On the brief changeover after Andy Murray took the first set from Jo-Wilfried Tsonga today at the Urch (a.k.a. the O2 arena, which resembles a giant sea urchin), the Scot asked chair umpire Mohamed Leyhani to confirm what most everybody but himself seemed to know: that by winning that set, he qualified for the second semifinal place (right behind Novak Djokovic) in Group A at the ATP World Tour Finals.
Leyhani should have ignored the question. Remaining in ignorant bliss might have enabled Murray to make shorter work of a match in which he almost blew the the second set (Tsonga had a set point with Murray serving near the end) before he nailed it down, 6-2, 7-6 (3).
The match wrapped up a perfectly dismal World Tour Final for Tsonga, a finalist in this event last year but winless in 12 matches against Top 8 players this year. It’s back to the drawing board for Tsonga, but at least now he has the help of new coach Roger Rasheed for 2013.
Murray looked sharp at the start; he surely knew that all he needed to do to qualify for the single-elimination finale was win a set. He broke Tsonga in the very first game when the hulking Frenchman made a backhand passing shot error. It was just the beginning of Jo-Willy’s problems. Murray held, then ran off four of the next five points to record his second break.
In the blink of an eye, it seemed, it was set/qualifying point for Murray. He converted it when Tsonga overhit a forehand second-serve return.
For all of his talent as a spectacular shotmaker, Tsonga is not a player designed for the kind wind-sucking, warp-speed, angle-busting rallies in which Murray and Djokovic traffic. He’s much better off applying his power and using his energy discreetly, interspersed with those sometimes gloriously athletic episodes in which he specializes.
The problem for Tsonga is that his shot selection is still sometimes baffling, which tees it up for quality opponents, and his backhand is significantly less threatening than his forehand. Murray found that backhand often today, and it almost always ended badly for Tsonga.
Tsonga made one significant adjustment after he was bombarded in that first set. He began to play more aggressively, especially when he had opportunities to move forward to the net. For the match, Tsonga was successful on 19 of 27 trips to the forecourt. I’d guess that 20 of those forays were in the second set. That’s the kind of thing Tsonga needs to keep doing to fully exploit the advantages of his height and power—it also conserved valuable energy that ends up wasted if he repeatedly engages in long rallies that his backhand keeps him from winning.
Much like his round-robin match with Djokovic, Murray was in firm control for a good set and a half. He led Tsonga by 4-2 in the second (and had yet to face a break point), but he appeared to relax while the Frenchman suddenly seemed determined to make a fight of it, even if the effort was a day late and a dollar short.
Murray clung to his one-break lead until the eighth game, when Tsonga reached 0-40 following the longest and perhaps best point of the match, a spirited exchange that featured a little bit of everything and ended when Murray hit a defensive lob just out. Tsonga broke him immediately to get back even at 4-all. Tsonga got to set point in the 12th game, but Murray dispatched that with a convincing inside-out forehand after a brief rally and went on to force the tiebreaker.
From there, it was Murray all the way. Yet another backhand error gave Murray a mini-break for 3-2. After two holds, Tsonga made a forehand error that left him down 2-6. Murray converted his second match point with an ace.