LONDON—A round-robin format often lends itself to complicated qualification scenarios, but there was nothing of the sort as Rafael Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga faced each other knowing that the winner would progress as the second semifinalist from Group B, and the loser would go home. It was winner-takes-all at the O2, and that winner was Tsonga, 7-6(2), 4-6, 6-3.
From the outset, Tsonga’s game plan was simple and audacious—strike into Nadal’s backhand and get to the net as quickly as possible. From beginning to end, he never stopped attempting that tactic, and by and large, executed it superbly. A key element of Tsonga’s game is his attacking returns, and he had 0-15 and some 0-30 advantages on Nadal’s serve throughout the first set. However, Tsonga’s only actual break points came early, at 1-2, and the Spaniard saved both.
Tsonga finally broke clear in the tiebreak, battering Nadal back on his heels and taking two points on his opponent’s serve for a 5-2 lead, before sealing the tiebreak with an ace. The Frenchman’s first-service rate however dropped twenty percent to 41 in the second set, and the balance gradually shifted, with Nadal succeeding in putting his opponent on the back foot for the first time in the match. Tsonga’s returns began to land out more often than they landed in, generally accompanied with a plaintive “ah non!”, and for the first time his unforced errors began to catch up with his winners. Serving to stay in the set, Tsonga collapsed in a disappointing rerun of the conclusion of his three-set match against Federer.
There was a hint of an opportunity for Nadal to capitalize on his momentum when Tsonga, serving at 0-1, gave up 0-15, then hit a less-than-sharp volley which Nadal chased down—but the Spaniard shunted it wide, Tsonga recovered, and he went on to break twice to lead 5-2. Tsonga wavered and eventually double-faulted his chance to serve out the match, but more aggressive play gave him 0-30 on Nadal’s serve, an unlucky net cord carried the ball out for three match points, and Tsonga grabbed the first with a mammoth cross-court forehand winner and a memorable win.
It is not the end of Nadal’s year, but it is the end of what has not been a successful sojourn in London for the Spaniard. Tsonga, on the other hand, secured his place in the semifinals with both hands, and there is one statistic which tells the story of how he did it more than any other: Nadal won three out of 12 points at net, Tsonga 27 out of 36. Once again, all-out aggressive tennis proved the most effective tactic on the O2 court.