If you can beat Roger Federer at Wimbledon, as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did in 2011, you might feel you could beat him anywhere — especially if you were returning as well as the big Frenchman did on Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday night.
But, no, Federer in 2013 is embarking on another campaign looking as sharp, as keen and as dangerous as ever and came through a big battle that got better the longer it lasted 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-3.
It was Federer’s 33rd appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal and the 10th consecutive year that has seen him reach the last four or better at Melbourne Park.
Even so, it was evident from the start that Federer wasn’t timing the ball with quite the same, sweet precision that he had against Milos Raonic and Bernard Tomic in earlier rounds. But then this was heavyweight opposition of a different caliber, a former Australian Open finalist who can disrupt anyone’s rhythm with his pounding serves and athletic court coverage.
"It was extremely tough out there," said Federer. "The sets could have gone either way. Jo was extremely aggressive; came in a lot and returned really well."
Tsonga is now being coached by Australian Roger Rasheed, who looked after Gael Monfils for three years, and some improvements were evident in his game, especially on the return of serve. Frequently, Federer found himself lunging to stay in the point and it was a sign of Tsonga’s aggressive intent that he hit 17 winners to Federer’s seven in the fourth set, which the Frenchman took 6-3.
But, in the fourth game of the fifth set, he handed Federer an advantage that was to prove fatal. Three errors on the backhand allowed the Swiss star to surge ahead 3-1 and although the level of hitting off the ground rose to dizzying heights toward the end with the ball flying across the net as if fired from a gun, Jo-Wilfried was fighting a rear-guard action as he saved four match points at 3-5.
The match was played in great spirit between two players who have known each other for years, and when Federer produced a ridiculous backhand drop shot which hit the tape and fell over onto the line, Tsonga, who ended up on Roger’s side of the net as he chased it, feinted as if to throw a ball at his adversary. But there was a grin on his face as he did it and the 15,000 fans, who were cheering both men, laughed with him.
They loved it, too, when Federer, talking to Jim Courier on court afterward, said, "I’m a big fan of tennis. I watch all the night sessions at all the tournaments, so I hope some people like watching me."
Cue for cheers and more adoration of a man whose worldwide fan base rivals some of the most famous soccer stars.
Federer’s victory ensured that the top four seeds would take their allotted places in the semifinals for the second straight year. The only change is David Ferrer replacing the absent Rafael Nadal, but basically the Top-4 Club is looking as impregnable as ever.
Earlier, Andy Murray had hit his way past Jeremy Chardy of France 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 and refuted suggestions that he would be undercooked for the semifinal after a string of easy victories.
"Who knows?" he replied. "I had some good matches in Brisbane (where he won the title). So I can’t be disappointed about being in the semis of a Slam without dropping a set. That would be silly."
Murray also refused to be drawn into any complaint over the scheduling that has seen him play all his matches in the afternoon, which could be seen as poor preparation for playing Federer under the lights when the Swiss has played most of his matches in the evening.
"If I was the tournament director, I would also have put Federer and Tsonga on as the night match tonight because that was the best match of the day. So I have no complaints about the schedule at all. I’ll go out and hit balls under the lights over on Hisense Arena tonight and again tomorrow so I’ll be as best prepared as possible and that’s it."