Tsinging In The Rain (by Matt)
It was just a major quarterfinal. The opponent was just Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a prodigious talent but a man who, at the end of the day, has made only one major final (and did not win it). For the man who has everything in tennis other than an Olympic singles gold medal (and he diminished that setback by winning a gold in doubles – charmed life, indeed), why should yet another quarterfinal matter so much?
This is a commonplace event for Wogie McDodgie, after all – the graybeard (in tennis terms) (PJ: It’s Gramps and he’s getting is walker/wheelchair if according everyone else) notched his 30th straight major quarterfinal appearance earlier this week. Once more with feeling, players of Federer’s stature play for championships, not quarterfinalist’s paychecks. We know this.
So why, then – just WHY does this 4, 3, and 3 win over the Tsupreme French Tshotmaker with the Tsizzling Tserve make us all feel… so… good?
Revenge is part of the answer, of course. Wimbledon? AVENGED. An eighth straight U.S. Open semifinal is part of the answer. A 29th major semifinal – breaking a second-place tie with Ivan Lendl and moving two behind Jimmy Connors’s 31 – is another component. However, the best answer is the same source of our Federerian discontent after Wimbledon: The biological tennis clock, no matter how much Swiss precision it might still own, is ticking. Papa McFed is 30, and dammit, Jo-Willy Tshotmaker took away what had been a very strong Wimby from Our Hero last June. Federer played two brilliant sets to move within one set of the Wimbledon semifinals and a date with Novak Djokovic. Federer would have been able to play Nole on grass, and he would have been a slight but clear favorite in that match. Tsonga – doing what he was supposed to do, of course – deprived the tennis world of the first Federer-Djokovic meeting at SW19. The empty feeling on Planet Fed after that loss was profound, and since it was Wogie’s last major as a 29-year-old, it only reinforced one thing:
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick…
When Jo-Willy Tspecimen Tshot down Roger in Montreal and then appeared on the drawsheet for the U.S. Open, it was impossible for a Fed fan to feel comfortable about the prospect of another collision with a man who holds matches on his racquet. I personally felt that Tsonga would get taken down by Fish (round of 16) before the U.S. Open started, in part because of Tsonga’s injury suffered against Djokovic in Montreal, an injury that – whether you believe its legitimacy or not – led to an early exit in Cincinnati against Alex Bogomolov, Jr.
However, Tsonga gutted out a five-setter in the fourth round against Fish, a man who played too many tournaments during the summer and lacked the springy legs needed to claim a full-distance match at the calendar year’s late-season major. Tsonga showed still more of the maturity that had eluded him for so long at the majors. Federer had to Tstare down the conceptually Tsimple whack-the-ball game of Tsonga, who plays his best when his brain is empty and his body just crushes the bejeezus out of the little yellow pill. I’ll admit to being filled with emotional darkness before this contest, because Tsonga was overflowing with the confidence needed to once again get out of his own way and WHACK, WHACK, WHACK that little ball into so much pixie dust.
Yes, the rain delays and schedule alterations made me more confident – Federer definitely gets the advantage against anyone not named Nadal when rough conditions and departures from the routine are involved. (Hell, Fed would kick Rafa’s tail if forced to play Nadal at 1:37 a.m. in New York – he’d want to get off that court and get his beauty sleep.) However, Tsonga handled the wind of Arthur Ashe Stadium against Fish and was therefore not stepping into this environment as a complete foreigner. My pre-match pick was Tsonga in five sets. Maybe you had more faith in Fed, but even if you did, you were worried sick about this rematch.
You were worried sick – as was I – because you knew that if Federer couldn’t avenge Wimbledon, a new and massive crack in Federer’s aura and his attendant emotional armor would have appeared. Federer would have become the Louis Armstrong Stadium court of the tennis world… blessed with a history of many glorious championship memories, but newly eroded by the lashing rains of time. (Okay, Federer wouldn’t have been stomped on by Andy Roddick – that’s where the analogy with Louis Armstrong court ends – but you get the picture: the crack’s the thing.) Nadal is supposed to fare well against Federer, Djokovic less so but still at an appreciably high rate. However, if Jo-Willy Tshowstopper had managed to put on a Broadway production worthy of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Federer would have lost still more of that precious currency which has enabled him to master the art of major-tournament tennis for so long: the knowledge that he’s been there and done this before, while you haven’t. Against anyone not named Rafael or Novak, Federer takes the court at a major tournament knowing that he’s not only better, but that if he’s under the gun, he can beat you with his mind, his variety, his resourcefulness, his poise, and other weapons that can’t be so tangibly measured. Tsonga Tstood one win away from denting this armor of inner belief and shaking Wogie McFeduruh to his core. The Wimbledon quarterfinal could have been explained away as an ambush-cum-aberration, a one-off event in which Tsonga played with uncommon consistency and composure. Another Jo-Willy jolt in New York, however, would have represented two consecutive major-tournament triumphs over the Swiss. If one (Wimbledon) really is an accident, then two (U.S. Open) damn sure is a trend.
This is why The Fence was on edge heading into the Tshowdown with Jo, the Tstaredown with a moment of reckoning.
See, this wasn’t just a “mere” quarterfinal after all. It meant so much more, and here we sit, marveling at a man who has given us one more special memory to cherish.
This was not a classic match; it did not display the “Jesus Fed” who sent a tennis equivalent of an elegant gift basket to worldwide journalists by winning his late-night Monday match with such swiftness. No, this was not the elite McFeduruh we saw against Juan Monaco. Federer’s serve got broken in each of the first two sets, and Woger stood on the precipice in several other service games that went to 30-all and deuce. Thursday night’s match involved great defense from both men; Federer and Tsonga retrieved a lot of tough first serves and made each other hit an extra ball. Both men broke the other’s serve by chasing down a tough shot and allowing for the possibility of an unforced error. Two of Federer’s five service breaks in the first two sets occurred in much the same way: He bunted a powerful first serve by Tsonga just over the net and into the service box on the Frenchman’s side. Tsonga acquired winning positions on those points, but the angles on his shots were a little tricky, and he went for too much on his follow-up attempts near the net. Yes, those were genuinely unforced errors in a statistical sense, but they were FORCED errors in that Federer – by getting more balls back – gave Tsonga a chance to get nervous and lose focus.
It is one of the great maxims of sports: Make your opponent feel enough pressure to think about the moment. Tsonga did not think at Wimbledon – he was brainless, mindless, a ball-crushing machine in a competitive trance who simply looked at Federer and said, “DEESTROYYYYY HEEEEEM.” That’s how the Frenchman wants to – and has to – operate. Thursday night, McSquishy Pants Daddio made Jo think, and that was the key to success. An over-thinking Tsonga couldn’t reliably mash his first serve for the stacks of cheap points he won at Wimbledon whenever Fed got a 15-30 or love-30 sniff on his serve in sets three through five.
This notion of making Tsonga think was further borne out in two specific tactics: Wrong-footing Tsonga on approaches and volleys, usually to the forehand/deuce corner, and using a body serve, something pointed out by elite Portuguese commentator Miguel Seabra, who works long (and brilliant) hours in the Eurosport booth. Federer realized that against Tsonga, an athlete who can and does hit gorgeous shots while running at full speed, taking away the running game is paramount. Wrong-footing a runner prevents the runner from running. In other words, Fed did what his enemy hoped he wouldn’t do, and that, in short, is a tactical masterclass.
The body serve took the above principle – don’t allow a runner to run – and applied it to the narrower and more specific battle of server versus receiver. You surely noticed in the match that Tsonga was giving Federer the wide serve on both sides, but especially the deuce side. Tsonga owns a considerable degree of wingspan, which gives him the confidence to reach a serve placed to the corners of the box. Federer, realizing this, hit several first serves – far more than against Djokovic in the French semifinals – to the middle of the box, and Tsonga clearly struggled with them. Moreover, the fact of throwing in several (not just one or two for show) body serves likely bought McWoger several more points when he landed a serve down the T or to the wide corner. Tsonga, realizing Fed could go to the body, was that much more hesitant as a receiver. The bottom line is that Federer made Tsonga reconsider his movements and thought processes. The Frenchman didn’t have the composure to hit through these tactics and blast Our Hero into submission.
This guy named Djokovic can wait a day. For now, revenge has been gained, but more than that, Federer gained revenge under enormous pressure. Much as Robin Soderling ambushed Fed at the 2010 French but then failed to beat Roger at the U.S. Open a few months later, the same pattern unfolded with Tsonga between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Sure, it was psychologically easy for Tsonga to play with nothing to lose and hit out against Wogie at the All-England Club, but in a match when Jo-Willy had a little more pressure resting on his shoulders, the free-flowing tennis didn’t flow quite so freely anymore.
A man who knows how to deal with pressure, who knows how to face dangerous opponents when all eyes are watching, gave Tsonga a lesson in mental toughness and handling the big stage.
Clearly, this 30-year-old is still relevant, but saying so smacks of an inferiority complex. No, we don’t need to insist that Federer is still a factor in men’s tennis – that’s not the takeaway from this match, and we don’t have to defend ourselves against naysayers who claim otherwise just to get a reaction from us. What’s important in the wake of this Tso Tso Tsweet conquest of France is that Woger’s mental armor is still very much intact. (The 29 major semifinals, on the road to first place by the end of 2012, is also particularly significant, at least to me.) He can still stare down men who have humbled him and, in the klieg-light glare of pressure, answer them. You might sneak up on Roger Federer in one major tournament, but that means he’s gonna find you and smoke you out if your name isn’t Nadal or Djokovic.
We all worried that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga would show up in Fed’s quarter of the draw.
We all worried that Tsonga would actually meet Fed in the quarterfinals again.
We all worried that Federer would lose and unleash the greatest torrent yet of “decline, downfall and decay” pronouncements that will one day bear a harsh degree of truth. (Our hope is that they don’t emerge until Fed is 38 or 40, but those notions will, at some point, hold true.)
We all worried about this match, this moment, this rendezvous with You Know Who.
Now that Woger has dismissed Tsonga in straights, though, the scenario is anything but awful. It’s actually the perfect reality, the sweet path of redemption, the supremely satisfying restoration of what was lost at Wimbledon, the 30-year-old’s restructuring of what the 29-year-old couldn’t maintain in late June.
It’s no fun walking over hot coals, and the Picket Fence wondered if Roger Federer would meet another fiery death at the hands of a flamethrower from France.
Instead, Federer took a page from the New York weather and the Gene Kelly playbook. He decided to sing in the rain and remind his recent slayer that the only Broadway Joe is Namath, not Tsonga. Theatrical tennis productions in New York are still done best by Swiss daddies with twin mangoes and hair that makes Federbitchez go wild.
Wag that finger, Woger. You earned it. Somehow, that biological tennis clock isn’t ticking so rapidly anymore.
Fencers, the round of Fedrinkas is on me tonight.
Your Guest Woger Blogger,