LONDON – May I cut in?
That may be what Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was thinking when he went out to play the most celebrated guy in tennis, Roger Federer, at Wimbledon. Cut in on Roger, who has won the championship six times, plus 10 other majors?
Ridiculous, right? Especially if you are Jo Tsongas of France, ranked No. 19, 1-4 against the Lord of the Swings – Roger – showing off his brilliance on his favorite patch of grass.
But some strange things happened at the Cathedral of Tennis yesterday. You see, it was an accepted fact that the Fab Four – Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and homeboy Andy Murray would fill the four seats of the semifinals.
Roger is missing. Gone, failing to reach his 29th major semi. It felt like the cathedral had collapsed to his worshippers in the full-house gathering of 14,979. All had been OK and cheery for them as Roger cruised.
But after stumbling vainly through a terrible tie-breaker, the 26-year-old with a Congo background and the looks of a young Muhammad Ali, started throwing knockout punches. He was doing the undoable. Not only was he cutting in on the Fab Four, installing himself, but he severed an incredible Federer record, in winning 3-6, 6-7 (3-7), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4, in just over 3 hours.
Get this –Federer had never lost a majors match with a two set lead. He was 178-0 with such winning leads.
Federer shook his head. “Jo played great. I had chances, but he came up with good stuff. I can remember having only one break point. That’s the way he served [18 aces to Roger’s 17], but I thought I played well, too.” Not quite as well, but better than in losing to Tomas Berdyck in the quarters a year ago.
Was Jo jittery in the fifth set, having broken in the opening game, and hanging onto the last 5 service games.
“No, not at all. I like big situations like that. It felt good, even when I was behind by two sets. I was supposed to hit the ball and I hit it. It was like in a dream.”
His forehand was a winner, and he mixed things well with serve-and-volleying and superlative retrieving, his long legs – he’s 6-3 – taking him everywhere. Tsonga first came to attention at the Australian Open of 2008, overpowering Nadal, losing the final to Djokovic. Numerous injuries have held him back.
Shaky at the end? He allowed no break points, in the last three sets, closed with four speedy service winners: 130 MPH, 128, 135, 133. “Tough to do anything against that kind of serving,” Federer said. “When he needed a big point he got it.”
Tough also to do anything against the reigning champion, Nadal. But Mardy Fish, the American lone stranger in the quarters, did surprising well, taking a set with his attacking instincts and volleys, 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, only the second foe to win a set from Nadal in these championships. This was Mardy’s best major, lifting him past Andy Roddick as the best of the US. He’ll move in with his sidekick, Roddick, as the American singles starters as Spain invades Austin, Texas, for Davis Cup July 8-10. The best news for rookie US Capt Jim Courier is that Nadal will not play.
With Federer chased, it looked for a while that that the new kid on the rectangle, 18-year-old Bernard Tomic, might cut into the Fabs, too, and make it the Terrible Twos. A qualifier who almost lost in the trials, Tomic brings sunshine (not much of it around here) to the faces of Australians who have been living through hard times since the glory days of Laver, Rosewall, Newcombe, Hoad, Rafter, Hewitt et al.
Tomic was beating Djokovic for a while with his smooth groundies (both-handed backhands) along the lines and carefree, competitive nature. But he got careless here and there, and Djokovic, he of the 41 match streak, but desperate at times, took over 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 – down 3-1 in the third. Djokovic said, “I had to work hard for my points in long rallies, and he hit some great shots.
It was Bernard’s first Wimbledon (8 matches including quallies), and he loved it, as did the starving Aussies. He’s 6-4 and should develop more power. “I don’t see why I won’t win it some day,” he smiled, ready to head for the US hard court campaign.
Desperate for a champion, (the last male to win, Fred Perry in 1936), British hopes bloom stronger than ever. As always, as Andy Murray turned off the Spanish lefty Felicio Lopez, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. Now it’s Andy in his third successive semifinal – but up against Nadal — while Tsonga hopes to keep his magic kindled tomorrow opposite Djokovic.
Do you mind if I cut in, wonders Tsonga. I have a reference named Federer.