By Jane Voigt
The buzz around Roland Garros had to have been thick with trepidation and verve, this afternoon. Serena Williams would meet her 2009 French Open nemesis, Svetlana Kuznetsova. And Roger Federer would meet Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, the one man on tour, and a Frenchman to boot, capable of beating any of the Big Four when zoned in.
And boy was Tsonga zoned in. The No. 6 seed did to Federer what Federer did to so many opponents in Majors for a decade. Tsonga forced Federer out of his comfort game, and used the crowd as an extra measure of national assurance.
Serena proved once again, in her first real challenge of the tournament, that breaks in concentration by no means she is out of a match. The two power hitters split the first two sets. Then Kuznetsova, the 2009 French Open champion, went up 2-0 in the third. Serena ran off the next five games and needed just one more to close out her victory, 61 36 63.
For Federer, though, the loss was a tough one. His remarks show his disappointment.
Pretty sad about the match and how I played,” Federer said. “I tried to figure it out. He served and returned better, and I struggled to find my rhythm. I’m disappointed I could not put in a better match.
Tsonga’s traditional celebratory dance was subdued in respect for the man who has made 36 straight Major quarterfinals. But he was all smiles as he spoke with Cedric Pioline on court minutes later.
“I can’t do any better,” he said, grinning ear-to-ear and pleased with his 75 63 63 win.
Two points in particular demonstrated how deeply Tsonga was into his game, and how far away Federer was in affecting that game and athleticism.
One … a screaming running backhand down the line winner where he held the racquet with one hand. Two … in the very next point he hit the same winning shot — a flicker, really — using his normal two-handed backhand. Federer’s head hung in disbelief as French fans raised their appreciation of their hero, “Tsonga” “Tsonga.” Federer probably won’t want to hear that name for months.
Tsonga and Federer are the first set of singles opponents to meet in the quarterfinals of all four Majors. Tsonga defeated Federer one other time in a major quarterfinal — 2011 Wimbledon, home of Federer’s grandest achievements (7 titles) and absolutely his favorite venue.
Tsonga becomes one of three men to have defeated Federer in straight sets at a Major over the last 9 years, too. The other two are Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. If Tsonga defeats David Ferrer in the semifinals, he will enter his first slam final since 2008.
In the Open Era, Tsonga is the first Frenchman to reach five semifinals of a Major. He is also the tenth Frenchman to do so.
As the 2012 season came to a close, Tsonga was asked if he could penetrate the Big Four — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. He did not hesitate, answering no. But his new coaching relationship with Aussie Roger Rasheed has injected Tsonga with a brighter perspective on himself and his game.
Earlier this week, Tsonga told the press,
“For me the real challenge is not to beat one [top player] but to beat several, one after the other.”
ESPN tennis analyst, former player and former coach said on Twitter today that Rasheed never had a bad day in his life. Looks like his positive outlook must have gotten under Tsonga’s skin and into his mind.
However, Federer’s loss sadly signals a steady decline for the Suisse. In 2012, Federer and David Ferrer each won 7 career titles, the most on tour. This year, Federer’s trophy case is bare. As ESPN reported, he won 16 of 27 Majors contested between 2003-2010. Of the 13 that have followed, Federer has played in two and won one: 2012 Wimbledon.
There have been only four occasions since 2008 where all Big Four guns have earned berths in the semifinals of a slam: 2008 U. S. Open, 2011 French Open and U. S. Open, and the 2012 Australian Open. They have taken three of those four spots nine other times. This year they will take only two slots. It has been two years since these four topped out the statistics pile when considering semifinal spots. In 2011 they played in 14 out of 16.
Although Roger Federer has been widely accepted at the GOAT — Greatest of All Time –Serena Williams could grab that epithet for herself. With her win today she became the first U. S. Player, male and female, to reach the semifinals at Roland Garros. It has been a 9-year dry spell for the Americans.
She has won 37 or 38 clay court matches. During that time Williams has lost only six sets. Her last loss was to Virginie Razzano in the first round of The French last year.
Serena capped off her win talking on court with Cedric Pioline, too. Again she spoke French, which she has done a formable job learning. At one point, though, she was dizzy with pronunciations and word choice. She hopped up and down, threw her arms around Pioline and gave him a big hug. As she backed away from the embrace, they high-fived.
Serena probably did more for her profile at that moment in front of the home crowd than she did earning any one of her fantastic tennis records.