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Steve Flink: Tsonga celebrates finest hour

8/11/2014 3:00:00 PM

When Jo-Wilfried Tsonga toppled Roger Federer at the 2013 French Open before losing to David Ferrer in the penultimate round, it was one of the high water moments of his career. To be sure, it was not quite as impressive as his crackling display against Rafael Nadal long ago, when he blasted the Spaniard off the court in straight sets to reach his only major final at the 2008 Australian Open. Be that at it may, Tsonga seemed ready to build on his Roland Garros exploits a year ago before he bowed out in the second round of the 2013 Wimbledon with a knee injury. That setback essentially destroyed his year, and almost ruined his career.

Even so, he did finish among the top ten in the world for the third year in a row, and the fifth time in an enviable six year stretch. But the dynamic Frenchman struggled inordinately over the first half of 2014, falling out of the top ten, losing confidence with every debilitating loss, dropping to No. 15 in the Emirates ATP Rankings by the time the Rogers Cup Masters 1000 event commenced this past week in Toronto. Tsonga was not satisfied in the least with the way he had played for most of this season. His inner doubts were escalating. His vulnerability was apparent to even his most ardent boosters. His appealing swagger was gone. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was working hard yet the fact remained that he was unfulfilled. At 29, he might well have started to believe that he had left most, if not all, of his best tennis in the past.

Now his world has perhaps been altered profoundly after the biggest tournament win of his career.  Before his sparkling Toronto run, Tsonga had won only ten singles titles over the course of his career, including the Masters 1000 indoor championship in Paris back in 2008. But never before had the charismatic Frenchman overcome four top ten players in a single week. Tsonga did just that in Toronto, striking down world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 9 Andy Murray, No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov, and No. 3 Roger Federer in the final round. That was the stuff of Tsonga’s dreams, but when the full reality sinks in he will understand that the triumphs did not happen by accident; the Frenchman claimed his victories with a poise, discipline, and professionalism he has seldom, if ever, exhibited before. He met each crucial moment with equanimity, serenity, and a sense of self that had often been missing in the past.

The final against Federer was intriguing because, almost from start to finish, Tsonga was more composed. Federer was striving for an 80th career singles crown, and only Jimmy Connors (109) and Ivan Lendl (94) have amassed more in the Open Era. Moreover, Federer had lost only 40 finals, and he had never been beaten by Tsonga in a title round clash. The Swiss also owned an 11-4 career head to head record lead over the Frenchman. Federer may be decidedly more familiar with finals, but he was overanxious on this occasion, mentally and physically fatigued, and often out of sorts. He was talking to himself, muttering after frustrating points, willing himself on by shouting “Come On!” for self-encouragement to a degree he seldom does. Federer wanted this match very badly, but Tsonga was every bit as determined as his opponent and much sounder off the ground.

Tsonga simply outplayed Federer across the board, and so the 33-year-old Swiss suffered a fifth loss in the seven finals he has played in 2014. He has lost to Djokovic in the Indian Wells and Wimbledon title round duels, but was also beaten by Lleyton Hewitt in Brisbane, Stan Wawrinka at Monte Carlo and now Tsonga in Toronto. In all of 2013, Federer made it to only three finals and he was victorious just once. This year he has secured two titles and has appeared in four more finals already than he did in 2013. He has elevated his game considerably from where it was a year ago, but being on the losing end of so many big matches must be painful for the 17 time major champion.

Leave that thought aside for a moment, because the larger story of Toronto was Tsonga’s thoroughly deserved triumph, rather than Federer’s final round departure. Remarkably, Tsonga never even faced a break point in his 7-5, 7-6 (3) win over Federer—his third over the Swiss at the Rogers Cup event. Tsonga lost his serve only three times in five matches en route to Federer. Neither Djokovic nor Dimitrov broke Tsonga, while Murray—the only player to do it—somehow managed the arduous feat three times as the Frenchman rallied admirably from 0-3 in the final set to win that critical quarterfinal encounter. There is no way to misconstrue it: Tsonga had one of the finest serving weeks of his career, mixing power (he served a 147 MPH thunderbolt against Murray) with uncanny placement to make himself largely invulnerable.

Nevertheless, Tsonga did not outperform Federer on the serve alone. Not by a longshot. He made a lot of solid returns, kept his unforced error total well below Federer’s throughout the contest, seldom went for too much off either side, and astutely recognized that Federer was not feeling the ball well. The Swiss was guilty of an inordinate number of wild errors off the forehand, and his backhand down the line let him down all across the two tightly contested sets. Federer had played all four of his matches at night before the final. The faster conditions during the day understandably seemed to throw him off guard. He never fully found his range from the backcourt, and that was a cause for much consternation for the Swiss.

Counterbalancing that was this: Federer served-and-volleyed magnificently. All day long, his first volley was impeccable, and his agility around the net was terrific. When he did come forward he was unwavering, and he exposed Tsonga’s weakness on the backhand passing shot, although the Frenchman came through with some timely and well executed passing shots off that flank near the end of the battle which kept Federer honest and made the No. 2 seed perhaps more reluctant that he should have been to attack the net even more often.

Tsonga’s opening service game was a forerunner of what was to come. He missed five of six first serves but still held at 30. He had no rhythm in that game but Federer made no inroads because Tsonga’s second serve was consistently deep and kicking up high, making matters burdensome for the Swiss on his backhand return. Federer held at 30 for 1-1 with four out of six first serves, and excellent location to boot. Tsonga answered by holding at love with a second serve ace down the T for 30-0 and an ace out wide to close out that game. Federer served-and-volleyed successfully twice while holding at 15 for 2-2, but Tsonga responded by making three of five first serves and holding at 15 for 3-2 with a thundering ace down the T.

Federer pulled off two more two more telling serve-and-volley combinations as he held at love for 3-3. Neither man was ceding much ground. They both seemed to sense that this set would be settled in the end by one critical service break, or perhaps a tie-break. This was a server’s court, and both players knew that to be the case.

Tsonga’s lone moment of apprehension occurred in the seventh game as Federer pushed him to deuce, but the Frenchman aced Federer wide in the deuce court and then aced him out wide in the ad court at 133.5 MPH. Those two clutch swings of the racket propelled Tsonga into a 4-3 lead. Now Federer served with new balls, and double faulted for 30-30. After advancing to 40-30, Federer missed one of his many backhands down the line, but he took the next two points to hold on for 4-4. Tsonga, however, was unshakable. He held at love for 5-4, releasing a pair of service winners and serve-volleying twice in that stellar game. Federer stood in some danger during the tenth game, and was two points away from losing the set at 30-30. But a superbly placed wide slice serve from Federer was more than Tsonga could handle, and then the Swiss serve-and-volleyed, kicking the serve to the Frenchman’s backhand, depositing a first volley into an empty space for a winner.

It was 5-5. Tsonga drifted into difficulty when he went down 0-30, but he aced Federer out wide in the deuce court, and then unleashed a phenomenal forehand winner off an awkward, high forehand miss-hit from Federer. Somehow Tsonga rifled a winner down the line to rescue himself. Federer took Tsonga to deuce, but Tsonga attacked forcefully, coaxing Federer into an errant slice backhand lob. Tsonga closed out that game with a service winner out wide to the backhand. He had made only three of eight first serves, but still had the composure to hold on for 6-5.

That obstinate stand from Tsonga may have rattled Federer, who opened the twelfth game with a wild forehand down the line mistake. His shot landed in the alley, and was not even close. Federer went to 30-30, but tried for a non-percentage topspin backhand down the line that landed wide. Federer was down set point at 30-40, and he sensibly sent a first serve to the backhand. Tsonga directed his return reasonably deep down the line, and Federer’s crosscourt forehand response travelled way beyond the baseline. Tsonga had taken the set 7-5 on that unprovoked mistake as Federer tightened up considerably in the final game.

Tsonga opened the second set by holding at 15 with an ace out wide. Federer trailed 15-30 but collected three points in a row to reach 1-1. Tsonga charged to 2-1 by holding at 15, despite missing three out of five first serves. Tsonga served a 140 MPH ace for 40-0, and closed out that game with a heavy kicker to the backhand that was unmanageable for Federer off the backhand.  At 1-2, 40-15, Federer put together another first rate serve-and-volley behind his second delivery, making an elegant half volley, winning that point with style.

It was 2-2. Tsonga remained unswerving, holding at love for 3-2. In the following game, Tsonga reached break point, but Federer aced him down the T. Federer held on gamely for 3-3. Tsonga seemed momentarily uncomfortable, losing the first point of the seventh game. But he held on at 30, keeping the pressure on his adversary. Federer double faulted into the net to fall behind precipitously at 3-4, 15-40. He missed his first serve but Tsonga’s return was too conservative. Federer came forward unhesitatingly to put away a forehand volley, and then released a service winner out wide for deuce. Federer gained the advantage but Tsonga garnered a third break point, only to miss a crosscourt backhand return wide.

Tsonga would not relent. He reached break point for the fourth time, but a resolute Federer aced him down the T. On his third game point, after five deuces, Federer held on for 4-4 with another pinpoint ace down the T. Tsonga promptly held at 15 for 5-4 with cool authority, and now Federer was serving to stay in the match, hoping he could remain in the tournament. He surged to 40-15, double faulted, and then serve-volleyed behind a second serve. Tsonga wasn’t having any of that. He drove a forehand return inside out for a winner for deuce, and then moved to match point with a deep return down the middle drawing an error from Federer.

Federer missed his first serve, but Tsonga was cautious on the return and during the point. Federer would find a smooth avenue to reach the net and induce a forehand passing shot error. Tsonga was apparently disturbed by a fan who yelled something while the point was in progress, and the Frenchman yelled, “Shut Up!” Federer was denied three more game points but he persevered, serving an ace down the T and then defended commendably, slicing a forehand low down the line to provoke an error from Tsonga. After five deuces, after saving a match point, after fighting himself as much as his opponent, Federer had held for 5-5. Both men held at 15 to set up a tie-break.

After Tsonga took the first point, Federer delivered a pair of aces to lead 2-1. Tsonga retaliated with a service winner and an ace at 141 MPH down the T to lead 3-2. Federer produced an unanswerable first serve to make it 3-3. On the pivotal seventh point, Federer missed his first serve, and lost that point with another backhand down the line error. It was 4-3 for the Frenchman. He now was closing in on a hard earned triumph. Tsonga served an ace out wide in the ad court for 5-3, and then served to Federer’s backhand down the T. The return was sort. Tsonga held his nerve, drilling a forehand down the line into the clear for a winner.

Federer was down triple match point, serving at 3-6 in the tie-break. He missed another first serve. Tsonga played the second serve return with good depth to the Federer backhand, and the Swiss rolled his shot into the net. Tsonga prevailed 7-5, 7-6 (3), winning a staggering 33 of 35 first serve points (94%) while Federer took 45 of 64 first serve points for a 70% success rate. Although Tsonga’s first serve percentage was only 50%, he still won 63% of his second serve points, 13% better than Federer. Across the board, Tsonga was the better player. He was clearly much fresher than Federer, who played too long for his own good in hard fought victories over Marin Cilic and David Ferrer in the round of 16 and quarterfinals.

The players move on this week to Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open. Djokovic will surely be looking to at least reach the final after a listless 6-2, 6-2 loss to Tsonga in the round of 16 at Toronto. Murray needs a big boost to put himself in the right frame of mind for the U.S. Open. He could meet Federer in an important quarterfinal at Cincinnati this week. Despite the disappointment of not capturing the Toronto final, Federer got some decent preparation for the U.S. Open, including three set victories over Cilic and Ferrer. Against Cilic, Federer was on the verge of a straight set win, winning the first set, and reaching match point six times with Cilic serving at 4-5 in the second set.

But Cilic survived, winning a 12 deuce game. He took that set in the tie-break and was serving at 4-4, 40-0 in the third before suffering the only service break of the match in the ninth game. Federer was the victor 7-6 (5), 6-7, (3), 6-4 and then ousted Ferrer 6-3, 4-6, 6-3. He next accounted for Feliciano Lopez easily in the semifinals. Yet the Swiss worked hard all week. We will see how he fares in Cincinnati, a tournament he has won five times, most recently in 2012. It will be a tough turnaround for the Swiss.

Meanwhile, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will head into Cincinnati with vigor. Playing two weeks in a row at this level is a tall task for all of the leading players, particularly those who are in the final of Canada. Tsonga may ride the winds of momentum deep into the draw at Cincinnati, or perhaps he will not. He could conceivably take on Djokovic again in the quarterfinals. No matter how he does in Cincinnati, the beguiling Frenchman will be in a position to contend for the U.S. Open title more seriously than he ever has before. It is the only major where he has never gone at least to the semifinals. It was inconceivable that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would win the Rogers Cup in Toronto, but now his outlook has surely brightened immensely. He is back at No. 10 in the world this week.

That is good news not only for Tsonga, but also for the large legion of observers who have for so long loved watching his serve, speed, athleticism, shotmaking virtuosity, explosive power and gusto. The hope here is that Tsonga keeps plugging away over the next couple of years because he is one of those fellows who has so much to offer when he is fully committed to his trade.
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.