Thrills, Chills, and Spills

by: Steve Tignor | July 06, 2012

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AM3If Friday’s semifinal between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic could have been billed as a Clash of the Grand Slam Titans, Andy Murray vs. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was the Fight of the Flawed Talents. Each man is on the short list for the dreaded Best Player Never to Win a Grand Slam Award. Each produces head-spinning winners when they’re feeling confident. Each has struggled with pressure situations. Each has brought hope to his country—Great Britain and France, respectively—only to dash it. 

Murray and Tsonga were also both stopped in the semis at Wimbledon last year. It was hardly surprising that when they put all of their conisderable talents and flaws up against each other in an effort to break the semifinal barrier here for the first time, they produced a predictably unpredictable, slightly mad, and wholly entertaining four sets of tennis on Centre Court. With their thrills, chills and many spills, the Talents outshone the Titans.

For two sets, it appeared that Murray had solved all of his old problems overnight. The Moaner had become the Mover—Murray left the sarcastic self-chatter behind and played with businesslike dispatch. Passive had become Aggressive—Murray gunned 40 winners against 12 errors on the day; he went after his returns and came up with forehand winners on big points; and he had Tsonga, as ESPN commentator Darren Cahill put it, “baffled” by his serve. With a stunning lack of drama, teeth-gnashing, and curse-dropping, Murray rolled through the first two sets 6-3, 6-4. He hit three forehand winners to close the first set, and two service winners in the final game of the second.

“In the beginning it was tough, because he played well. I mean, he didn’t give me one chance,” Tsonga said, exaggerating only slightly. “He didn’t miss one serve. He was really, really good.”

Murray said he “played one bad game,” when he threw in three errors and was broken to start the third set, but that was enough of an opening for Tsonga to charge through. Rushing the net—Tsonga was 45 of 76 up there on the day—and controlling rallies with his forehand, Tsonga saved three break points at 3-1 and ran out the set 6-3. By the fourth, he was playing circus tennis, and making it work. Tsonga, who recently swore off diving, threw himself at everything today. At one point, he took one hand off of his two-handed backhand and whipped a passing shot winner with it.

JWTBut the key to the day, to Murray’s win, and maybe to his chances on Sunday, was the way he handled the Tsonga surge. Despite getting nervous and testy and falling out of the zone he was in for the first two sets, Murray kept going about his business, kept making his serves, and kept going after his forehand. He knew Tsonga, fellow flawed talent, would come down from the clouds just as he had. 

“In terms of focus,” Murray said, “that was probably one of the hardest matches in that respect. When you do win a couple of sets comfortably and you’re getting close to the final of a Slam, it’s really hard just to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of yourself.”

When Tsonga fell from his acrobatic heights in the fourth, Murray was there to take advantage. With the Frenchman serving at 5-6, Murray began with a good backhand return, and followed it with another low pass at 15-30. With two match points, Passive became Aggressive again. This player who has often been criticized for being too cautious threw caution to the wind. He let a forehand crosscourt return fly for a winner, and for a trip to...

Or was it in? The ball landed near the sideline and Tsonga challenged. If you want to get an idea of the spirit in which this match was played, all you had to see was this closing scene. The two players had fought for something each wanted desperately, so desperately that earlier Murray had—accidentally—hit Tsonga in a . . . highly vulnerable spot from close range, sending Jo to the ground. Now the two of them smiled like old friends as they waited for the Hawk-Eye ruling. The ball had been in. Jo embraced Murray and offered his congratulations.

“For me it was a good moment,” the philosophical, and irrepressible, Tsonga said. “Even [though I] lost, I’m still proud of what I did. At the end of this match, I will say, OK, I lost it, but I did my best. Maybe next time, I will have a chance and maybe I will go through.” 

Jo is flawed in his game, perhaps, but not in his words, or his sentiments, or in the life he brings to tennis.

AM1“For me,” he said, “it is always fun to be on the court, and fight, and try to get every ball. I’m not the most talented on the tour but I like to go to war. I enjoy every time on the court.”

When it was over, Murray closed his eyes, but tears flowed through them anyway. After all of the criticism and second-guessing and disappointments and years of effort, he had become, as he didn’t have to be reminded, the first British man to reach the final of his home Slam in 74 years. This man of exceedingly high standards had weathered the pressure, both internal and external.

“You don’t really think about it that much,” Murray said of that pressure. “I think subconsciously at the end of the match, it was obviously very emotional. I haven’t been like that [in tears] before in a semifinal match, so obviously it meant something to me.”

By the time he left the court, Murray was, as always, back on even emotional keel. Where Tsonga expressed his bittersweet emotions with a smile, the monotonic Murray kept whatever joy he felt safely behind the competitor’s mask. Unlike Jo, after all, he was still in the tournament.

“You know,” Murray said, “I spoke to Ivan [Lendl, his coach] after the match.”

What did Ivan the Terrible have to say on such an occasion? Did he let out some of his own bottled-up emotion, reveal the sappy side of the Terminator? Did the tears flow for him, too? Not exactly, it seems.

“Good job,” Lendl told Murray. “You did really well. What time do you want to practice tomorrow?”

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