Of the many things Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be remembered for when stops playing, one will be that he was the man who first defeated Roger Federer from two-sets-to-love down at a Grand Slam.
He did so at Wimbledon in the 2011 quarterfinals, an inconceivable result at the time. It has clearly since served as a source of motivation for the Swiss, who in their five subsequent matches has won four. In their next meeting at a major, Federer trounced Tsonga in straight sets at the US Open in 2011.
It may not have been as clear-cut on Wednesday night, but Federer continued his winning ways against his French foe, advancing to the Australian Open semifinals for the 10th consecutive year and a meeting with No.3 seed Andy Murray after a 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3 victory.
“It was a tough match from the start really. A lot of ups and downs on both sides obviously. I mean, more good ones than bad ones, because ups and downs you can see the negative way, too. But I thought we always played well to get back into the match,” he reflected.
“So I'm very happy. It was a good match. I enjoyed it. Could have been four (sets), could have been three. I could have lost it. So at the end, I'm just happy I won in five.”
Let’s be frank – it wasn’t always pretty tennis. There were shanks and flurries of errors as both men felt the pressure heaped on them by the other. But it was nonetheless an absorbing scrap, a dogfight between two top players jostling for supremacy at a venue that has brought each some of their greatest career highlights.
Having comprehensively dismantled all previous opponents at Australian Open 2013, Federer began in much the same manner against Tsonga, unleashing his vast repertoire of shots to immediately break serve.
Yet Tsonga began to find some chinks in the armour. Federer’s serve had not been broken all tournament, but the Frenchman brought up a break point in the fourth game and again in the sixth, converting the second time to level at 3-3 and intensify the contest.
With both men generally assured on serve, the set progressed to a tiebreak. It was here that Tsonga unravelled. With a mini-break safely in hand, Federer didn’t let up, stroking an off-forehand swinging volley winner to bring up set point, and taking the opener thanks to another Tsonga error.
The second set progressed fairly uneventfully until the seventh game – a Federer ball hit the tape and bounced just wide, bringing up a rare break point. Tsonga capitalised, coming out on top of a searching rally when a Federer forehand drifted out.
The match had changed. The Swiss’ level had dipped slightly, while Tsonga was more consistently hitting his spots and doing so more powerfully and cleanly. Suddenly the wild shanks – particularly the cross-court forehand which he had sent metres wide on several occasions – were gone.
The No.7 seed would go on to comfortably serve out the set, but promptly went down a break after an entertaining game that saw Tsonga’s flamboyant shotmaking countered by some exceptional retrieving from Federer. Yet instead of Federer building on this momentum, he handed the break straight back, coughing up four straight forehand errors from 30-0 up.
The set continued in this vein, ebbing and flowing, scintillating winners interspersed with maddening errors. Appropriately, it required another tiebreak to separate the pair, which began dreadfully for the world No.2 when he dumped a swinging volley halfway down the net, drawing groans from the Rod Laver Arena crowd.
Yet he recovered, earning a mini-break with a fabulous hooked forehand passing shot up the line off the back foot, and set points thanks to a backhand winner. Tsonga powered a shot into the ad court on the next point that Federer, incredibly, retrieved at full stretch and dropped low over the net to force a volley error. Two-sets-to-one.
“It's very much become a game of movement today with the slower courts and as quick as we are and all that. It's very important to be able to rely on your defensive skills,” the second seed explained.
“I'm happy with how I felt and how I'm moving, so it's important.”
A Federer victory looked near-certain when he raced to a 0-40 lead in the third game of the fourth, yet Tsonga hit his way out of trouble, crunching a outrageously powerful forehand and an ace shortly after on his way to holding for 2-1.
In Tsonga’s mind, teeing off was key to victory. And he did exactly that, generating some incredible winners to break in the sixth game and move ahead 4-2. The pair then traded breaks before the Frenchman clinched the fourth set with an ace out wide.
Tsonga blinked first in the decider, erring twice on the backhand side in the fourth game to drop serve. When Federer in the next game played two overhead winners followed by an unanswerable drive volley, he’d built a 4-1 lead. It looked dire when Federer played a winning drop shot for 15-40, which clipped the tape and died. Tsonga chased and ended on Federer’s side of the net, feigning a punch in the Swiss’ direction and drawing giggles from both men and the crowd.
The lighter moment appeared to relax Tsonga, who found his game once more and escaped to hold for 2-4. And when Federer had three match points in the eighth game, Tsonga erased them all with some audacious shotmaking. He was proving tough to subdue.
Yet Federer, as is customary, found a way. He brought up a fourth match point with a forcing backhand down the line, and sealed victory in fine style with a winning overhead.
Murray, who hasn’t lost a set in Melbourne in five matches, awaits in Friday night’s semifinal.
“I know what to expect; whereas it would be different if I hadn't played him (recently),” said Federer of his looming battle with Murray.
“He has changed his game around a bit. He's playing more offensive. I'm looking forward to it. Obviously (he’s) a great player … So I'm expecting a tough match, of course.”