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Breaking Down Federer vs Tsonga

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Tsonga’s straight set victory over Federer was a surprise for two reasons. The first is that he won at all – given Federer’s 9-3 dominance in the head-to-head and his generally superior record on clay it seemed like a probable win for the Swiss. The second is the relative ease with which Tsonga was able to brush Federer aside. All three sets were relatively tight (the first especially), but this was one instance in which Federer went quietly into the night. Since  the start of the 2004 season, Federer has lost in straight sets in a Grand Slam a mere six times, and that includes yesterdays loss to Tsonga. The others to have achieved this feat? Djokovic (three times), Nadal (just once) and Gustavo Kuerten at the French Open back in 2004. So what exactly went wrong for Federer, and what did Tsonga do right?

The Tsonga Game Plan

Let’s start with Tsonga, because he came out with the correct game plan from the beginning and really it was up to Federer to adjust and react. So what was Tsonga’s game plan? In a word, power. Tsonga may not be the most disciplined, structured player on the planet but he’s no fool. If we were to do a ‘tale of the tape’ comparing the games of Federer and Tsonga, it’s pretty clear to whom most of the advantages belong. Federer has a better forehand, better volleys, better movement, plays better defense, has a better slice backhand and a better serve. Tsonga matches up well with Federer on the backhand, and critically for him, the power department. It isn’t that Federer can’t hit with power, it’s that power is how Tsonga makes his living – it is his bread and butter on the court.

Tsonga cannot play finesse tennis with Federer – that’s a losing proposition. Likewise long rallies work in Federer’s favor. Tsonga’s goal coming out on the court was to bring pace to Federer – not just to the backhand but across the entire court. He wanted and needed to keep the rallies short, but more importantly, he needed the rallies to consist of hard, flat play. It wasn’t enough for Tsonga to be the aggressor – Federer is well capable of playign defense for multiple shots and then transitioning to an offensive position. Tsonga needed to be the aggressor in a way that prevented Federer from transitioning. He needed to play through the court, and lure Federer into trying to play power tennis with him. And that’s exactly what Federer did.

The Weight of History

If we are the sum of our experiences, then Federer’s loss yesterday certainly owes in large part to his experience against Tsonga at Wimbledon 2011. In that match Tsonga had come out trying to play tennis against Federer, and was headed for a predictable loss. Then somewhere towards the end of the second set or start of the third the realization sank in that he simply could not compete. So he switched to power tennis instead. He started going for broke, swinging for the fences. And everything changed. We watched spellbound as Federer seemed unable to stem the tide of winners flowing from Tsonga’s racket. We watched as Federer lost from a two set to love lead for the first time in 179 matches.

It must have been a frustrating, near bewildering experience for Federer. Tsonga rendered his phenomenal shot-making ability almost moot. All of Federer’s point construction patterns became near useless as Tsonga abandoned the concept of point construction altogether. Federer must hate playing Nadal, but he relishes the professional challenge. For all that his matchup with Nadal stacks the odds against him, Federer can reduce their matches down to x’s and o’s, to patterns and tactics. But a match like the Wimbledon loss, that must be the type of match that Federer fears.

Federer’s Game Plan

So it is that he took the court and seemed determined to make sure it didn’t happen again. If Tsonga was going to try to strike first, then Federer would simply beat him to the punch. A pre-emptive strike, for after all isn’t the best defense a good offense? On another surface it might have worked. Indeed Federer has taken the court six times against Tsonga since the Wimbledon 2011 match, and had won five of them (and the last five in a row no less).  This had included a straight set win at the US Open, and a five set win at this year’s Australian Open. However not a one of these meetings was on clay, and that changes the equation.

So Federer came out swinging. It was stark from the beginning how short the points were. Indeed we didn’t see a true rally until the fourth game. We expected Tsonga to press from the beginning, but Federer was clearly pressing too. He seemed determined to take charge, hitting forehands aggressively and with pace. But along with that pace and aggression came errors – from early stages of the match Federer made mistakes off the forehand wing from comfortable court positions simply by going for too much. He looked disjointed, out of rhythm and yet he had only himself to blame because he denied himself every opportunity to find his rhythm.

What Should Federer Have Done?

Clay has the potential to blunt Tsonga’s greatest strength. The crushed red brick of Roland Garros slows the ball, robs it of pace and in doing so rewards the patient. This is the one surface where Federer doesn’t need to beat Tsonga to the punch – where, ironically, he could more employ the tactics of his great clay-court nemesis Rafael Nadal. Height, spin, depth – three tools with which to push Tsonga back and in doing so take the edge off his power. If Federer had found a way to slow the pace of play down, to extend rallies and make Tsonga hit extra balls, Tsonga probably begins to make mistakes. Patience is not Tsonga’s forte, and when he faces Federer there isn’t much of a Plan B for him. But instead of moving the battle to terms in his favor, Federer contested Tsonga at the thing he does best. Pace.

Hubris Or Myopia?

After the first set we sat waiting for Federer’s Plan B that never showed, for the adjustments that weren’t to come. This of itself is a pattern that has occurred far too frequently in recent years with regards to Federer and his on-court plan. Part of his mastery in his amazing run from 2004-2006 wasn’t just that he beat everyone, it was that he could beat players in so many different ways. He seemed malleable as play-dough, molding himself to fit his opponent’s weaknesses and to cover his own on any given day. If his opponent was being consistent he forced errors. When his opponent was forcing play he made the extra ball. He had access to so many different patterns of play, he very naturally fell into using those that fit the situation in front of him.

None of this was evident against Tsonga. He listlessly flailed away at the ball, waiting for his form to improve rather than improving his game plan. The margins are small, and Tsonga leaves little room for error when he’s attacking the ball and playing well. The question becomes, is it hubris or myopia? Does Federer stubbornly cling to his original plan because, well damnit he’s Roger Federer and can beat anyone any way he pleases? Or is he truly caught in the moment and lacking the vision to adjust his play accordingly. It’s a sticky situation, and breaking matches down after the fact in the comfort of a computer chair is far easier than doing it in the heat of the moment on the court with millions of people looking on. However we’ve seen this all before from Federer – most notably time and again against Nadal – and it was disappointing not to see more tangible changes from him as the match progressed.

Wrap-Up

What does this mean for the pair of them? For Tsonga, a great win earns him a very winnable quarterfinal matchup with David Ferrer. In truth this is a match he almost should win. His serve should dictate play, and if he can keep the form he showed against Federer then it is hard to imagine the diminutive Spaniard being able to stand in his way. The big question is whether or not he makes the necessary adjustments to play Ferrer. Lacking the weapons and firepower to genuinely hurt Tsonga, the Frenchman improves his chances if he can show a modicum of patience and be willing to finish points in 2, 3 or even 4 extra balls than he was looking to against Federer. Ferrer will not change his style, so there is no luring him into a slugging match. This is black and white – Tsonga is the slugger, and Ferrer will simply look to outlast his opponent by taking the punches and wearing him down.

For Federer he must now look ahead to the grass court season and the defense of his Wimbledon crown. The good news for Federer is this loss had nothing to do with age. He wasn’t a step slow, he wasn’t lacking in energy. He simply was outplayed, in part due to a poor game plan. Many of his big losses in the past 10 years have come about as a result of poor serving but in this case it was his follow-up that let him down. His first serve % was a very good 67%, and if he can carry those kind of percentages onto the grass he should have a good month ahead of him. However it might be time he went back and looked at some tape, specifically of himself from seven or eight years ago. His hair isn’t the only thing that’s changed and Federer could use some of his old mojo if he wants to find a way to add to his Slam tally.

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