MELBOURNE—It didn’t require the Houdini act that Novak Djokovic pulled off here the other evening, but Roger Federer’s 7-6(4), 4-6, 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-3 quarterfinal win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga tonight in Rod Laver Arena required every trick, tactic, and shot in Federer’s vaunted repertoire.
Federer wasn’t as razor-sharp as he had been in his first four matches. Coming into tonight, he hadn’t dropped serve once; Tsonga broke him fives times. Federer committed nearly as many errors as winners, 47 to 49, was shaky with his forehand at various stages, and won just five more points than Jo overall. But this was a big-point match, and Federer won enough of those to hold off the hard-charging and mostly hot-hitting Frenchman.
That’s how the first set played out. Federer jumped on a jumpy Jo to break first, but soon Tsonga had found his range, and his strategy—let it fly, flat and deep, from the baseline. More than that, Jo had a positive vibe, one that he carried through all of his up and downs over the course of this three-hour contest. He has recently begun to work with a new coach, Roger Rasheed (formerly with Lleyton Hewitt and Gael Monfils), and there was a steady, upbeat focus to Tsonga tonight that we haven't always seen from him over the long haul of a five-setter.
But the ups and downs were still very much in evidence, and they formed the terrain of this match. One of Jo’s dips came at an inopportune moment, the start of the first set tiebreaker. Serving first, he drilled a backhand into the net to go down an immediate mini-break, and never recovered. Federer sealed it with a brilliant serve and swing volley combination.
The third-set breaker was even more important. This one was close all the way, as the two traded forehand winners. At 3-3, Federer anticipated a Tsonga serve and won the point with a stinging forehand pass, and at 5-4, he hit what turned out to be the shot of the match, a backhand down the line that fooled Tsonga and skidded past him. Perhaps in tribute to his countryman Stan Wawrinka, Federer followed that Stan-like shot with a Stan-like wail of celebration. He knew it was big. Tsonga sent a volley wide on the next point, and Federer was up two sets to one.
Tsonga had more runs and more winners in him, but he was fighting an uphill battle after that. The most interesting, and heartening, moment of the evening for him came when he went down 0-40 on his serve at 1-1 in the fourth. Coming right after the tiebreaker, this looked like the nail in the coffin. But Tsonga kept his head up, his fist pumped, and his serve on the T, and he eventually saved four break points to hold. If that’s the effect that Rasheed has had, he’s already helping. (Next on the improvement list: Jo’s volley. He ran through half a dozen of them and ended up just 33 of 50 at the net.)
As for Federer, he bided his time and waited for Jo to come back down, which he did at 1-2 in the fifth. That game and the next showed off Federer at his masterful, varied, athletic best. He was content to rally and let Tsonga hit himself into a break of serve, and then, in the next game, go on the attack with a sweeping backhand approach and a pretty spry smash for a 31-year-old—spry for a 21-year-old, for that matter.
His close-out was an adventure, but again it was just enough. After squandering four match points at 5-2, and going down 15-30 while serving for the match at 5-3, Federer came up with a customary service winner, another rally-changing backhand down the line, and finished it, after three and a half hours of play, with one last outstretched smash.
It took a while, and Federer had his own dips along the way, but he was successfully aggressive in the cool, ball-slowing night air—he won 42 points in 58 trips to the net. His next opponent, Andy Murray, is a very different type of player from Tsonga. But as with Jo tonight, Federer will need to go to few different wells to make it to the final. He seems to have them ready.