Grand slam quarterfinal tennis: the threshold into week two of a major tournament that brings us more captivating, more passionate and more extraordinary tennis. We, as tennis fans, feel a balance because our patience is paying off; the matchups are seldom lopsided, and the energy in the playing stadiums and in our living rooms finally reaches a palpable height.
It's a bittersweet, beautifully tragic phenomenon because there's always exactly one elated winner who is one step closer to that career moment and one dejected loser who must escape the anguish that immediately burdens their every thought. And there will be another one on Wednesday night between World No. 2 Roger Federer and World No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
You can consider the plexicushion court surface, the night time conditions at which the match will be played, and whether or not there might be a swirling breeze blowing through Rod Laver Arena.
But in the end, throw out the classic analytics for this one. Instead, chalk it up to desire, intangibles and concentration.
Most of all, this could be the match that determines whether or not Roger Federer will win the 2013 Australian Open.
From A Land Down Under
The Australian Open is where it all began for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga five years ago. Bursting on to the tour as a flashy 22-year-old, Tsonga splashed down in Melbourne, surprising the entire sporting world as an unseeded, unheralded and almost totally unknown Frenchman who ran through the rest of the field all the way to the finals.
Dropping seeds left and right, no one could quite understand how he was doing it, and at the same time it was blatantly obvious: because he was a star in the making. He just started shining a little earlier than expected.
Though he would ultimately lose to current World No. 1 and heavy betting favorite to win the 2013 Australian Open, Novak Djokovic, his groundbreaking run included victories over then ninth seeded Andy Murray, eighth seeded Richard Gasquet and lastly then World No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals (which was a straightforward, straight-sets affair where Jo took every ball to Rafa and used every facet of his baseline, forecourt and net game to dominate the match).
Tsonga loves this court, embraces this court and most of all, has the potential to down the best on this court.
Flash forward to June 29, 2011. Roger Federer was in his usual God-like mode, swinging freely and producing impossible shots from impossible positions on the hallowed grounds of SW19 at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships.
And yet there was an air of vulnerability, and Jo-Wilfried had sensed it.
And so Tsonga never gave up, and down two-sets-to-love to the greatest player of all time, the Frenchman reminded the world of his ability to make magic, too: he took down Roger Federer at Wimbledon, his supplanted second home, in the quarterfinals, breaking the Swiss' record of never losing a grand slam match after leading two sets to none.
This history-making Wimbledon stunner, coupled with Federer's first loss in 2009 to Tsonga in Montreal after leading in the decisive set 5-1, make for a recipe of doubt drifting somewhere in the midst of the great Swiss champion's genius.
Needless to say, it would be only sensible to say that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, no matter how much history's most decorated grand slam singles champion will not admit to himself, is in Roger Federer's head.
On the flip side of the coin, they've met once before here in the semifinals, and the Federer Express rolled over the Frenchman in three easy sets in his 2010 title run after Tsonga had achieved a career win over Novak Djokovic in the previous round.
You can bet Tsonga remembers the beatdown in dramatic detail, and he will be looking to avenge ghosts of slams past and revive his electric brand of tennis that saw him nearly snatch the Australian Open crown in 2008.
On top of that, the last two matches played between these two have gone the distance, each ending after Tsonga gifted away his final service game of the match with double faults and unforced errors to submissively hand the Swiss Maestro both victories.
Clearly, from the Frenchman's jitters and demons in the face the 17-time grand slam champion, Roger Federer is in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's head.
When these two are able to play within themselves, seemingly distancing their thoughts from painful memories of roads not taken, they produce intensely close and explosive tennis. Passing shots, elegant net play, blistering forehands, feathery, skipping footwork and—of course—crucial, clamoring and clutch serves.
The old "Tsong" and dance between Federer and Tsonga is an uncomplicated one with the Swiss leading a career head-to-head of 8-3. Their individual games match up well against each other, and the resulting quality of tennis proves it to be true.
Service is key, and break points are either quickly erased or barely rectified; that is, once the break is made, often the set is gone. Points are generally short, and the opportunity to be aggressive with the ball is windowed, which also means both players must be having confident days at the net.
Given these features, the shot-making they design is thusly unique to their matchup; they are two of the most offensive-minded top players on the ATP World Tour today.
Deciding Federer's Fate
When all is said and done, this match matters more for Roger Federer's chances at taking home an unthinkable 18th grand slam trophy than it does for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's odds of winning the 2013 Australian Open. The impact of having downed the Swiss Maestro has not impacted Tsonga's level of play in his past wins: two of the three victories Tsonga has achieved over Federer in their career meetings have effectively ended his runs at those tournaments, as he meekly lost in the next round.
Federer and Tsonga's roads to the quarters have been dramatically different, and this is where we are able to assess form and the all-important intangible factor.
For Federer, it was declared early on by fans and media that he had been placed in the most difficult quarter, and more specifically the worst section of it. After a straightforward first round against Frenchman Benoit Paire, Federer faced off against old Russian rival Nikolay Davydenko, before taking on baby-faced but serious challengers Bernard Tomic, of Australia, and Canada's Milos Raonic. Though we should never be surprised to see him win conclusively, Federer passed all tests with flying colors, yet to drop a set and yet to even be broken in the tournament.
For Tsonga, he has come into this year's Australian Open in better shape, having reportedly lost weight in the offseason, and has for the most part cruised in his early rounds. The difference between his path to the quarterfinals and Federer's, however, has been capacity and strength of opponent. In the first round, Tsonga paired up against doubles specialist and fellow Frenchman Michael Llodra before going on to take down mostly weaponless Go Soeda, of Japan, and 93rd ranked Blaz Kavcic, of Slovakia. It wasn't until the fourth round that Tsonga faced a true test, where he battled countryman and the tournament's ninth seed Richard Gasquet. He lost the second set, but managed to recover for a four-set win, and remained on course for the mouth-watering showdown.
To The Finals, And Beyond
Taking the above notes into consideration, we can see why this match is so decisive: with Andy Murray yet to play into championship form, as a result of his peculiarly easy draw (which has been a factor that has hurt him against Federer in the past), and Djokovic being pushed and prodded by players with far inferior offensive skills than any of the men left on the bottom half of the draw (save for Chardy, who rotates slowly over a roasting fire as Murray prepares a celebratory feast on his nearly automatic semifinals berth), the tournament opens up considerably for the Swiss, but not noticeably for the Frenchman.
For Federer, winning convincingly against Jo will mean facing Murray in the semifinals in another popcorn match of larger-than-life proportions. He will be coming in strong, rested and confident to Murray's unsettled and speculative form, and will immediately look to take advantage of the fact that Murray has not yet played into championship form.
Following up a theoretical semis win will be in all likelihood a meeting against none other than Novak Djokovic in the finals of the 2013 Australian Open, where Federer will look to exploit any passivity the Serbian has shown since his monster fourth-round five-set win by being aggressive and authoritative from the outset, and perhaps discover an eventual weakness in the legs along the way.
After all, regardless of how little of Djokovic's energy is actually diminished as a result of lost sets and time on spent on court, these minute reductions in fire, zeal and staying power make all the difference when facing an opponent as legendary as Roger Federer.
Unfortunately, Tsonga does not fare as well in a reversal of this scenario in that a win over Federer does not serve to increase his title chances the same way it might for the Swiss. Tsonga has yet to notch another victory against Andy Murray in his dismal 1-7 career mark against him since he defeated the Brit in his miracle charge at the 2008 Australian Open, and a lot has changed in both of their careers since then (think Andy Murray: 2012 U.S. Open Champion).
Against Djokovic, Tsonga boasts a decent head-to-head of 5-8, but the numbers here are deceiving: Tsonga's last win came in 2010, also at the Australian Open, and since has lost most of his matches to the Serb in straightforward fashion.
Make Way For Thunder, Here Comes The Storm
Tennis is a game of matchups, a constant check-in of lasting tools and unique prowess possessed by each player in comparison to the next. In the case of the 2013 Australian Open, its draw has been influential to say the least: Federer's upside for the remainder of the tournament is just another example.
If Roger Federer and Jo-Willy play true to tournament form, neither will come out flat in Wednesday night's match scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Melbourne time (3:30 a.m. EST).
Despite the highly energetic nature and unmatched craft of their contests, ultimately if these two world-class titans play at the height of their games, it isn't going to be about the physicality of the match. Instead, Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be vying for the right to the court with which they stand on, a battle that will take place exclusively when they glance at one another on the changeover, when they hold service to love and fly a subtle fist pump into the air and when they successfully boomerang a superb passing shot on the full stretch and release a cry of "Allez!"
They may feel it deep in their bones, but this match is a mind game at which Federer is poised to excel.
Fascinatingly, what began as a nightmare section of the draw for Roger Federer has actually blossomed into a blessing in disguise for the Swiss and his multitude of fans: like the Maestro of years past, he has indirectly played himself into championship contention by way of his troublesome earlier rounds.
But first thing's first. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga awaits.
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