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Steve Flink: Tsonga Primed for Federer

9/6/2011 2:00:00 PM

Flushing Meadows--Heading into the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, the dynamic and highly appealing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had fared badly in his career series with Roger Federer. Tsonga had lost four of his five meetings with the Swiss, and had seldom seemed either comfortable or confident against his celebrated rival. The Frenchman’s two-handed backhand was always a serious liability against Federer, who would pick that side apart with his renowned inside-out forehand. For quite a long time, it seemed like a bad matchup for Tsonga whenever he stepped on a court with Federer. He tried to impose himself, looked to find a tactical edge, and did all he could to make his presence known in his duels with Federer.

But prior to the Tsonga-Federer showdown on the Centre Court this year, the only encouraging development for the Frenchman was his startling comeback against his rival two years ago in Montreal, when he rallied from 1-5 down in the final set to oust the man who was still riding the wave of uplifting victories at both the French Open and Wimbledon. And yet, both players knew that Tsonga had pulled off an improbable upset that afternoon in Canada. Both players recognized that Tsonga had fashioned that win largely on luck.

But what happened at Wimbledon this year was a different story altogether. Federer captured the first two sets. All 178 times he had led two sets to love in his Grand Slam tournament career, Federer had always prevailed. The great players habitually close out matches with almost automatic ease. They are excellent front runners who know what is required to get across the finish line. But Tsonga made history of a high order that day in London. He rallied with purposefulness to gain a five set win that was not lucky in the least. Tsonga won 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 over the six time Wimbledon champion. To be sure, Federer’s serving level dropped across the last three sets, and he was surprisingly broken early in each of those sets.

What was even more remarkable was how beautifully Tsonga served in that contest. After losing his opening service game of the match, he never even faced a break point the rest of the way. To go five sets with Federer on the sport’s most illustrious stage and serve with that kind of authority and unrelenting power and accuracy is no mean feat. Federer prides himself on his capacity to get a lot of returns back into play, but against Tsonga at Wimbledon he did not read his adversary’s serve well, and he was at Tsonga’s mercy continuously as the Frenchman backed up his big serve with his explosive forehand, moving forward with conviction.

Tsonga simply wrestled control of that match away from Federer, out served him decidedly, outplayed him across the board, and came away with a win he richly deserved. But I believed when they met again in Montreal this summer, Federer would probably retaliate forcefully. He surely did not want to lose two times in a row to a man he had once owned. But Federer once more could not contain one of the game’s greatest athletes. Tsonga cut him down 7-6, 4-6, 6-1. In that battle, Tsonga lost his serve only once.

And so, in his last eight sets against Federer, Tsonga has demonstrated that he is a very tough man to break. He lost his serve in that eight set span only twice. That was unmistakably the primary reason why Tsonga toppled the majestic Swiss competitor in back to back appointments. As they say so often in the trade these days, he took the racket out of Federer’s hand, and seized control of those skirmishes. That was an important victory for Tsonga in Canada; for the first time, he was victorious without needing to make a spectacular comeback. He ran away with the final set in Montreal, and proved to himself that he has what it takes to compete with a player he once viewed with extreme apprehension. 

To be sure, Tsonga in 2011 is not only playing with verve and markedly improved maturity against Federer, but he is performing at a higher level than ever before across the board. At 26, he seems a lot less impetuous. His shot selection is more percentage oriented. He is no longer giving away so many points needlessly. Tsonga’s forehand is the cornerstone of his game along with his first serve, which is one of the finest in the sport. His two-handed backhand is stronger and more dependable. He can pass reasonably well off that side, and during the rallies he has made that shot more penetrating. It was no accident that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reached the penultimate round at Wimbledon, and it is no big surprise that he is in the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open.

But now he has another assignment that will be a real test of his mettle. Tsonga finds himself matched up against Federer for the third time in a two month span, and will be seeking to pull off a “Hat Trick” of wins over his towering rival. Despite his recent success, it will not be easy. Federer has not won a major since the 2010 Australian Open, losing in six straight Grand Slam events since then. Of those six defeats, three have occurred in the quarterfinals, including the one against Tsonga back in July. Moreover, Federer has been beaten in eleven consecutive tournaments since he won his opening event of 2011 in Doha. Finally, Federer is three matches away from becoming the first man ever to secure at least one major championship for nine consecutive years.

Federer knows that this U.S. Open is one of the most significant tournaments he has played in his entire career. If he manages to find a way to win the tournament, Federer would be boosted immeasurably by answering his critics and confirming that he can reverse the trend of the last couple of years with another landmark win on a big stage. If he does not capture the Open, the rest of the autumn could be an ordeal for him, and the 30-year-old would have his work cut out for him in 2012 as he keeps trying to make history and finish his career in the manner he would want. 

But Federer’s path through the remainder of this U.S. Open could not be much more arduous. If he turns the tables on Tsonga, Federer would almost surely take on Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, and then he would have to return the next day to face possibly Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray in the championship match. No matter how motivated he might be, Federer will need to raise his game considerably, withstand a lot of physical punishment, and summon the confidence in clutch situations to put himself in a position to take the last Grand Slam championship of 2011.

That brings us back to Tsonga, who has always had the propensity to do great things in this game. Now he has the chance to knock off Federer in a second straight Grand Slam event, to beat him for the third time in a row, to demonstrate that he just might have the goods to win a major before his career is over. An awful lot is riding on the outcome of this match for both players. Tsonga could set the stage for a compelling 2012 campaign by making it at least to the semifinals here in New York. After rescuing himself from two sets to one down against Mardy Fish in the round of 16, Tsonga has shown us all that he can win crucial matches in the worst of circumstances. The wind during that showdown was almost out of control, and the players were asked to perform under duress as a result. Tsonga handled that situation remarkably well, and after three hours and 45 minutes, he looked fit, strong and confident when it was over.

Of all the quarterfinals, the Tsonga-Federer collision intrigues me the most. The crowd will be essentially be in Federer’s corner. Tsonga—a Muhammad Ali look alike with immense star appeal and a beguiling manner—is a hard man not to like. But Federer is a beloved figure in New York. He is coming off a 6-1, 6-2, 6-0 rout of Juan Monaco, which was important for him after a tough four set match with Marin Cilic in the previous round. Federer is convinced that his best tennis of the year is just ahead him and of us. He will be fiercely determined to strike down Tsonga and head commandingly into weekend with the wind at his back. The view here is that this match has five sets written all over it. My guess is that Federer will emerge with a hard fought victory in the end, but the outcome will not be totally in his control because Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a man on a mission.

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