Hugh MacDonald reports
THERE is an enduring image of Roger Federer as a master craftsman who constructs victories as if they were intricate pieces of jewellery requiring the finest of touches and an array of precisely placed gems. It is sometimes forgotten that he has always retained one aspect of the humble workman. He makes a point of getting the job done.
The Swiss player’s 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the group stages of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals yesterday will not be hailed in distant days as one of Federer’s career defining moments. It was regularly scrappy, showcased some dreadful errors on the forehand and was ended after the Swiss player returned Tsonga’s serve off his racket frame.
But it was another win for the great man. Sixteen grand slam titles, 69 tournament victories and five tour finals titles are overwhelming proof that this gathering of triumphs is Federer’s most marked characteristic. Yesterday’s win in the O2 Arena has also pushed his winning streak to 13 matches after his title successes in Basle and Paris, but it did little to enlighten anyone to the validity of the world No.4’s favouritism for the title.
In a match that lasted one hour and 28 minutes, both Federer and Tsonga were affected by periods of woeful inefficiency. It was no surprise, however, that it was the defending champion who pulled away, suddenly breaking Tsonga when their clash seemed destined for a tie-break.
It was a dramatic end to a match that saw dizzying swings in fortunes between the two players.
Federer began as if he had tickets for the 4pm kick-off at Stamford Bridge. The only football connection, however, to the Swiss player was that Thierry Henry, once of Arsenal, sat in his box.
Tsonga, too, seemed as much a spectator as his countryman. The first set was over in 21 minutes as the Frenchman struggled to keep the ball in play and Federer simply, and predictably, took the break chances when offered. This match bore all the hallmarks of an efficiently crafted Federer walkover.
The genius of the all-time great is to make players believe they have no chance against him. Tsonga was an unexpected adherent to this dispiriting faith in the early stages. There was one moment at a change of ends that the world No.6 appeared unwilling to leave the court. It was as if he could not comprehend his incompetence as the first set amounted to a concession.
It was all the more admirable, then, that Tsonga found the will and the way to rally. The Frenchman clawed his way back into the contest on the back of powerful serving, aggressive forehands and a slump in the form of his opponent.
Federer, of course, would never put it this way. He blamed two crucial misses on his forehand as a result of “the pressure of the first match, different conditions, wrong shot selection”.
He was certainly vulnerable as Tsonga pulled it back to a set a piece, but he prevailed because he had both the experience and the technique to ride out the storm.
There are moments when the Frenchman is irresistible. His serve rattles in at speeds of up to 138mph and the arc of forehand swing seems to grow in direct proportion to his confidence.
This sort of big-hitting can disturb Federer, even confound him. Tsonga had already bludgeoned the Swiss player once in London this year. That Wimbledon victory was not repeated yesterday afternoon because Federer did not implode and because Tsonga could not sustain the power and the accuracy.
As ever, though, it was down to the tightest of margins. This is where the champion makes his most important interventions.
The third set was always close but as it progressed the feeling grew that any breakthrough would be made by Federer.
The crucial moment seemed to come out of nowhere. Tsonga had brilliantly survived a break point at 2-3, but the final set was not a trial of his nerve. Until, that is, he stepped up to serve at 4-5.
Let Federer explain the moment.
“I was just trying to stay calm, trying to wait for my chance, trying to create chances. I was going to take these chances and come through with the victory. It all came that way, exactly the way I hoped it would be.”
It usually does. Tsonga slumped to 0-40 and saved one match point before Federer, with the aid of a return off the frame, took the second.
The match was over. Tsonga stood in the middle of the court, reprising his moment at the end of the first set, reluctant to leave. It was as if the hooter had ended the work day prematurely.
Federer celebrated with the restraint of the labourer who knows that one shift is over but the task has not been completed. He was workmanlike yesterday, but he also retains in reserve the capacity to be brilliant. He will need to be both to attend the $1.6m payday on Sunday.