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Steve Flink: A frail Federer is trounced by an inspired Tsonga

6/4/2013 6:00:00 PM

ROLAND GARROS—I arrived today in Paris after flying across a long night from New York, and believed that Roger Federer might well be vulnerable in his quarterfinal contest against the charismatic and wonderfully athletic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Federer had been stretched to five sets by Gilles Simon in the previous round, trailing two sets to one in that encounter before striking back boldly for the victory. The Swiss has had increasing difficulty containing Tsonga over the last couple of years. Although he held a commanding 9-3 career lead over the Frenchman coming into this appointment, Federer had been beaten by Tsonga in the same round at Wimbledon in 2011 after taking a two sets to love lead. That had never happened to Federer in a Grand Slam event.

He lost again to Tsonga in their next meeting that summer at Montreal. He had prevailed in their previous five confrontations, but almost always Tsonga made life uneasy for Federer. In their most recent showdown, Federer held back the Frenchman across five enthralling sets in the quarterfinals at the 2013 Australian Open, winning a pair of clutch tie-breaks along the road to victory. Both players knew full well—as did the sport’s cognoscenti—that Tsonga was going to test Federer severely in today’s skirmish at Roland Garros, but no one was quite prepared for what unfolded. Federer moved with some authority into a 4-3, 40-15 first set lead, putting himself in an enviable position to move out in front and build some crucial momentum in the process.

But from there on in, the match turned entirely toward Tsonga, who recouped with vigor to record an emphatic 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 triumph, toppling the 17 time Grand Slam singles champion for the second time in a major event. The No. 6 seed played his best brand of clay court tennis, striking the ball cleanly and potently from the backcourt, serving with excellent variety, overpowering and sometimes overwhelming the 2009 Roland Garros champion. To be sure, Tsonga was magnificent in every way, a worthy victor, a man exceedingly close to the top of his talent. The way he was playing, even a top of the line Federer was going to be hard pressed to find a way to stop a rival who was executing so well in every facet of the game.

And yet, Federer was clearly ailing on this occasion. His first serve—always one of his primary weapons, so often the strength that bails him out when the rest of his game is suffering, such a trusted ally for so long—was simply not functioning against Tsonga. That first serve of Federer’s was unthreatening to Tsonga across the board. Federer won a dismal 58% of his first serve points and stood at 42% on second serve points for the match. He was broken six times. But, most important of all, he had insufficient velocity for the most part, and winning free points was next to impossible because Tsonga was returning with such unrelenting depth off both sides. That meant Federer had to resort far too often to the serve-and-volley, which helped him only sporadically but left him too often in trouble as Tsonga passed so well off the backhand.

I have felt in the past that Federer has too often offered a litany of excuses after losses these last bunch of years, but after this latest defeat against Tsonga he did not bring forth any alibis at all. He took his loss admirably like a man, said he had been outplayed by Tsonga in every respect, did not mention any ailments. That was laudatory on his part. There was no reason to take anything away from the spirited Tsonga. But clearly something was very wrong with Federer, who also looked wooden on several errant overheads. He was asked about his back after the match, but only confirmed that he had been wearing a tea-shirt underneath his regular tennis shirt, something he has done regularly over the last three weeks. Watching him struggle so inordinately to get some sting on his serve, observing his difficulty reaching up for those smashes, looking at his expression as the match wore on, it was painfully apparent that he was preoccupied and disheartened by whatever was bothering him. I salute him for not mentioning that after the loss because champions need to handle disappointments with the same grace that they greet victory.

Be that as it may, even if it was sad to see Federer so far below his normal standards, the fact remains that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played exhilarating tennis of a very high caliber. His two-handed backhand has improved immensely over the course of this season. He stays in rallies off that side. His depth is, by and large, outstanding. He misses very few returns off that when he is in sparkling form. And his backhand passing shot—once a terrible liability—is becoming more difficult to exploit; Tsonga has turned the backhand pass into a much more accurate and important aspect of his game, and he is to be applauded for that.

Let’s review the match. Tsonga had a chance to break Federer in the second game of the match, but the Swiss worked his way out of that corner with aplomb, releasing a trademark inside-out forehand that Tsonga could not get back in play. In the fifth game of that opening set, Federer took advantage of some overanxious mistakes from the Frenchman to reach 15-40, and then the Swiss stepped around his backhand for a sparkling inside-out forehand winner. He had the break for 3-2 and then held easily for 4-2.

After Tsonga held on in the seventh game, the match shifted dramatically. Federer had that 40-15 lead to make it 5-3 but Tsonga connected impeccably with a forehand crosscourt for a winner, and then Federer erred on a forehand inside-out into the net. He missed two more makeable forehands to drop his serve for 4-4, and Tsonga held at 15 for 5-4. He had won three games in a row and the underdog was on a definite roll. Federer, however, played a solid game to reach 5-5, holding at 15. Although Tsonga missed three out of four first serves in the eleventh game, he still held at love. Federer committed a succession of backhand errors to fall behind 40-0, and then Tsonga held at love with a backhand volley winner up the line.

Now Federer was serving to stay in the set a second time. He drifted to 0-40, but made it back to deuce with cool precision. The best shot in that brief sequence was at 15-40, when Tsonga approached on an inside-out forehand, stretching Federer out on the backhand side. Federer elegantly flicked a backhand pass acutely crosscourt for a winner, and then released one of his few unanswerable serves for deuce. Having saved three set points, he was two points away from a tie-break but the Swiss pulled a forehand crosscourt wide off an impressive return of serve from Tsonga. The Frenchman thus reached set point for the fourth time, and sealed it when Federer was guilty of another miss-hit off the ground.

Tsonga had rallied from a break down to take the set 7-5. He held at 15 for 1-0 to start the second set, then exploited four unforced errors off the racket of Federer to make it 2-0, and promptly held at 15 for 3-0, sweeping 12 of 14 points in that span. Tsonga had captured eight of the last nine games in that stretch. Federer had seldom looked more helpless on a tennis court, but he plodded on, holding for 1-3, saving a break point on his way to 2-4, holding on gamely again for 3-5. But he could not break an obstinate Tsonga in this set. At 5-3, Tsonga kept most of his attention on the Federer backhand, holding at 15 to make it two sets to love. Most impressive of all was his service variation. Tsonga would throw in cracking 210 to 212 kilometer first serves down the T but he frequently kicked his first serve in the 155 Kilometer range to disrupt Federer’s timing, and the strategy was wise and effective.

On they went to a third set, with Federer looking increasingly disconsolate. Tsonga intelligently kept his mind on the task at hand and seemed oblivious to whatever was going on with his opponent’s psyche. At 30-40 in the opening game of the third set, Federer double faulted. The Swiss played a particularly good return game to break back for 1-1, finishing with a dazzling forehand inside-in return winner at break point. He held from 0-30 for 2-1. But that was merely a determined stand from an old professional who realized he was probably going to lose. Tsonga held for 2-2 before Federer fended off a break point on his way to 3-2. The Swiss would not win another game.

Tsonga—disciplined, determined, eager and opportunistic—ran out the match confidently. He held at 15 for 3-3 and then broke at 15 in the seventh game, boosted by some good fortune as his passing shot clipped the net cord and rushed a discombobulated Federer into an error at the net. Tsonga held at 30 for 5-3, closing out that game with a neatly executed backhand volley winner. And then he finished with a break at 30 in the ninth game. In those last four games, Tsonga had collected 16 of 22 points. He surely sensed something had gone awry for Federer, but Tsonga was entirely professional in posting this 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 triumph, and thus arrives in the semifinals without the loss of a set in five matches, a feat replicated by David Ferrer, who struck down Tommy Robredo 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 to end his compatriot’s sterling run to the quarterfinals, Robredo, of course, had taken three matches in a row from two sets to love down, and no one had done that at a major since the Frenchman Henri Cochet in 1927 at Wimbledon.

No Frenchman has won this tournament since Yannick Noah came through spectacularly to oust defending champion Mats Wilander for the 1983 Roland Garros crown. Tsonga and Ferrer should give us a dazzling spectacle in many ways, with the Frenchman taking many calculated risks and the Spaniard looking to play the percentages to the hilt. Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will try to join them in the penultimate round.

As for Federer, the tournament was not altogether a loss. He extended his remarkable streak of quarterfinal appearances at the majors to 36 in a row by travelling to the last eight here. But, clearly, the days of automatically making it to the semifinals at Grand Slam events are over for this enduring superstar. Federer had gone to the semifinals or better in 23 straight majors before Sweden’s Robin Soderling ousted him in the quarters of Roland Garros three years ago. Tomas Berdych beat him in the Wimbledon quarterfinals the following month. In 2011, Tsonga knocked the Swiss out of the Wimbledon quarterfinals, and then Berdych stopped Federer in the quarterfinals of the 2012 U.S. Open.

His body no longer seems as reliable as it once was. The brigade of big hitters has become more burdensome to the Swiss on every surface. Meanwhile, Federer has not won a tournament anywhere in the world since taking Cincinnati last summer. He was spectacular in many ways when he won his seventh Wimbledon singles title last July, and he will head back out onto the grass with renewed vigor in a few weeks. It would not be shocking by any means if Federer retained the world’s premier title, but everything has to break completely in his direction. Above all else, he will need to serve with the pinpoint precision, sting and purposefulness that have been his custom if he wants to prevail again at the All England Club.

Only a fool would count Federer out as he heads into the last two majors of 2013. He will, after all, turn 32 in August, and the mounting losses have surely taken their toll. Roger Federer remains a great champion who is simply not ready to rest on his laurels. But there is a growing feeling among the game’s authorities that Federer will be increasingly hard pressed to live up to his own lofty expectations, and those of his loyal legion of admirers.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.