Tsonga's time comes with upset of Federer, but now pressure builds
It was a year ago that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga issued one of those Gallic pfffffts and dismissed the chances of a French player winning the men's title at Roland Garros. Too many other good players in the draw. Too much pressure. Too much history. Too many delicate nerves.
One would think Tsonga would reassess this now. In one of the more riveting matches of the tournament, Tsonga took down Roger Federer 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 on Tuesday to advance to the semifinals of the French Open for the first time.
Before the match, French TV made the point that Federer was playing against "the punishing opponent of time." And, yes, let's get it out of the way now: Federer is undeniably a half-step slow to the ball. He served poorly in windy conditions, and, while he gamely dismissed physical excuse as he always does, it would be naive to think that his 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Gilles Simon on Sunday didn't exact some price on his 31-year-old body.
"I'm pretty sad about the match and the way I played," Federer said, adding later, "I don't need anything special or anybody special [to get over the loss]. I'm old enough, you know. I'm a big guy. I'm no longer a baby."
But make no mistake, Federer's real "punishing opponent" Tuesday was the behemoth on the other side of the net. Tennis is not a sport for perfectionists. There are no flawless performances. But Tsonga sure came close. He pounded away from the baseline. He anticipated beautifully. He broke Federer a half-dozen times. Most of all, he brought his serve, nailing 75 percent of his offerings and winning 81 percent of those points.
"He was in all areas better than me," Federer said. "That's why the result was pretty clean. You know, no doubt about it."
This was a victory for Tsonga. It was also an exorcism. It was, of course, a year ago here -- on the same court, in the same round -- that Tsonga held match points against Novak Djokovic. He couldn't seal the deal, and when he lost in five sets, it became one of those hobgoblin matches that lingers in players' hearts and minds for months. Again, we were reminded that the last French player to win at Roland Garros was Yannick Noah in 1983, a year that is to tennis in France what 1908 is to baseball in Chicago.
Tsonga stole the first set when Federer lost his concentration and dropped four straight games. Even when Tsonga backed that up by winning the second set, there was a palpable sense of will-he-choke-again? He did not. Instead, he continued to pound away while taking advantage of Federer's off-day.
"Today, I said, OK, I lost many times against him," Tsonga said. "I won also a few times. Maybe today, for sure, I can win again. ... Sports, it's beautiful because you can always do something. Even if you play the best player in the world or anybody, you have a chance. Because the guy in front of you has two legs, two arms, one head. That's it."
Upon meeting Federer at the net post-match, Tsonga said, "Thank you to let me win this time because in the past it was not always this way." (Tsonga improved to 4-9 against the 17-time Grand Slam champion.)
Tsonga has made deep runs in majors before. Five years ago, he reached the final of the Australian Open. But then the Big Four came along, Tsonga's body began to wage an insurrection and he kept bumping his head against the ATP glass ceiling. There were some standout moments and signature wins, but there was always another guy occluding his path. He beat Federer at Wimbledon in five sets in 2011? Great. But then Djokovic awaited. And even if he got past him (he didn't), then it's Nadal.
Tsonga, to this credit, didn't simply accept his fate. He tried new coaches. He tried playing without a coach. ("I need to be responsible for myself and solve problems for myself and maybe that transfers to me tennis," he once said.) Last year, he hired Roger Rasheed, an Australian taskmaster. When Tsonga won Tuesday, Rasheed leaked tears.
"I was waiting for rewards because I'm practicing hard every day," Tsonga said. "Today, I get the rewards."
He was strikingly muted in victory. On match point, Federer sailed still another backhand beyond the court's parameters. Tsonga barely pumped a fist before he started walking to the net. Part of it was out of respect for Federer. But you suspect that part of it is that, deep down, he knows his work here is still two rounds from being done.
He'll have 72 hours to cocoon himself from national hype and inevitable onslaught of Noah references. The French press asked Tsonga about their relationship.
"Well, when he sings, I dance," Tsonga joked of Noah, who became a pop star in retirement. "When he says something to me, I listen to him. Nothing special. I like him very much."
On Friday, Tsonga will face David Ferrer in the semifinals.
"Why can I beat Ferrer?" Tsonga said. "Because I hit harder, I serve better and I've become more consistent and have improved my endurance."
Sounds like a guy who believes, this year, that he has a chance.
? The running count: 11 of you have mentioned this. A) it is remarkable that decades after this fact, this persists in the memories of so many. B) Yes, if anyone has details, please pass them on. Wait, here's Rod Lowe of Toronto: "In reference to Troy's question about wiping out a mark on clay before the chair umpire has a chance to check if the ball was in or out, Jimmy Connors did just that in his 1977 U.S. Open semifinal against Corrado Barazzutti."
? As many of you happily noted, half the men in the men's quarters hit picturesesque one-handed backhands. Wait, what's there a knock on the door? Come in, Tennis Ogre. What is it? "Three things, before you consider this a new trend: 1) if Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro had been in the draw -- and Gael Monfils knew how to close a match -- the number would be reduced. 2) All of the one-handers were older than 25. 3) If you walked around the courts during the junior matches, you'd see that the one-hander is an heirloom. Grrrr ..."
? Right, you are.
? I think I went to camp with him.
? The mighty Greg Sharko looked it up for us. Five: Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco, Feliciano Lopez, Tomas Berdych and Albert Montanes. Note the provenance.
? There's no question the crowds for the men's matches have been stronger, but I'd say this. 1) The French men outnumbered and outperformed the French femmes by a significant margin. 2) One of the few maddening aspects of this tournament: The grounds are packed to the gills, but you'd never know it on TV as the Brahmins with the best tickets linger in the hospitality tent.
Sometimes the attendance is contingent on other matches. When the stands are packed watching Federer-Simon and thousands crowd around the public monitors watching outside, it stands to reason that the concurrent women's match (Agnieszka Radwanska-Ana Ivanovic) is played before empty seats.
? Davydenko is one of the last remaining characters. (Ernests Gulbis would love this guy.) He's quirky -- and has been his whole career. Why change now? But let's note: The notion of top players cherry-picking Slams is absurd in 2013. We've come a long way from guys winning the French and not even showing for Wimbledon. Part of it is financial. The Slams just put too much money on the table. Part of it is the homogenization of the surfaces. Part of it is the versatility of the top players.
? Nicely played.
? Of course someone whose last named is "clement" might be affronted. Dirty secret: The loudest grunts I've heard here have come from male players.
? Scott of New York: "Could you please give a shoutout to the class of 1998 at Princeton, and most important, Prince, which supplied 200 rackets so that the class of 1998 could break this world record."