After winning his Round 4 match, Roger Federer said it would be an interesting challenge playing 7 5-setters in 2 weeks. Well the tennis gods heard him because they granted his wish last night. Given Roger’s form coming into the match I had predicted the Swiss would win it in 3 maybe 4 tight sets. I was wrong because he won it in 5. And there were two simple reasons why that happened. First, Roger’s form of the past 4 matches didn’t hold and second, Tsonga clearly had done his homework, came up with a different strategy and brought his A-game.
Now obviously Roger’s form faltering was partly due to Jo-Willie himself. Till last night the Maestro had faced off against players ranked in 46, 40, 43 and 15. While they were significantly more formidable than the opponents his fellow top 3 faced, they were not the top 10 men in tennis. Federer’s preparation going into the Australian Open was to practice and not play any warm up tournaments. Meaning he hadn’t played in Doha, Abu Dhabi, the Hopman Cup, Chennai, Sydney or Kooyong to get some experience against his fellow superstars of the ATP. He had played Tsonga and Delpo in the South American exhibition last year but even that was over a month ago.
In the meantime, it was clear that with a new coach, Tsonga had made tweaks to his game and tactics. To start with Jo served well as he usually does. He approached the net often which he is also comfortable with. What he has improved are his speed and court coverage (perhaps a direct result of shedding some weight in the off-season?) and his returns. As Federer himself said in the post-match interview, he hit some great serves in the range of 205-210 km and Jo kept putting them all back in play. He played aggressively; testing Roger’s defensive skills and making FedEx create extra shots with acute angles.
For Roger, his first serve in particular let him down, especially in the first set; he only got 55% of them in. He double faulted in each of the first 3 sets and hit only 6 aces compared to Tsonga’s 20. For the first time this tournament Roger’s serve was broken and he also conceded two sets (he hadn’t dropped a set till this match). His break point conversion was back to a miserable 22%. Not all of it was bad though. He won more points at the net which is not a surprise. What is interesting is, despite having serving issues he led Tsonga on points won off both first and second serves. And while Tsonga had more winners, he had more errors too, tipping the final count in Federer’s favour; Federer won a total of 169 points to Tsonga’s 164. It was also crucial that Federer won both tie-breaks. Somehow when it was clutch time, the Swiss found his inner champion and pounced to take those sets. Here are the stats.
The match was topsy turvy from the start. Given the dip in Roger’s performance and Tsonga in scintillating form, the two were very evenly matched. For a change, Roger faced a player who is as quick between points as he is. I personally am a fan of less time in between points, not just from a fan’s point of view but the players as well; I think it’s easier to maintain concentration and rhythm, but that’s just my personal opinion. Regardless, the fact that neither player took much time showed in the stats. Despite being a 5-setter with 2 sets ending in tie-break, the total match time was 3 hours and 34 minutes. The roller-coaster ride they took us in was evident from the scores with Roger taking sets 1, 3, and 5 and Tsonga taking 2 and 4. Federer won, 7-6(7-4), 4-6, 7-6(7-4), 3-6, 6-3.
In Paul Annacone’s interview he mentioned that Roger can play a lot of different styles of tennis at a very high level. As the sport has become more homogenized, his diversity and ability to adapt and adjust allows him to bring additional skills to the court that many others don’t have and have trouble playing against. Against Tsonga, a man who has played him 11 times already, he had to bring out the entire armory of shots at his disposal, especially since his first serve was failing him. But I believe it wasn’t just his tennis skills that saved the night. In the end he dug deep into the reserves of his extensive experience, grit, determination and self-belief. He got broken much more than he broke back but he stayed calm, focused, cool and collected from beginning to end.
I did have a sneaky feeling though, that when they headed into the 5th, Federer would pull this one out of the fire. This is what separates the top 4 men from the rest of the top 10, 50, 100. 5-setters need that additional something to get over the finish line, that extra bit of concentration and a 6th gear to take it up a notch. So when he broke Jo to go up 3-1 I had an inkling that the match might turn for the Swiss. Despite Tsonga’s attention waning, and Roger getting into the zone, the Frenchman fought valiantly against both Federer and himself to get the score to 5-3 saving 4 match points. But finally, the Maestro had the 5th match point on his own racket and he finished it off at the net with a smash. Game, set, match, Federer.
The two shared a warm embrace at the net and looking at the pictures one wouldn’t know who won. I think especially after the South America Exhibitions, they’ve gotten closer and the net hug was with genuine affection. Showing true class Federer style, he waited for Tsonga to pack his bags before walking out together, chatting and smiling. He gave yet another glorious interview to Jim Courier before signing the camera and waving goodbye, leaving his fans exhausted but happy.
Next up is Andy Murray, who is yet to be tested. His draw turned out to be a bit of a joke in the end. Whether this means he is fresh and ready to slice and dice Roger in straight sets remains to be seen. It also depends on Roger’s recovery and if he can find his first serves again. He’ll need them against Murray, one of the few active players with a positive H2H against him. For now though he can relax, and enjoy the fact that he just reached his 10th consecutive Australian Open SF and his 33rd Grand Slam SF – both obviously new records, breaking the ones he set himself.
When I saw his draw 13 days ago I said “Reaching the SFs will be a bonus and reaching the final will be icing on the cake. If he actually wins it will be the stuff tennis lore is made of.” I still stand by my statement. I am already very happy with Roger’s progress so far, but I obviously want him to do well and go deep in the tournament. We’ll just have to wait and see and hopefully get to see some great tennis from the Maestro while we’re at it. Allez Federer!