the end of that contest was magnificent. His symbiotic relationship with the crowd was extraordinary. Tsonga reminded not only his nation’s fans but those around the world that he is one of the game’s most charismatic competitors, a singularly appealing individual, and a phenomenal athlete as well.

Isner had never advanced to a semifinal at a Masters 1000 event. Following up impressively on his first run to the quarterfinals at a major event—Isner made it to the last eight in New York at the U.S. Open—the 6’9” American was gritty, opportunistic, unwavering and purposeful all through the week in Paris. He stopped Stan Wawrinka in the opening round, taking that battle in a final set tie-break. He handled the ever dangerous left-handed Feliciano Lopez in the round of 16. And he upended world No. 5 David Ferrer 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 in the quarterfinals. Isner lost a tantalizingly close match to Tsonga despite never losing his serve, falling 3-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (3). But he ended his season in style, as did Berdych. Berdych had already qualified for London along with Tsonga and Fish earlier in the week, but he underlined that achievement with a hard fought victory over No. 2 seed Andy Murray, coming from behind boldly to record a 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 victory, ending the British player’s 17 match winning streak in the process. That was no mean feat. Despite an emphatic 6-4, 6-3 defeat against the Swiss, Berdych could be proud of a staunch effort.

So let’s take it from the top, with a closer look at how Federer did it. Taking nothing away from his tall accomplishment, the 30-year-old enjoyed another very favorable draw in Paris, much like he had the previous week in ruling at Basel. In Basel, Federer was expected to collide with Murray in a potential semifinal and then, if he survived that clash, figured to meet Djokovic in the final. But Murray pulled out of Basel with an injury, and that opened up the draw decidedly for Federer. When Djokovic lost in the semifinals to Kei Nishikori with an ailing shoulder, Federer had a virtual lock on the title. In Paris, his good fortune was much the same. Federer should have played Mardy Fish in the quarterfinals, but the American injured his hamstring and also squandered two match points against Juan Monaco in the previous round.Federer had already breezed past wildcard Adrian Mannarino and a rusty Richard Gasquet in his first two matches, and then he stopped Monaco in straight sets for a place in the semifinals. He was rested, sharp, and entirely eager as he approached his meeting with Berdych. Federer had lost three of his previous four head-to-head showdowns with Berdych, including their most recent skirmish in Cincinnati. In that clash, Berdych never lost his serve in a straight set triumph, and essentially blasted Federer off the court, most tellingly with his scorching second serve returns. But in Paris, the climate of the contest was very different.

Berdych had played three exhaustingly long sets with Murray, laboring for three hours and thirteen minutes. Although he did not seem all that weary in his duel with Federer, the 6’5”, 26-year-old Berdych was in immediate difficulty. In the opening game of the match, he double faulted at 30-30, saved a break point, but Federer was taking the ball early and maneuvering Berdych ruthlessly. He soon got the break. In that entire first set, Federer conceded only six points in five service games. Federer was no less persuasive in the second set. He broke Berdych right off the bat again in the first game, and completely set the tempo with the variation of his first serve and the unerring consistency and penetration of his forehand. Federer moved past Berdych commandingly 6-4, 6-3, winning 29 of 32 first serve points, striking 33 winners, making only 13 unforced errors. Berdych was rendered helpless under this masterful barrage from a top of the line opponent.

In the final against a highly charged but perhaps overwrought Tsonga, Federer could have been in a bind. Tsonga returned superbly at the outset on his way to 15-40. But he missed a backhand return long off a heavy kicking second serve from Federer at that vital juncture. The Swiss then released a service winner to the backhand for deuce, and held on for 1-0 despite missing five of eight first serves. Tsonga had let a critical opening slip from his grasp. But he commenced the second game with two aces in a row for 30-0. The Frenchman haphazardly made consecutive backhand unforced errors to allow his adversary back to 30-30. Federer attacked behind an excellent forehand return for 30-40, and then Tsonga’s forehand approach bounded off the net cord and went wide. Federer had a 2-0 lead. Tsonga made it to deuce in the following game, but Federer obstinately held on.

The first set pattern had been set, to the detriment of the Frenchman. Federer was running around his backhand to make the forehand return from the Ad court with unusual persistence. Tsonga’s second serve had enough depth and spin to prevent Federer from hitting winners with that shot, but Tsonga felt his presence and erred too many times as he tried to hit under pressure to the open court. Federer was clearly intimidating Tsonga with his returns, much more so than usual. Although Tsonga rallied from 15-40 and had two game points in the fourth game, Federer was unrelenting. On the penultimate point of that game, Federer succeeded with a neatly executed backhand chip-and-charge tactic from the deuce court, and then Tsonga, perhaps sensing that Federer was going to move around for another daunting forehand return, double faulted. The Swiss was playing the big points with far more assurance than the Frenchman. Federer took the set 6-1.

Tsonga adjusted on serve and the look and feel of the match changed decidedly in the second set. Tsonga’s big first serve to Federer’s backhand in the deuce court was unanswerable, and his periodic serve-and-volley tactics in the Ad court were also effective. He took his first two service games of the set at the cost of only two points, and then had a big chance in the fourth game. With Federer serving at 1-2, Tsonga rolled a forehand passing shot crosscourt for a winner after Federer gave him the angle with a forehand crosscourt approach. It was break point for the Frenchman, but he went totally for broke on a second serve return, driving his forehand inside-in with absolutely no margin for error. He missed it narrowly. Federer eventually held on for 2-2.

But Tsonga remained determined, became more disciplined, and was increasingly aggressive. After serving a love game to go ahead 4-3, he had another crucial break point with Federer serving in the eighth game. Tsonga sent a big forehand down the line. The French crowd erupted briefly, thinking it was a winner. But Tsonga had overcooked the shot, sending it long. Despite connecting with only two of ten first serves in that game, Federer somehow held on for 4-4. In the ninth game, Tsonga had his only difficult service game of the set, drifting to 30-40. But he boldly served-and-volleyed, acrobatically putting away a high backhand first volley. Tsonga would make it safely to 5-4. In the set, Tsonga’s serving statistics were first rate en route to the tie-break. He won 26 of 34 points on his delivery and went unbroken. He played marginally better than Federer up until the tie-break.

But Federer was unshakable. He did not lose his serve in the match. In the tie-break, Federer was unyielding. He put all five of his first serves in, did not make any unforced errors, and allowed the Frenchman to self-destruct. Tsonga was guilty of three backhand unprovoked mistakes, and his game unraveled. Federer took the tie-break 7-3 to complete a gratifying victory. After two losses to Tsonga at Wimbledon and Montreal, Federer has handled Tsonga without the loss of a set the last two times they have met. Federer was no less than a sublime professional at the top of his craft, while Tsonga was found wanting, a man in disarray. He was pressing too frequently during the baseline exchanges, while the imperturbable Federer operated calmly on his side of the net.

And yet, Tsonga was awfully gritty in overcoming the daunting Isner. In the first set of that absorbing duel, Tsonga lost his serve to fall behind 4-2; that proved to be the only service break of the whole match. Isner closed out that set 6-3. On they went to a tie-break to settle the second set. From 1-1 in that sequence, Tsonga swept six points in a row to reach one set all, closing it out with an ace. But the essential drama remained. At 4-4 in the final set, Tsonga lunged for an astounding one-handed backhand passing shot winner down the line, clipping the baseline with that shot. The linesman called it out but Tsonga rightfully won his challenge. Yet an unruffled Isner displayed his character. He took five straight points and did not miss a first serve on his way out of that 0-40 predicament into a 5-4 lead. And then, with Tsonga serving to save the match two games later at 5-6, the American thrice advanced to match point in a nerve-wracking game for both players. Tsonga double faulted to give Isner the first of those match points. Isner netted a forehand inside-out return off a second serve. At match point for the second time, Isner could not find Tsonga’s backhand, and the Frenchman drilled a forehand inside-in winner off a short ball. On match point No. 3—after Isner had made a stupendous backhand passing shot winner curled in from outside the alley down the line—Tsonga escaped when Isner drove a two-handed backhand long. Tsonga survived for another tie-break, and promptly got a mini-break, racing to a 3-0 lead. Isner closed the gap to 3-2 but Tsonga attacked to force an errant passing shot from the American, and then aced his opponent down the T.

Tsonga was up 5-2. Isner won the next point but then he gambled with a big second serve and double faulted long. Tsonga wrapped it up swiftly, winning 3-6, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (3). For Tsonga, it was a triumph of the spirit, a win carved out largely on willpower. For Isner, it was a scorching loss; he knew he had been on the edge of a first final round appearance at a Masters 1000 event, which would have been a significant step for him. Nonetheless, he had upended David Ferrer to make it as far as the semifinals, and he did so in style. Isner had overpowered the enterprising Spaniard in the opening set but lost the second. The third set was locked at 3-3, but thereafter Isner was unstoppable, playing three dazzling games in a row to close out a notable triumph.

At 3-3, 30-15 in that final set, Isner came forward to make a scintillating sidespin backhand volley winner down the line. He held at 15 for 4-3, broke Ferrer at 15 as the Spaniard’s forehand wilted under the heat of the American’s heavy hitting game, and then Isner held at love to close it out, serving two aces and hitting two thundering service winners in that game. Isner had swept 12 of the last 14 points to pull away from one of the game’s fiercest competitors. Despite his defeat against Tsonga, Isner had nothing to be ashamed of. He is well on his way to the top of his game, and 2012 will undoubtedly be his finest campaign yet. He might make it at last to the bottom part of the top ten in the world.As for Berdych, his win over Murray was remarkable in many ways. Murray held on gamely from 0-40 at 0-1 in the first set, and eventually moved ahead 5-3. Berdych served in the ninth game and saved seven set points in a marathon seven deuce game. The stand he made there was significant. Murray finally sealed the set on his ninth set point in the tenth game, but Berdych had denied the world No. 3 the opportunity to start serving in the second set. Berdych gradually found his range, and once he did it was nearly impossible for Murray to contain him. The British standout had to rely almost entirely on defense as Berdych developed a rhythm from the baseline that was remarkably good. Off both sides, he was driving the ball with the best possible pace and depth, and Murray was always on his heels, hard pressed to come up with the answers, ceaselessly uncomfortable.

Berdych built a 5-2 second set lead before Murray rallied to 5-5. They went into a tie-break, and Berdych was up 5-2 and serving. Murray made it back to 5-5, and was serving with a chance to advance to match point. He swung his slice serve wide to the forehand, but the long-armed Berdych made a deep return down the middle. Murray was off target with an inside-out forehand. Berdych had rescued himself from a place he didn’t want to be. He then came up and put away a forehand volley at 6-5. It was one set all.

In the final set, Murray, despite being often at Berdych’s big hitting mercy, created some big chances. Murray had a break point for 2-0 but did not convert. He had another break point for 3-1 but Berdych hit his way out of that corner as well. Murray served at 4-4, trailed 0-40, got back to 30-40, but double faulted. Yet Murray still had three more break points before Berdych served out the match and prevailed 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4. Murray had not lost since the U.S. Open. Berdych brought him down with some of the purest backcourt play I have seen from him in a long time. His subsequent loss to Federer does not diminish what Berdych achieved in toppling Murray.

So there you have it. All four semifinalists flourished in Paris. Berdych played one of his finest matches of the year to stop Murray. Isner was terrific in the way he shut down Ferrer down the stretch. Tsonga gave his nation a gift with his performance against Isner. But the top honor went deservedly to Roger Federer. After a lackluster year filled with insecurity, he is coming on strong at the end of the season at a time when many of the other leading players are spent. Suddenly and unexpectedly, Federer finds himself considered by many authorities as the man to beat when the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals get started on Sunday.