A point from losing the first set of his French Open quarterfinal, Roger Federer shanked a routine forehand, sending the ball 10 feet beyond the opposite baseline.
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The Court Philippe Chatrier crowd roared with approval, then loudly chanted the last name of Federer’s opponent, Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
That shot was a clear indication that Federer was hardly Federesque on this day. There were plenty of others: He argued with the chair umpire about a call. He dumped overhead smashes into the net. And in a truly rare ungraceful moment, he failed to put a racket to — or get out of the way of — a backhand flip by a sliding Tsonga, instead getting hit on the back.
All in all, Federer looked lost out there Tuesday against the sixth-seeded Tsonga, who pounded his way to a 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 victory over the 17-time Grand Slam champion in a 1-hour, 51-minute mismatch remarkable for its lopsidedness and brevity.
”I struggled a little bit everywhere. To be honest, personally, I’m pretty sad about the match and the way I played. But that’s how it goes. I tried to figure things out, but it was difficult. And Jo does a good job keeping the pressure on,” Federer said.
”He was just … better in all areas,” continued Federer, whose lone French Open title, in 2009, allowed him to equal Pete Sampras’ then-record of 14 major championships. ”He returned better than I did. Served better than I did. I struggled to find my rhythm.”
Next for Tsonga will be No. 4 David Ferrer, who stopped the wild ride of No. 32 Tommy Robredo 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 in an all-Spanish quarterfinal. Robredo won each of his previous three matches despite dropping the first two sets, the first man since 1927 to do that a Grand Slam tournament.
”I wasn’t 100 percent ready to fight” on Tuesday after so many lengthy matches, Robredo said, adding: ”And playing with a guy like David, who is a machine, it’s very tough to be like that.”
Ferrer reached his sixth major semifinal; he has yet to win one.
Noting that Tsonga so easily beat Federer, Ferrer said: ”I was a bit surprised.”
Federer hadn’t lost in straight sets before the semifinals at any Grand Slam tournament since a third-round defeat against Gustavo Kuerten in the 2004 French Open.
Starting a month later, when he won Wimbledon, Federer began a stretch of nearly eight full years in which he was unbeaten in Grand Slam quarterfinals, reaching the semifinals at a record 23 major tournaments in a row. Since that run ended, though, quarterfinal exits are becoming a regular occurrence: He has lost at that stage in five of the past 13 Slams, twice to Tsonga, who was the runner-up at the 2008 Australian Open and is trying to give France its first men’s champion at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah 30 years ago.
”Everybody’s expecting a lot from me,” Tsonga said.
The other quarterfinal setback against Tsonga came at Wimbledon in 2011, when Federer lost for the first time in 179 matches after taking the opening two sets.
”He’s got a big game. He takes time away from you,” Federer said. ”He can change defense to offense very quickly. Similar traits to what I have, I guess, really.”
Quite a compliment.
This is someone who reached 10 straight Grand Slam finals from 2005-07, winning eight titles. He also appeared in eight major finals from 2008-10, winning four. But since that run ended, Federer has played in two of the last 13 Slam title matches, winning one, Wimbledon last year.
He actually began well Tuesday, leading 4-2. But that’s where he got broken for the first of six times by Tsonga, who let four match points slip away in a quarterfinal loss to Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros in 2012.
”Give him credit: He’s playing in his home Grand Slam, in the quarterfinals, against … the all-time great, and was a break down at the start of the first set. And then was able to stick with it,” said Roger Rasheed, who began coaching Tsonga last October.
Federer struggled in the fourth round Sunday against another Frenchman, 15th-seeded Gilles Simon, taking an awkward tumble and falling behind 2-1 in sets. But Federer said after Tuesday’s loss he was fine physically.
His game was not fine, not at all, on this day. And Tsonga took full advantage.
Federer had won nine of their previous 12 matches. When they met at the net for a handshake after this one, Tsonga kiddingly thanked Federer for letting him win this time, and both men chuckled.
”Sports, it’s beautiful, because you can always do something. Even if you play, you know, the best player in the world … you have a chance,” Tsonga said. ”Because the guy in front of you (has) two legs, two arms, one head.”
These days, Federer sure does seem more human on a tennis court than he used to.