Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tsonga's Higher High

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga staged an improbable comeback against Roger Federer to reach the Wimbledon semifinals.


Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga -- he of the infectious smile and unabashed joie de vivre -- has done the unthinkable against Roger Federer.

And he made it look easy.

Before the quarter-finals began on Wednesday, Federer was 178-0 after winning the first two sets of a match in a Grand Slam. Now's he's 178-1.

The Le Mans, France native, also a quarter-finalist last year at Wimbledon, kept Federer at bay throughout his improbable rally by serving flawlessly and relentlessly attacking the six-time Wimbledon champion with free swings and steady nerves.

The result? An awe-inspiring victory from one of tennis' most dynamic talents. The fallout? More 'what's wrong with Federer?' conversation, and the harsh reality that Federer's regal domination of the Wimbledon grass is almost certainly a thing of the past as he approaches his 30th birthday.

But let's focus on the magic of Tsonga before we contemplate what might become of Federer and his lush legacy.

Long considered one of the most entertaining and athletically gifted players on the ATP Tour, Tsonga was nothing short of majestic today. Blasting serves in the upper 130's and racing to the net behind has explosive groundstrokes, Tsonga forced Federer back on his heels in the final three sets -- and he never let him recover.

Those familiar with Tsonga's game were not surprised that he could take the game to Federer. What was surprising was that he could manage his nerves (or not even experience nervousness -- it was hard to tell) and stay out of his own way long enough to finish the Swiss Maestro off. Stretches of sublime greatness are par for the course for the powerfully-built 6'2" Frenchman. The big surprise was that he did it with such a steady emotional cadence, and that he did it for so long.

Tsonga, 26, served 9 aces and only committed 4 unforced errors in the final two sets. Additionally, he won 13 of 16 second serve points in the final two sets, and never faced a break point after his first service game of the match.

How is that possible? Was Tsonga that good or was Federer that bad? What is good and what is bad, anyway?

What was good for Tsonga is that he played a match for the ages. He stormed back to take this one from Federer with a panache, boldness and precision; he summoned all his magic and he let it spill forth without inhibition. What was bad for Federer was that he never found an appropriate response.

Tsonga's rousing run at the 2008 Australian Open, one that saw him defeat Nadal in the semis then lose to Djokovic in a hard fought final, was the previous high point of his career. With a semifinal upcoming vs. Djokovic, it's not hard to imagine a higher high.

As good as Tsonga is, there's always been the feeling that he could be better. Perhaps this Wimbledon is his time to silence that notion.

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