178 and 1
June 29, 2011 -- Roger Federer was the favorite. He thought he could do it, too. Tie Pete Sampras's seven Wimbledon titles. After a little more than an hour's worth of tennis today, Federer was up by two sets. His Grand Slam match record flashed on TV screens, on livestreaming feeds, and across sports media -- 'Roger Federer is 178-0 in Grand Slam matches, after winning the first two sets.'
If viewers not sitting on Centre Court at Wimbledon had to take care of business, they probably got on with it. Some had the presence to hit the record button on the DVR. Those that didn't are the ones whose jaws dropped when they read the news -- Federer blows two set lead, Tsonga moves on to semifinals at Wimbledon for first time.
Of the four quarterfinal matches today, Federer was the only one of the Big Four -- top four seeds -- not to pull off a win. It was the second year in a row that he failed to go beyond the quarterfinals, his 29th consecutive quarterfinal at a major. Last year, he was stunned by Tomas Berdych. The likelihood of that happening again to the six-time Wimbledon champion was minuscule.
Federer's green-grass magic was astonishingly brilliant in the first set, as Tsonga appeared frail, childlike, and tight. He went for his shots, but they missed their targets. He looked as if he were warming up. In the second, his rhythm found the beat. His serve kicked in, but he faltered in the tiebreak. Federer held him to three points.
In the third set, momentum swung. It seemed to happen quickly, as if Tsonga pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Federer missed one point then an overhead. He went down 15-40. He saved one game point, and another to bring the score to deuce. But Tsonga got up another break point and cracked a down-the-line forehand winner to win the game.
"I was two sets down," Tsonga said, as reported by the Associated Press. "I just played unbelievable, served unbelievable and now I'm here. I'm in the semifinal and I can't believe it."
And as the match wore on Federer began to look victimized. He hung his head, moving from deuce to add courts. His balletic footwork was unsophisticated. Was he out of energy? There were no outbursts. No, 'come on!' For a player of his caliber with a desire to win more Grand Slams and tie the record, Federer looked as if he'd checked out mentally.
Tsonga - the #12 seed - went on to win the next three sets with one break of serve in each. He broke Federer in his first service games of both the fourth and fifth sets.
"I played unbelievable," he said immediately upon leaving the court. "Everything was in and yeah that's crazy. I'm so happy. He's the best player in the world."
If you checked out the stats for the match and hadn't watched a single point, you might not be able to discern which man had won.
Federer accumulated 11 unforced errors and over five times as many winners over five sets while Tsonga had 22 unforced errors and 63 winners. Tsonga served 18 aces, Federer 17. Federer's first and second winning point percentages on serve were a notch better than Tsonga's.
The telltale stat stands out -- break point conversions. Federer broke Tsonga once -- the first game of the match -- and never saw another break possibility. He couldn't touch Tsonga's serve, which echoed throughout Centre Court like jet breaking the sound barrier.
"I was quick. I was perfect," Tsonga said. "I served unbelievable. I feel real confident on this shot."
As Tsonga served for the match at 5/4, all eyes were on the underdog. Boris Becker, calling the match for the BBC threw in his sage advice, "get the ball in and pray." Tsonga, to his credit, did much more. He held at love.
This last game personified his performance and attitude throughout the afternoon: gutsy, upbeat, and skillful.
"I was quick. I was perfect," Tsonga told the press. "Even at two sets down I knew I was in the quarterfinal against Roger Federer. It wasn't so bad."
Tsonga is 26. He is one of the most athletic and charismatic players on the ATP tour. His career record isn't as dazzling as you might have been expected, but he has suffered multiple injuries that have kept him out of the game for months at a time.
Hints of a fine season surfaced at the Aegon Classic, held at Queen's Club a week before Wimbledon began. Tsonga defeated Rafael Nadal in the semifinals but lost in the finals to a superior Andy Murray. In Tsonga's match against Nadal he demonstrated keen shot-making and a serve that wouldn't quit ... just like he did today.
Tsonga played similarly against Nadal in the semifinals of The Australian Open in 2008. Tsonga demolished the Spaniard with deft-of-hand volleys, massive serves, and foot speed. We all knew Tsonga was capable of an upset, but his determination and belief today guided him through to a fine ending because the normal course of events would have been a break of serve from the six-time champion. It's didn't happen.
Federer was in the press center within five minutes of the match. He seemed nonplussed, having just lost in his second quarterfinal at Wimbledon. He said this loss would be easier to 'digest' than last year's loss. He said he thought his game was in order that 'I played well,' and he was capable of winning more grand slams.
Mary Carillo may have gotten it right, when she said Federer was 'pathologically optimistic.' But Federer's responses to reporters' questions were nothing more or less than his usual responses. He is sincere, but unwilling to reveal his emotions. He is very polished with the press. He knows how to navigate the questions without provoking ones he probably wouldn't want to approach.
"He came up with some good stuff and some poor things at times," Federer said, as reported by the AP. "He had basically good return games along the way in the third, fourth, and fifth. I think especially the third set; the break I get is very unusual. He chips back a couple, they stay in."
On the other side of the court, after Tsonga fell to the ground in celebration and shook Federer's hand and the chair umpires hand ... he pirouetted on Centre Court with a smile that would melt the most diehard Federer fan.
Tsonga said that this match would be one of the best memories from his career. "It's more special because I beat Roger Federer on the big court."