ROTTERDAM (Feb. 11, 2013) — World No. 2 Roger Federer and Dutch wheelchair tennis player Esther Vergeer took part in the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament opening ceremony in Rotterdam today. All suited and dressed up, the two hit some balls on court amid pyrotechnics on center court.
Earlier in the day, defending champion Federer paid a visit to the media for a pre-tournament press conference. “I feel at home in Rotterdam. This is one of the best indoor tournaments in the world with a very strong field and always lots of spectators.” Later in the day he joked about hoping to “win some match this week,” before having a hit with David Goffin and congratulating Benoit Paire on reaching the final in Montpellier last week.
In first round match play, No. 3 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was frustrated by and eventually lost in three sets to wildcard Igor Sijsling, 7-6(3), 4-6, 6-4.
“I’m very happy”, said Sijsling after the match. “This is perhaps my best victory ever. To beat a top-10 player in my own country in front of such an audience. Thank you all.”
In similar fashion, Martin Klizan also took out Paul Henri Mathieu, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5. “I’m very happy with this victory,” beamed Klizan. “It was a tough first round fight. It was fun with many spectators in the stands. I hope I can keep this level.”
(Gallery by Tennis Grandstand photographer Rick Gleijm.)
Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay. Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.
Rotterdam: Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil. He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny. Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage. Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall. Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.
Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen: the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon. No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach. Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal. His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.
Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms. Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress. A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013. Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here. The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.
Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro. While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy. Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface. Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.
Final: Tsonga vs. Del Potro
San Jose: In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy. Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best. In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic. Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal. Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.
Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings. Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories. He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic. Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.
If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter. Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200. Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points. Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings. Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago. Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?
The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells. Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend. No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse. Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.
Final: Querrey vs. Verdasco
Sao Paulo: In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe. Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception. One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible. Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.
Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game. The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them. Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup. Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.
World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later. At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity. A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss. Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar. The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.
The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne. While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury. Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before. Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian. The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey. Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?
Final: Nadal vs. Almagro
Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.
Eight first-round Davis Cup ties unfold around the world this weekend. We discuss the key players and themes that might emerge from each of them.
Canada vs. Spain: Without any of their top three men, Davis Cup Goliath Spain finds itself at a surprising disadvantage when it travels to the western coast of North America. Had either Nadal or Ferrer participated in this tie against Canada, the visitors would remain heavy favorites even against a squad spearheaded by Milos Raonic and aging doubles star Daniel Nestor. Instead, Canada now can rely on two victories from their singles #1 against the overmatched pair of Marcel Granollers and Albert Ramos, forcing Spain to sweep the remaining three matches. Among those is a doubles rubber that pits Nestor against World Tour Finals champions Granollers and Marc Lopez, who lost three of their four Davis Cup doubles rubbers last year. If the tie reaches a live fifth rubber, as seems plausible, Spanish champion Alex Corretja might consider substituting Guillermo Garcia-Lopez for Ramos against the net-rushing Frank Dancevic. Buoyed by their home crowd, though, Canada should find a way to snatch one of the three non-Raonic rubbers and send Spain to the playoff round for the first time in recent memory.
Italy vs. Croatia: This tie should hinge on home-court advantage and the choice of ground that it entails. On a fast hard court, the formidable serves of Marin Cilic and Ivan Dodig would stifle the less imposing firepower of the Italians. But Croatia faces Andreas Seppi and Fabio Fognini on the red clay of Turin, a slow surface where the superior consistency of the hosts should lead them to victory. The visitors will face the intriguing choice of whether to substitute their singles stars on Saturday for a doubles pairing almost certainly doomed to defeat. Three straight days of best-of-five matches for Cilic, Dodig, or both would leave them even more vulnerable to the Italian war of attrition, though. At any rate, the contrast of styles between the fearless first strikes of the Croats and the patient baseline rallying of the Italians should provide entertaining viewing.
Belgium vs. Serbia: One might see Djokovic’s name on the schedule and automatically checking off the “Serbia” box, but a few flickers of doubt persist. First, the Australian Open champion may have arrived physically and mentally drained from his recent exploits, and he has struggled against Friday opponent Olivier Rochus throughout his career. Breaking from a long history of Davis Cup participation, Serbian #2 Janko Tipsarevic cannot step into the breach if Djokovic falters. That duty lies in the suspect hands of Viktor Troicki, who endured a miserable 2012, and in the aging hands of Nenad Zimonjic, well past his prime despite his many accomplishments. Serbia thus might find itself in real trouble if they played a team with a notable talent, like Canada. With just the 32-year-old Rochus and the volatile but unreliable David Goffin barring their path, however, they should advance even if their stars underperform.
USA vs. Brazil: Tennis Grandstand will feature more detailed coverage of this tie over the weekend. For the moment, we will note that Team USA stands in promising position with two serving leviathans on an indoor hard court, complemented by the reigning Australian Open doubles champions. While Isner did not win a match in January as he struggled with a knee injury, and Querrey did not impress in Melbourne, both should steamroll the harmless Brazilian #2 Thiago Alves. In the best-case scenario for Brazil, which would feature two victories for their #1 Bellucci, their doubles duo of Marcelo Melo and Bruno Soares still should fall short against the Bryans. All of these Americans have played some of their best tennis on home soil and in Davis Cup, including on less friendly surfaces, whereas Brazil has accomplished little of note in this competition recently.
France vs. Israel: Across from one team that often proves less than the sum of its talents in Davis Cup stands a team that typically overperforms expectations at the national level. Whereas France will bring two members of the top 10 to this tie, Israel can claim no top-100 threat in singles. The fast indoor hard court should allow the offensive might of Tsonga to overwhelm Dudi Sela and Amir Weintraub, although the latter has developed into a more credible threat over the last several months. In a tantalizing doubles rubber, a battle of all-stars pits Jonathan Ehrlich and Andy Ram against Julien Benneteau and Michael Llodra. Underdogs in every singles rubber and arguably the doubles too, Israel can hope for an upset only if Gasquet crumbles under the pressure of playing for national pride on home soil as he has so infamously before. Otherwise, the talent gap simply looms too large.
Argentina vs. Germany: Perhaps the most tightly contested tie, this battle on outdoor red clay will unfold in the absence of Del Potro, who would have given the home squad a clear edge. While Argentina will field a squad of clay specialists, leading Germans Philipp Kohlschreiber and Florian Mayer have acquitted themselves well on the surafce and should not find themselves at a disadvantage parallel to Croatia in Italy. Much rests on the shoulders of Juan Monaco, tasked with avoiding the daunting 0-2 deficit after Kohlschreiber likely opens the tie by dismissing Carlos Berlocq. The top Argentine here enjoyed his best season to date last year but did not start 2013 especially well. Lurking in the shadows, as he so often does, is long-time Argentine Davis Cup hero David Nalbandian. Argentina will hope that Nalbandian’s contribution in doubles on Saturday will combine with two Monaco victories to give them the points that they need without reaching a live fifth rubber. There, one would favor Mayer to overcome both Berlocq and the Argentine crowd.
Pick: Er, Argentina?
Kazakhstan vs. Austria: In a tie without a singles star of note, the opportunity beckons for someone to seize the spotlight in a way that he could not at a major. The most likely candidate to do so would seem Austrian #1 Jurgen Melzer, the only top-100 singles player on either side. His opponents can produce better tennis than their current rankings suggest, though, and Andrey Golubev already has started the tie in promising fashion with a straight-sets victory over Andreas Haider-Maurer. The doubles edge probably belongs to Austria with the greater expertise of Alexander Peya and Julian Knowle, specialists who will allow the 31-year-old Melzer to rest for Sunday. Excluded from the initial lineup is top-ranked Kazakh Mikhail Kukushkin, whose absence will force #211 Evgeny Korolev to win a best-of-five match for the hosts to survive.
Switzerland vs. Czech Republic: While Tomas Berdych is the highest-ranked man in this clash between nearby nations, the most intriguing role goes to opposing #1 Stanislas Wawrinka. After he came far closer than anyone to toppling Djokovic at the Australian Open, the latter may suffer a hangover in a competition where he has struggled lately. Moreover, Switzerland leans on Wawrinka to win both of his singles matches and contribute to a doubles victory on the intervening day, an enormous challenge for the sternest of competitors when the last of those matches involves Berdych. The Czech Republic will not enlist the services of Radek Stepanek, a rare absentee this weekend like Tipsarevic, but singles #2 Lukas Rosol intimidates much more than anyone that Switzerland can throw at him. In the Federer/Wawrinka era, no Swiss team ever has presented the united front that the defending champions have behind Berdych. The medium-slow hard court should not trouble the broad-shouldered world #6 unduly.
Pick: Czech Republic
1. Agnieszka Radwanska needs more weapons: Radwanska is many people’s favourite player with her quirky, imaginative style – combining speed with a deft touch. But despite arriving in Melbourne in the form of her life, we saw Radwanska come unstuck in the latter stages once again when up against a big hitter. Despite having more variety than Caroline Wozniacki, it appears she could suffer the Dane’s fate of always falling short at the majors unless she learns to attack a little more.
2. Bernard Tomic still has a huge ego: Don’t get me wrong, Tomic has impressed me so far this season but he’s not as close to the top 10 as he thinks. ‘It’s only a matter of time before I get my ranking up alongside these guys,’ he told us after losing in straight sets to Roger Federer. Before we start believing that, Tomic needs to start producing the goods, outside of Australia.
3. Maria Sharapova’s serve is still an Achilles heel: As unexpected as Serena Williams’ loss to Sloane Stephens was, Sharapova’s demolition at the hands of Li Na a day later was almost as surprising. Like many people, after a week’s action in Melbourne I had the Russian nailed on as the champion. But the first time she seriously came under some pressure, her serve folded and her error strewn display saw her bomb out with a whimper.
4. Roger Federer checks betting odds: Now we’re sure that Roger doesn’t gamble with all the strict match-fixing regulations imposed by the ATP these days but he still keeps up with the odds. After beating Milos Raonic in the fourth round, he informed us that he’d seen Novak Djokovic’s odds ahead of his match with Stanislas Wawrinka and he thought they were really disrespectful to his fellow Swiss. Bet365, you’ve been told!
5. The tennis world is prone to overreacting: We couldn’t help but sympathize for poor old Victoria Azarenka who had to take on Li Na in front of a very hostile Rod Laver Arena who cheerfully applauded her double faults and her every error. Ok Azarenka may have been guilty of playing a few games in her semi-final but she wasn’t the first to do so and she won’t be the last. Plus Sloane Stephens had only held 1 service game in the entire match so one can hardly say it was a surprise she got broken after Azarenka’s ‘time out.’ Part of this is the fault of the press who whipped the Aussie public into a frenzy over the Belarussian’s alleged ‘cheating.’
6. Modesty gets you nowhere: Like many people, I was pretty disappointed by David Ferrer’s comments after his semi-final demolition at the hands of Djokovic. ‘These guys are just better than me. What can I do?” shrugged Ferrer. The Spaniard had played extremely well en route to the semis but you sense he just doesn’t believe he can beat Djokovic, Federer or Murray which is a disappointing attitude for the world number 4 to have.
7. The equal pay debate will always come up at the slams: The one-sided routs which Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams handed out for the first four rounds saw plenty of grumblings arise from the men’s game. Just like at Wimbledon last year. And at virtually every slam. While it’s a little disappointing that Sharapova was able to win her first two matches without conceding a single game, one should also look at just how easily Djokovic and Murray won their first few matches before pointing the finger.
8. Tsonga can get away with outrageous things: How did he get away with saying this? After losing to Roger Federer in 5 sets, the Frenchman was questioned on why there’s more upsets in women’s tennis. He replied, “You know, the girls, they are more unstable emotionally than us. I’m sure everybody will say it’s true, even the girls (laughter). No? No, you don’t think? But, I mean, it’s just about hormones and all this stuff. We don’t have all these bad things, so we are physically in a good shape every time, and you are not. That’s it.” If Djokovic, Federer or Murray had said that they would have been publicly castrated but instead this caused barely a ripple.
9. No excuses from Murray: Many players would have blamed blisters maybe a sore hamstring for losing to Djokovic in 4 sets in the Australian Open final. Federer gained a bit of a reputation at one time for finding injury-related excuses to explain his occasional defeat. But Murray deserves huge credit for telling the press that they had no impact on the match and Djokovic simply played the big points better.
10. Djokovic has found his mecca in Melbourne: There’s no doubt that the Australian Open is Djokovic’s favourite slam. He’s said many times that Rod Laver Arena is his favourite stadium in the world and it seems to inspire him to new heights every year. Just as Rafa Nadal is a different beast at Roland Garros, Wimbledon brings out something extra-special in Federer, Djokovic has found his mecca in Melbourne.
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Having completed the recap of the WTA field at the Australian Open, we issue report cards for the ATP. As before, grading reflects not just results but expectations, quality of opposition, and other factors.
Djokovic: The master of Melbourne like none before him, the Serb became the first man in the Open era to finish on top Down Under three straight years. That record span of dominance over a tournament that famously has eluded dominance came with a satisfying serving (note the word choice) of revenge over Murray, who had defeated him in the US Open final. Consolidating his current control over what looks like the ATP’s next marquee rivalry, Djokovic won his third straight match in it after losing the first set in all of them. Vital to his success was the series of 44 consecutive holds with which he ended the tournament, strangling two of the game’s best returners in Ferrer and Murray. Those top-five opponents managed break points in just two of Djokovic’s service games through the semifinal and final as he repeatedly won 30-30 and deuce points throughout the tournament—with one notable exception in his epic against Wawrinka. The undisputed world #1 survived and then thrived in running his winning streak over top-eight opponents to eleven. Overpowering Ferrer and outlasting Murray, Djokovic showed that he can—and will—do virtually anything to win. A+
Murray: The US Open champion came closer than many anticipated to becoming the first man to win his second major on the next opportunity after his first. Murray admittedly benefited from a puff pastry of a pre-semifinal draw, which allowed him to conserve energy for that five-setter against Federer. Threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory at the end of the fourth set in that match, he showed remarkable resilience by bouncing back to claim an early lead in the fifth and close out the man who had tormented him at majors. Murray maintained a nearly impenetrable rhythm on serve throughout that match, and his forehand continued its maturation into a real weapon. He will rue the three break points that he let escape early in the second set of the final, which could have unfolded entirely differently otherwise. But Murray was right to consider the tournament an important consolidation of last year’s success. A
Federer: Handed the most difficult draw of the top three, he showed just how well his game can silence players who rely heavily on their serves in ousting Tomic and then Raonic. Federer defended crisply and moved as alertly as he has in years past during the five-set quarterfinal with Tsonga that followed, which unveiled the full range of his weapons from the explosive to the delicate. But his struggles to break serve caught up with him against Murray, whom he could not crack for three and a half sets even as his own serve came under frequent pressure. Probably drained by the Tsonga epic, Federer faded in the fifth set despite mounting an impressive surge to swipe the fourth. He finished the tournament by winning all six of his tiebreaks, a sure sign that he remains one of the sport’s best competitors under pressure. A
Ferrer: Never looking his best during the fortnight, he backed into the #4 ranking rather than charging into it with confidence. Ferrer probably should have lost to Almagro in the fourth round, outplayed for most of the first four sets and kept alive only by his compatriot’s shocking inability to deliver the coup de grace. Thoroughly exposed by Djokovic in the semifinals, he suffered his second humiliating defeat at that stage of a major over the last twelve months as he offered little better than batting practice for the Serb’s weaponry. Ferrer said consistently this fortnight that he considers himself a clear level below the Big Four, and his results against them on grand stages continue to make his point for him. B
Tsonga: The Frenchman slipped to 13 straight losses against top-eight opponents here, but the manner in which he did contained kernels of hope for the season. Not folding meekly to Federer as he had in an earlier Australian Open, Tsonga regrouped from losing the first set in a tiebreak to win the second and regrouped from losing the third set in a tiebreak to win the fourth. He even spared no effort in battling Federer down to the finish in a fifth set tenser than the scoreline showed. Also likely to please new coach Roger Rasheed was his greater efficiency in closing out overmatched opponents in the previous four rounds. Docked a notch for his Neanderthal-like comments about women’s tennis. B+
Almagro: As the percipient Steve Tignor of Tennis.com noted, sometimes a player’s greatest achievement can turn into his greatest catastrophe within a handful of points. Jerking Ferrer around the court for two and a half sets, Almagro astonished audiences by his newfound courage against an opponent who had won all 12 of their previous meetings. He will remember his first quarterfinal at a hard-court major for the wrong reasons, though, once he failed to serve it out three times across the third and fourth sets before succumbing to cramps as well as the crushing weight of his disappointment in the fifth. B-
Chardy: Not only did he upset Del Potro with inspired attacking tennis, but he followed up that five-set victory by grinding out a four-setter against the recently dangerous Seppi. The Frenchman came from nowhere to reach his first major quarterfinal and in the process showed considerable courage. Chardy almost pulled off an Almagro against the Tower of Tandil, gagging on triple break point midway through the third set when he had won the first two. Unlike the Spaniard, he mustered one last surge in the fifth with an unexpected fearlessness to finish what he had started. A-
Berdych: Drawn against the top seed in a quarterfinal for the second straight major, he could not find the same thunderbolts that he had hurled at the US Open. Or perhaps Berdych simply matches up more effectively to Federer than to Djokovic, who has won all eleven of their hard-court meetings. Before that relatively tame four-set loss, however, he recorded four straight-sets victories that bode well for his consistency, always the main question for him. He leaves the Australian Open as the man outside the Big Four most likely to win a major this year, although he will need some help to do so. B+
Del Potro: Through the first two rounds, the Tower of Tandil looked not only sturdy but downright terrifying. Just when people began to take him seriously as a dark horse title threat, Del Potro turned into the Leaning Tower of Pisa when he tottered to the exit in a strangely enervated effort. That five-set loss to Chardy at the end of the first week marked a setback in a surge that started with his bronze-medal victory at the Olympics, departing from his recent steadiness against opponents outside the top ten. F
Tipsarevic: He looked every inch a top-eight seed in dismantling sentimental favorite Hewitt before his home crowd on Rod Laver Arena, where the Aussie had wrought so many miracles before. Striking winners down both lines with abandon, Tipsarevic appeared to make an imposing statement. Then he wobbled through two five-setters and retired against Almagro, not a surprising result for a man who has completed a career Golden Slam of retirements. C
ATP young guns: Heralded with enthusiasm when the tournament began, none of these prodigies left a meaningful impact on the tournament. Brisbane finalist Dimitrov became the first man to exit Melbourne, failing to win a set in his opener, and Raonic succumbed to Federer much more routinely than he had in their three meetings last year. Tomic produced a stronger effort against the Swiss star than he did last year but still lost in straight sets after struggling mightily with a qualifier in the previous round. And American fans need not have watched Harrison’s ignominious loss to Djokovic for long to realize how far this alleged future star must improve before mounting a credible threat. Last but not least, Paris finalist Jerzy Janowicz narrowly avoided a second-round implosion over a dubious line call and rallied to win after losing the first two sets—sets that he should not have lost in the first place. Janowicz did at least progress as far as his seed projected, and many of these young men received difficult draws, but the breakthrough of young stars that many expected here happened almost entirely on the women’s side. C+
Bryan brothers: At their most productive major, they closed within four major titles of Federer by comfortably winning the final after some close scrapes earlier in the fortnight. The Bryans have earned some of their most consistent success in Australia, where they have reached nine finals and five consecutively. Djokovic still has some work to do before he can approach the numbers of these twins whose talents never seem to fade. A
Djokovic vs. Wawrinka: Undoubtedly the match of the tournament, it represented the high point of Wawrinka’s career to date. The Swiss #2 basked in the spotlight while cracking his exquisite one-handed backhands to all corners of the court and taking control of rallies with his penetrating cross-court forehand. Wawrinka even served at Federer-like heights for much of the match, outside a predictable stumble when he approached a two-set lead. Stunned by the brio of his opponent, Djokovic needed a set and a half to settle into the match. The underdog then needed about a set and a half to regroup from the favorite’s charge, at which point the fourth and fifth sets featured spellbinding tennis all the more remarkable for the ability of both men to sustain their quality. Fittingly, the match ended only after Wawrinka had saved two match points with breathtaking shot-making and only with a rally that forced both men to pull out nearly every weapon in their arsenals. A+
Simon vs. Monfils: Not much shorter than Djokovic vs. Wawrinka in terms of time, it felt considerably longer to watch. This mindless war of attrition featured rally after rally of the sort that one more commonly finds on practice courts, including a 71-shot meander to nowhere that contributed to the inevitable cramping suffered by both men late in the match. If the previous epic offered an argument to keep the best-of-five format, this match argued just as eloquently for its abandonment. Simon, the winner, had no chance of recovering in time for his next match, nor would Monfils if he had won. C-
Men’s final: Not a classic by any means, it compared poorly both to the women’s melodrama on the previous night and to the marathon of the 2012 men’s final. The 2013 edition illustrated some troubling reasons why the Djokovic-Murray rivalry never may capture the imagination to the extent of Federer-Nadal, Federer-Djokovic, and Djokovic-Nadal. Presenting no contrast in styles, these two men played essentially the same games in a match of mirror images that came down to execution in any given situation—interesting but not exactly stimulating to watch. Moreover, they continued to bring out the passivity in each other by showing so much respect for each other’s defense that many rallies featured sequence after sequence of cautious, low-risk shots designed to coax errors rather than force the issue. These tactics worked perfectly for Djokovic, just as they worked for Murray at last year’s US Open, but they left fans waiting for a spark that never came in a match that trudged towards anticlimax. B-
And that is a wrap of the 2013 Australian Open! Up next is a look ahead to the first round in Davis Cup World Group action: all eight ties previewed and predicted.
Welcome to this live blog of the Australian Open quarterfinal between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Roger Federer. We will update about once for every two or three games as the match unfolds, possibly more often at tense moments. Keep refreshing the page and scrolling down to see updates.
Federer 1*-0: A double fault contributes to a weak start for Tsonga, who finds himself down double break point directly after a Federer smash. Although he saves the first, a lazy volley surrenders the second to give the Swiss an early lead.
Federer 2*-1: Always an excellent front-runner, Federer keeps his momentum racing ahead with a love hold. A staggering Tsonga nearly lets a 40-0 lead on serve get away amid some loose backhands from both men, but a service winner at 40-30 keeps him somewhat in the set.
Federer 3*-2: Two break points go begging for Tsonga, one on a Federer forehand winner and one on a forehand error of his own. Despite the pressure that he created in that game, he still doesn’t look settled into the match mentally yet. Federer has little trouble moving him out of position. His forehand continues to look erratic, however, allow Tsonga to hold easily.
Tsonga 4-3*: Starting to cover the court more alertly, the Frenchman continues to dog the Swiss in another tight service game. From deuce, Tsonga rips a cross-court return winner off his forehand and then manages to work his way into a rally off a Federer first serve. A groundstroke error puts the set back on serve, compensating for the Frenchman’s early lapse. Suddenly into a groove on his first serve, Tsonga races to 40-0 and survives a late wobble in the game to finish it authoritatively with a smash.
Tsonga 5-4*: Neither man looks formidable in the eighth game, which features backhand shanks from Tsonga and a double fault from Federer. At 4-4, 30-30, the world #2 shows some of his vintage ball control by lofting a lob that draws a less than definitive smash, which then produced another lob towards Tsonga’s backhand that the Frenchman sprays wide for a break point. After a baseline rally of medium length, Federer nets a forehand to bring the game back to deuce, and the seventh seed uses more aggressive serving to hold.
Tsonga 6-5*: By varying the placement on his serve, some out wide and some into his opponent’s body, Federer earns the hold that he needed to survive in the set. Tsonga then shows of his exquisite touch at the net in picking up a drop volley from near his shoelaces, beyond the reach of even the Swiss star’s silky movement. He follows Federer’s love hold with a love hold of his own.
Federer 7-6 (7-4): In the shadow of a tiebreak, Federer unleashes a series of inside-out forehands to hold with ease. An incorrect challenge on his first serve to start the tiebreak seems to fluster Tsonga, who immediately nets a backhand to concede a minibreak. Federer uses his forehand to open the court and expose his opponent’s ungainly movement over the next two points, claiming a 3-0 lead. With two virtual must-win points on his racket, Tsonga converts with a deft backhand slice and a crushing cross-court forehand, but Federer still leads 4-2 at the change of ends following a smash. An ace that barely grazes the outside of the center stripe moves him within two points of the first set. Responding with a well-angled ace and a surprisingly precise pass when Federer seemed in control of the rally, Tsonga closes to within 4-5. With the set on his racket, Federer quickly claims double set point and benefits from a netted backhand by his opponent to win a neutral exchange on the first.
Federer 7-6 2-1*: Both men start the second set with emphatic holds, not allowing the other even a flicker of hope on return. Tsonga does win two points in the third but has no answer for Federer’s varied placement on serve.
Federer 7-6 3-2*: Another effortless hold from Tsonga continues his fine service rhythm, quite a contrast to the early stages of the first set. Attacking the net behind a deep forehand approach, Federer exhibits in touch with a tidy drop volley. A penetrating backhand down the line from Tsonga looks about to position him at 30-30 on his opponent’s serve, but Federer narrowly retrieves it and draws a wild forehand error. The Swiss star then curls a forehand of his own around the net to hold.
Federer 7-6 3-4*: The run of service points from the Frenchman extends to the midpoint of the second set as Federer struggles to put a return in play. An inside-out forehand bomb by Tsonga precedes a loose forehand from the Swiss that leaves him in a 15-30 hole. Another opens the door for the underdog with a break point, which he converted by staying in a rally long enough to lure Federer into yet another mistimed forehand.
Federer 7-6 4-5*: Roaring through another comfortable hold, Tsonga marches within a game of leveling the match. He also begins to start winning a greater proportion of the longer rallies as errors trickle in greater quantities from Federer. Darting towards his forehand corner, Tsonga fired a cross-court pass in a display of his familiarly inspired shot-making. With a confident forehand drive volley, though, Federer rallies from 15-30 to stay alive in the set.
Sets even 7-6 4-6: In his most important service game of the match so far, Tsonga opens with an ace down the center stripe. His confidence surfaced when he rifled a backhand down the line with greater authority than he often shows on that stroke. While Federer saved the first of three set points on the Frenchman’s serve, the second produced a service winner that evened the match at one set apiece. The second seed had won just two points in his return games that set, recalling his futility in that area when he lost to Tsonga at Wimbledon in 2011.
Federer 7-6 4-6 2-1*: Federer starts with the type of routine hold that he needed to settle himself after his disappointing performance in the second set. Still on an emotional peak, perhaps, Tsonga suffers a slight dip in intensity and echoes some of his misses early in the first set. Two sprayed forehands leave him behind 0-30, but he wins a rollicking rally that stretches both men to all corners of the court. An acrobatic smash by Federer (on a fine lob) sets up an early break point at this key juncture of the match. Attempting to force the issue too early in the point, Tsonga hurtled to the net behind only a modestly assertive approach. A backhand pass into his body forced him to net the volley, which handed Federer a valuable early lead. After the Swiss badly mistimed an inside-in forehand for 30-30, Tsonga challenges correctly to set up a break point. That brave gamble of stopping play during the rally reaps rewards when Federer sprays another forehand into the doubles alley for the break back.
Federer 7-6 4-6 3-2*: A window of opportunity drifts open in Tsonga’s service game when an elegant backhand pass from the Swiss takes it to deuce. Tsonga hammers a breathtaking inside-in forehand winner off a sideline, only to allow a fortuitous net cord to disrupt his timing on the next point. Federer’s backhand lets him off the hook, though, negating his opponent’s struggle to find a first serve. Tsonga saves a break point with an inside-in forehand that cleans another sideline, and an ace signposts his route to a hold in the longest game of the match so far. More efficient is Federer’s next service game, highlighted by a combination of a punishing forehand into the corner and a delicate drop shot.
Federer 7-4 4-6 4-3*: Pummeling forehands down the line and cross court at will, Tsonga keeps Federer off balance more effectively in his next service game. The Swiss creates no chances, but neither does he allow any in the seventh game. From behind his own baseline, Federer strikes a clean backhand winner off the opposite baseline that demonstrates how delicious that shot can look when at its vintage best.
Federer 7-6 4-6 5-4*: Normal service resumes with full force for Tsonga, who holds at love while needing to hit hardly a single groundstroke. A double fault suggests a slight tremor of unease on Federer’s serve, but he drops no other points en route to advancing within a game of the set.
Federer 7-6 4-6 6-5*: Showing no signs of nerves as he served to stay in the set, Tsonga even unleashes a backhand cross-court winner on the third point of his love hold. Two groundstroke errors from Federer, one on his backhand and one on his forehand, create a glimmer of a chance for Tsonga at 0-30. At that pivotal crossroads, Federer finds a sideline with his backhand, inspiring his first celebratory roar of the night. Tsonga continues to struggle with approaches to his backhand, routinely dropping the passes into the net. A careless return sets the stage for Federer to escape.
Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 (7-4): A body serve by Tsonga backfires when the Swiss punches a body return at an angle that leaves the Frenchman no option but to hit into an open court. He wins the next three points, however, as Federer starts to look a bit rattled. The former champion does open the tiebreak with a service winner, to which Tsonga responds with an inside-out forehand rocket. At 1-1, a routine backhand volley error from him gives Federer the early minibreak, handed straight back with a ghastly miss by the Swiss at the net. The men change sides at 3-3 following a Federer inside-out forehand winner and a Tsonga unreturnable serve. The second seed’s return barely crawls over the net on the seventh point, drawing a meek slice approach from Tsonga that Federer punished with a pass. Undeterred, he closes to the net on the ninth point to regain the minibreak. A smart challenge from Federer erases a service winner and forces a second serve from Tsonga. When the Swiss puts it back into play, the Frenchman unwisely runs around to hit a forehand from his backhand corner, leaving the court entirely open for Federer’s backhand down the line. Handed two set points, Federer converts the first with a crafty pass towards Tsonga’s backhand.
Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 1*-2: Two delicious drop volleys by Tsonga start the fourth set positively for him, necessary in a match that he trails by two sets to one. Federer does not slip into a lull as he had early in the second set, meanwhile, holding serve comfortably and opening a 0-30 lead on the Frenchman’s serve with a fine forehand pass. Tsonga begins to look a bit deflated, directing a backhand volley into the alley as his shoulders sag. But, impressively, he saves all three break points–the last with an ace. A fourth chance vanishes with a titanic forehand down the line, and another ace concludes the gritty hold.
Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 2*-3: With a new spring in his step after that miracle, Tsonga rockets a cross-court forehand return and a stunning backhand off the baseline to position himself at double break point. Federer angles a forehand elegantly to wrong-foot his opponent on the first, and the second vanishes when the Frenchman slips behind the baseline. Like his opponent, he avoids falling behind an early break in the fourth set. Tsonga then misses a backhand slice just long on the second point of the next game, continuing an errant passage from him. Federer attempts to exploit that trend by extending the next few rallies, but to no avail.
Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3*-4: A tepid stretch of returning from Tsonga aids the start of Federer’s next effort to hold, with the exception of one bullet forehand return that thrusts the Swiss star onto his back foot. When a wild forehand from the Swiss takes the game to deuce, he strikes back with a solid first serve. The next two points swing into Tsonga’s column with fearlessly aggressive tennis, first forehand bombed off the sideline, then a cross-court backhand that opens the court. Federer crucially misses his first serve on the next point before losing an extended baseline exchange with a forehand error that surrenders a break to the Frenchman. But the Swiss spares no effort in mounting his threat to break back, helped by a forehand error from Tsonga on a routine ball. An ace precedes another forehand error, this time slapped into the net. Two break points loom for Federer, who converts the second with a backhand miss from his opponent as his hopes of a fifth set recede for the moment.
Even sets 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6: Spared the specter of that deciding stanza, Federer finds his first serve more frequently in the next game. Tsonga lashes a cross-court backhand for a rare clean winner from that wing, and he keeps his cool in reeling off a triple set of passing shots to set up a break point. Revealing his confidence, another ferocious two-hander offers him an opportunity to close out the point at the net, which he does with a stylish volley. The set now rests on the Frenchman’s racket, and a backhand down the line from Federer subjects him to immediate pressure at 15-30. That pressure does not discomfit Tsonga, who again passes the Swiss at the net with his backhand and outlasts him in a long rally to reach set point. There, he crushes an ace out wide to force a final set.
Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6 2-1*: A strong service game from Federer opened the final set, halting his opponent’s momentum in its tracks. He quickly leaps ahead 15-30 on his first return game, only to see the next two points slip away quickly. But Federer does bring the score back to deuce before consecutive aces stifle his threat. The Swiss then holds own serve at love to keep his nose ahead.
Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6 4-1*: Continuing to plow further into Tsonga’s serve than the seventh seed can on his, Federer moves to 0-30 in the fourth game. Two break points soon follow on a careless backhand error, and Federer needs just one when another backhand error came his way. A beautifully angled smash extricates him from a difficult situation on the first point. Despite a botched volley, Federer hangs onto his serve without facing serious pressure.
Federer 7-6 4-6 7-6 3-6 5-2*: Fatigue seems to drain Tsonga’s energy by this stage, and he tosses in two routine errors to start the next game. Federer receives a bit of assistance from the net cord on a point after which Tsonga, now on his side of the net, playfully brandishes his racket on him. The Frenchman erases both the break points, in part because of generosity from the Swiss. To his credit, Tsonga continues to bludgeon groundstrokes on both wings. He feathers a drop shot that looked on the verge of taking him to 0-30, only to see Federer scoop it up for a perfectly paced winner in a corner before going on to hold.
FINAL: Federer wins 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3: Some superb cat-and-mouse tennis from all over the court defines the next game, in which Tsonga saves three match points despite shot-making from a Federer at the peak of his powers. Five deuces later, and another match point saved, Tsonga holds in a remarkable display of resilience. But the match now shifts to Federer’s racket, where he exploits Tsonga’s vulnerability on low balls to his backhand. Tsonga continues to challenge by crushing every groundstroke that he sees, but Federer’s first serve sees him through on his fifth match point in an enthralling five-set thriller under the lights of Rod Laver Arena. The second seed advances to a semifinal against the much more rested Andy Murray on Friday night in Melbourne.
Today unfold the remaining quarterfinals in Melbourne, which will decide who joins Sharapova, Li, Djokovic, and Ferrer in the final four of the season’s first major. We break down key facts to know and trends to watch in these four matches on Rod Laver Arena.
Azarenka vs. Kuznetsova: Fans who have followed women’s tennis only over the last few years might find it surprising that an unseeded Russian owns a winning record against the world #1, who has looked nearly unstoppable at hard-court majors in 2012-13. A two-time major champion, Kuznetsova won their first three clashes several years ago, while she remained in her prime and Azarenka still early in her development. More relevant are their two meetings last year, both won by Vika in straight sets. The world #1 routed Kuznetsova in their only recent hard-court encounter, ten months ago at Indian Wells, as her baseline consistency proved more than adequate to exploit the erratic lapses in her opponent’s fading game.
Reviving her career this month, the Russian has swept nine of her last ten matches and showed surprising poise in closing out a tense three-set contest against Caroline Wozniacki. Also shown by Kuznetsova in that fourth-round match were her skills at the net, where she won all but two of twenty-five points as she relied on her natural athleticism to improvise as necessary. A player of equal athleticism, Azarenka prefers to play rallies tethered to the baseline unless she can move forward to finish points easily. The Russian will need to continue her all-court play to trouble Vika, for her meager serve will win her few free points, and—recent improvements notwithstanding—she cannot outhit her consistently from the baseline. Kuznetsova might win a set if she catches fire at the right time, but she ebbs and flows too much to defeat an opponent of this caliber.
Serena vs. Stephens: Three weeks ago, they met in a Brisbane encounter that showed how much promise the future of Stephens may hold. The young American did not look overawed by a veteran who mentors her at times outside competition, swinging freely and even looking disappointed when a close first set slipped away from her, as though she had expected to win. Nevertheless, Serena did stifle her routinely in the end, and one expects the 14-time major champion to bring a greater level of intensity to a major quarterfinal. Stephens thus must raise her level even higher to keep this match competitive.
Due to enter the top 20 after the Australian Open, the highest-ranked teenager in the WTA sparkled in ousting fellow prodigy Laura Robson after the latter’s victory over Kvitova. Somewhat less splendid was her three-set battle against the less dangerous Bojana Jovanovski, who nearly snatched away their match after Stephens had won the first set. In her first major quarterfinal, the 19-year-old must play less passively than she did then, for the authoritative progress of Serena leaves her little margin for error. Only slightly less commanding than Sharapova, the older American has lost just eight games in four matches as opponents have found no answers to her first strikes on serve and return.
Chardy vs. Murray: Before he vaulted into unexpected prominence by toppling Del Potro, Jeremy Chardy recorded two victories over top-eight opponents at consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments last summer. The latter of those, in Cincinnati, came against a Murray weary from his gold-medal campaign at the Olympics. Exploiting that opportunity, Chardy had claimed no success at all in their previous four meetings, winning one total set.
The outlook on this match depends in part upon how much one attributes the Frenchman’s upset of the former US Open champion to his own brilliance and how much to his opponent’s listless tennis. Chardy deserves credit for building upon that victory by overcoming the tenacious Seppi in four sets, but he remains a diamond in the rough with no prior experience at this stage of majors. Also very raw is his game, which relies almost exclusively upon his forehand in a groundstroke asymmetry that the balanced Murray tends to dissect in other opponents. The Scot has not found his most convincing form this fortnight, despite winning all twelve of his sets, and he has complained of inconsistent timing during practice as well as matches. Known for several days now, those issues have persisted and could deplete his confidence if the underdog bursts out to a sizzling start. Heavy hitters on a hot streak, even those much lower in the rankings, often blasted through Murray before he soared to major glory. Has that pattern ended, or will Chardy become the latest in an Australian Open tradition of surprise finalists and semifinalists, from Gonzalez and Baghdatis to Tsonga and Verdasco?
Federer vs. Tsonga: Beyond the Montreal tournament, the GOAT has impaled Tsonga on his horns in eight of their nine matches, establishing him as the clear favorite here. Among those victories was a straight-sets demolition in an Australian Open semifinal three years ago and another in a quarterfinal at the 2011 US Open. Tsonga’s only victory outside Montreal does raise some eyebrows, though, for this upset in a Wimbledon quarterfinal marked the first time that Federer had lost a major after winning the first two sets. He never broke serve in the final three sets of that match, a slightly concerning fact in view of his struggles to break serve through much of his first four rounds here.
But Federer has looked the better player of the two by a distinct margin, and perhaps the best player of the tournament despite the most challenging draw of any contender. The Swiss superstar still has not dropped a set after dispatching rising stars Tomic and Raonic. Even areas of frailty in recent years have held firm for him, such as his backhand and his movement, while he has not even lost his serve or faced serious pressure in more than a handful of service games. Not an elite returner, Tsonga should not test Federer much more severely in that department than his previous victims, and he suffered familiar lapses of focus in meandering past an overmatched Gasquet a round ago. The immensely talented Frenchman could not claim a victory over any top-eight opponent in 2012, an alarming trend for someone with his previous successes against them. At the outset of 2013, a sturdy effort against Federer would give Tsonga and new coach Roger Rasheed a reason to believe that the worm may turn.
Although they stand just two places apart in the rankings, the seventh-seeded Tsonga and the ninth-seeded Gasquet bear little resemblance in their perception as dark horse threats. While the latter brought a 1-13 record in fourth-round matches at majors into this tilt, the former has compiled enough upsets and near-upsets over the Big Four to make him a figure of note for even the casual fan. Much of the reason for those contrasting levels of performance in key matches lies in their respective games. In the modern era of the ATP, Tsonga’s massive serve-forehand combinations usually trump the grace and touch of his compatriot, who fell to him today 6-4 3-6 6-4 6-2 in a match that evened their record at 4-4.
From the outset, Gasquet looked much more like the player who had lost 13 of 14 fourth-round matches at majors than the man with a winning record against Tsonga. He dropped his serve in the opening game, while his opponent held easily and soon earned two more break points as a half-bagel loomed. Digging out of those virtual set points, Gasquet stemmed the slide of momentum to stay within range. Through the rest of the first set, he continued to knock on the door of opportunity without quite breaking through the uneven but more powerful Tsonga.
Finally, with the higher-ranked Frenchman serving for the match, the first break points appeared for his compatriot. Dashing towards the net ruthlessly to finish points, an inspired Gasquet sprinted around nearly the entire court before unleashing a passing-hot winner that left Tsonga frozen and mired at 0-40. From there, though, the seventh seed methodically erased each of the break points with solid serving and tighter focus. As deeply as he positioned himself to return, Gasquet could not find ways to keep his opponent’s first serves or forehands in play long enough to assert himself in the rallies. Two futile challenges later, Tsonga closed out the first set.
But the winner of the opening stanza had lost two of the past three meetings between these famously variable Frenchmen. Tsonga’s carelessness predictably caught up with him early in the second set, when he surrendered his first break in the fourth game. Having grown steadier as the match progressed, Gasquet kept a high first-serve percentage and won nearly every point behind that shot. Meanwhile, Tsonga’s body language illustrated his discouragement as the unforced errors flowed ever more quickly from his racket. He never earned a break point on his compatriot’s serve, allowing the set to slip away without much resistance.
Righting his bateau immediately in the second set, Tsonga followed a quick hold with a long game on Gasquet’s serve during which he stayed more consistent in rallies. An unwise attack on the net behind an indifferent passing shot would have produced the break had not the ninth seed’s volley caught the back of the baseline. Two points later, Gasquet surrendered the early lead anyway and allowed Tsonga to consolidate behind thumping aces. The role of impenetrability of serve shifted back to the seventh seed, recalling the first set, as the world #10 merely clung to his own games without mounting a serious threat on the return. Rumbling to the net with bravado, Tsonga prevented his compatriot from timing his elongated strokes with precision. But the two Frenchmen entertained the Rod Laver audience with clever touch shots such as drop shot-lob combinations and slices with side spin that created an elegant counterpoint to their serves.
Serving to take a two-sets-to-one lead, Tsonga fell behind early in the game just as he had in the first set, this time attempting a strange one-handed backhand pass that found the net. Gasquet’s success ebbed and flowed in proportion to his court positioning, for he struggled to trouble Tsonga when he stayed passively behind the baseline in retrieval mode. Pinned back there for the next four points after taking a 0-30 lead, he allowed his countryman to close out the set without facing a break point.
A double fault hastened Gasquet’s demise early in the fourth set, when he dropped his first service game as his shoulders seemed to slump. The challenge of mounting a comeback to win the last two sets perhaps seemed too implausible for a Frenchman not known for his mental tenacity or his physical fitness. More relaxed than in the previous sets, Tsonga rocketed serves and forehands through the court almost at will. The uneventful fourth set ended with Tsonga once again in the quarterfinals of the major where he reached the championship match five long years ago.
Projected to face Federer there, he will need to maintain his focus for longer spells and avoid falling behind early in important service games. That match will mark a key test for him early in his partnership with Roger Rasheed. Winless against the top eight in 2012, Tsonga would benefit enormously from reviving his status as a genuine threat to them in 2013.
By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
No Frenchman has won a Grand Slam since Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983. Of course, that had paled in comparison to Great Britian’s Grand Slam drought before Andy Murray won the US Open last year. Now, though, with Murray having got that out of the way, much of the focus of the tennis world will be upon when the French can finally break that streak.
As long as we are in the “Big 4 era”, that won’t even be a question. It is impossible to even mention anyone other than the top 4 as being a potential Grand Slam champion. Saying anyone else, with the rare exception of Juan Martin Del Potro, is met with scoffing and incredulity. And for good reason. Aside from Del Potro’s 2009 US Open title, no one outside the Big 4 has won a Slam since Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open.
Someday, though, when the dominance of the top 4 is broken, the world will turn and ask when the next great French champion will arrive. And he won’t even need to reach World #1 or win multiple Slams. One Slam will do to break this streak.
Luckily for us (and maybe unluckily for the French, depending on how you look at it), two of their potential candidates are meeting in the fourth round here in Melbourne. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet play drastically different styles of tennis, but they do share the fact that they both fly under the French flag and that both of them probably have Grand Slam potential if they can play at their peaks for extended periods of time.
Tsonga probably has the better chance of the two to win a Slam. He plays a game that is raw power. His massive serve is tough to break and he can hit huge groundstrokes from really just about anywhere on the court. The courts here in Australia suit him best (though grass comes close) and he did reach the final here five years ago in 2008 (l. to Djokovic). Tsonga can be beaten consistently by better players, but his powerful game and strong serve mean that he can stay close in a lot of matches, even when his ground game is not at its best.
Gasquet is a different story. He has pop on his shots, but he really is a finesse player. He works his way around in rallies until he finds a way to just fit the ball past his opponent, usually with the backhand. Gasquet has the best (and the prettiest; it’s just gorgeous to watch) backhand in the world. Honestly, with the way he hits that one-hander, Gasquet’s backhand is more effective than a lot of players’ forehands.
The one real critique of Gasquet is that he plays far too far behind the baseline. He runs around a lot to play defensively. It works for him, but it gets him into a lot of trouble against the other top players, who won’t get worn down or leave balls short in rallies. Gasquet can attack but he just doesn’t like to. He needs to change that tendency, though, against players who the defensive game doesn’t bother. Gasquet has one of the most technically perfect forms in the game. It really is just a shame that he can’t always utilize it due to staying an ineffective distance behind the baseline.
So who has the advantage in this head-to-head matchup? It’s really tough to say. The two have been pretty even their entire careers and both have looked impressive, though not unbeatable, throughout this tournament. Gasquet is the more battle-tested of the two in Melbourne and seems to have been slightly more consistent in the first week, but it really pretty much is a toss-up. What he do know is that if the winner of this match can upset Roger Federer in the quarterfinals (assuming that Milos Raonic doesn’t miraculously upset him first), then a Frenchman will be just 2 wins away from an improbable Slam victory and will put the Australians and Americans on watch with their respective decade-long Grand Slam droughts.
On Monday, the rest of the quarterfinals take form in both the men’s and women’s draws. The action shrinks to Rod Laver and Hisense, by which we divide the previews.
Rod Laver Arena:
Wozniacki vs. Kuznetsova: Fans may remember their pair of US Open three-setters, both of which Wozniacki won when her retrieving skills and superior fitness outlasted Kuznetsova’s fiery shot-making and athleticism. Those victories formed part of a four-match streak for the Dane against the Russian that halted abruptly last week in Sydney, where the latter astonished the former in a three-setter played under sweltering conditions. All but irrelevant last year, Kuznetsova appeared to have regained her motivation during the offseason before charging back into contention with one of her best results to date here. For her part, Wozniacki recovered from a dismal first-round effort to play cleaner tennis through her next two matches, albeit less impressive than what she produced as world #1. Long rallies and service breaks should await as both players focus on what they do best in this strength-on-strength matchup: offense for Sveta, defense for Caro.
Azarenka vs. Vesnina: On the surface, this match would seem like a rout in the making, and it might well turn out that way in reality. But Vesnina has played some of her best tennis in recent memory this month, starting an eight-match winning streak with her first career singles title last week. Meanwhile, Azarenka has looked vulnerable in two of three matches and staggered through an unexpected three-setter against Jamie Hampton, who likely would not have trouble the Vika who swaggered to last year’s title. Unable to hold serve consistently, the defending champion has relied on her return to break opponents regularly, possibly a more difficult task against Vesnina than the three before her. Still, Azarenka has won all six of their previous sets.
Tsonga vs. Gasquet: If the passivity of Simon and Monfils bored you, rest assured that this pair of Frenchman will not produce the same lethargy. Outstanding shot-makers each, they shine most in different areas. Whereas Tsonga unleashes titanic serves and forehands, often rumbling to the net behind them, Gasquet favors one of the ATP’s most delicious one-handed backhands. He ventures to the forecourt often as well, displaying a fine touch that has contributed to his success in their rivalry. Gasquet has won four of their seven meetings, but Tsonga looked the sharper player during the first week. Not dropping a set in three matches, he has maintained the focus and discipline lacking from his disappointing 2012, so he will fancy his chances of halting Gasquet’s eight-match winning streak.
Serena vs. Kirilenko: Apparently recovered from her ankle scare, Serena remains the favorite to win a third straight major title here. Outside an odd three-game span in the second set of her last match, she has ravaged a series of overmatched opponents while reaffirming the dominance of her serve. The competition does elevate in quality with the 14th-seeded Kirilenko, much improved in singles over the last year or two. Serena has won all five of their previous meetings, though, and the weight of her shot should leave the Russian struggling to match her hold for hold. Only on an especially erratic day for the 14-time major champion would Kirilenko’s balanced all-court game and high-percentage brand of tennis threaten her.
Raonic vs. Federer: Perhaps useful in preparing him for the titanic serve across the net was Federer’s previous match against Tomic, who regularly found huge deliveries when it mattered most. As brilliant as the Swiss looked in other aspects of his game, he struggled to convert break points and nearly lost the second set as a result. Nevertheless, Federer did not lose his serve in the first week or even encounter significant pressure on his service games. That trend should continue against the unreliable return of Raonic, while the veteran’s struggles to break should as well. Combining those two threads, one can expect some tiebreaks to settle sets that should hinge upon just a handful of points. All three of their previous meetings, on three different surfaces, reached final sets—and two a final-set tiebreak, illustrating Raonic’s ability to trouble Federer. The younger man’s belief fell slightly short last year, but he has looked more assured in his status as a legitimate threat by brushing aside his first-week opponents here.
Chardy vs. Seppi: A match of survivors pits the man who defeated Del Potro in five sets against the man who defeated Cilic in five sets. Spectators who expected to see two baseline behemoths dueling today may feel surprised to see one of the ATP’s most asymmetrical games square off against a baseline grinder. Striking nearly 80 winners to topple the Tower of Tandil, Chardy produced nearly all of his offense from his forehand and at the net, where he will want to travel frequently again. A clay-courter who has enjoyed his best result here to date, Seppi wore down Cilic by staying deep behind the baseline, absorbing pace, and extending the rallies. That positioning leaves him vulnerable to someone as adept moving forward as Chardy, but the main theme of this match may revolve around who can recover more effectively, mentally and physically, from their notable but exhausting victories in the last round.
Jovanovski vs. Stephens: Somewhat surprisingly, Stephens enters her first fourth-round match here as a clear favorite. Probably the most unexpected member of the last sixteen, Jovanovski upset Safarova and weathered the distinctive game of Kimiko Date-Krumm to record a potential breakthrough. She plays an orthodox power baseline style, more raw than the game honed by Stephens, and she has struggled at times to contain her emotions. That said, one wonders how the young American will respond to the pressure of the favorite’s status at a stage where she has little more familiarity than her opponent. This match marks the first meeting of what could become an intriguing rivalry.
Simon vs. Murray: After his epic battle with countryman Monfils, which nearly reached five hours, Simon should have little energy left for the Scot. He tellingly said that he would appear for the match but estimated his probability of winning it as slim. Despite the issues with holding serve that Murray has experienced here, and his troubles with timing in the third round, he probably needs to play no better than his average level—or even below it—to advance. Even a rested Simon would have few weapons to harm an opponent who has defeated him nine straight times, much less this battered version.