- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- There are few courts in the world where France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga feels more comfortable or is more warmly received than Rod Laver Arena.
It was here that the explosive, agile Tsonga reached his first and only Grand Slam championship final as a 22-year-old in 2008, confirming his promise with an electric, near-flawless dismantling of Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Tsonga's energy level spikes so high at times that it can seem nearly impossible to maintain, and that streaky quality makes him simultaneously one of the most entertaining and enervating players in tennis.
Roger Federer breezed past Tsonga in straight sets in the 2010 Australian Open semis and owned an 8-3 career edge over him coming into their Wednesday night quarterfinal, but Tsonga knows he is capable of outplaying him on a big occasion. Federer owned a perfect record when he was up two sets in five-set matches until Tsonga revved up and ran over him in the 2011 Wimbledon quarters.
For four sets Wednesday, the seventh-seeded Tsonga put more pressure on Federer than he had felt up to now in his first tournament of the season, ending the Swiss star's uninterrupted string of service holds here with five breaks and repeatedly picking himself up from the mat when he had his own lapses. Tsonga out-aced the 17-time Grand Slam winner 20 to six and tenaciously staved off 14 of the 18 break points against him. Both men wore a path from the baseline to the net.
Federer, seeded second in this campaign for what would be his fifth Australian Open title, carved up Tsonga with classic maneuverability and finesse in the fifth set. The Frenchman extended the drama in his final service game, refusing to yield on four match points and forcing Federer to serve for a spot in his 10th consecutive Australian Open semifinal. Federer, who is fairly fond of this venue as well, will take on Great Britain's Andy Murray on Friday after solving Tsonga 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3.
The two men grinned at each other out of sheer competitive pleasure as they met at the net, despite the fact that Tsonga's quality play had fallen short and Federer had to expend more on the win than might have been ideal. He's at the point in his career where it can be more meaningful to put in a memorable effort than a clinical one.
"All the straight-set matches eventually become a bit of a blur, no doubt about it, whereas the five-setters stand out more,'' Federer said. "I've had some great ones over the years here at the Australian Open.
"I love watching night session tennis. Whenever it goes deep into a match, I want to not miss it. I'm sure there's other tennis fans out there who like to see me and Jo Willie battle it out. So I always feel it's a privilege to be playing so late at night, on a center court, the crowd getting into it.''
Theirs was a relatively economical five-setter, spooling out over 3 hours, 34 minutes. Federer wasn't serving with his usual precision early in the match but battled Tsonga to a first-set stalemate and led the tiebreaker from jump after earning a mini-break on the first point. Tsonga lost only one point on his own serve in the second set. After trading early breaks in the third, they moved briskly and inexorably toward the tiebreaker.
Tsonga, who had lost 12 straight matches to top-10 players until his four-set win over against countryman Richard Gasquet in the round of 16, said his effort against Federer was superior to the one he put in at Wimbledon even though he came out on the wrong end this time.
"I'm a bit in the bad mood because I lost it,'' said a subdued Tsonga. "But, you know, in other way[s] I played a good match. I was solid. I was there every time. I keep my level of concentration, you know, really high all times.
"I mean, he played some good slice at the end. Yeah, he didn't give me too much angle. Yeah, I mean, he just played well. He was very aggressive. He didn't miss a lot in the fifth set. I mean, it makes a difference.''
Tsonga said he'd give a slight edge to Murray, the third seed and most recent winner of a major in New York, for the title now because he has had the least stressful path of the top three men. The Scot hasn't dropped a set and logged a routine 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 victory Wednesday to end an impressive run by unseeded French player Jeremy Chardy.
"I would probably rather be in his shoes,'' said Federer, who is 3-0 career versus Murray in Grand Slam play, all in finals (2012 Wimbledon, 2010 Australian Open, 2008 U.S. Open). "That's exactly how you want to approach a semifinal match, in my opinion. But there's also some positives to take out of a five-set match.
"I toughed it out. That also gives you confidence when you have to go through those matches. The physical stamina was there, the focus was there till the very end. So it does give you a lot of confidence moving forward from here.''
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can be impossible to contain at times. That's what makes Roger Federer's five-set win so impressive.