The Sound of Inevitability

French Open, Quarterfinals

It was probably naïve to believe that the drama, excitement and quality that so enriched the first four rounds of this year’s Roland Garros would be sustained all the way through to the end. Such things are sadly not designed to last. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images EuropeThere was bound to be a letdown at some stage, and it was always likely to come when those who’d earned their passage via desperate heroics collided with those who prove their readiness for travel every week.

Stanislas Wawrinka, Tommy Haas and Tommy Robredo had each eked out the narrowest of victories in the rounds before, only to arrive, haggard and ragged, at the station, and there discover three elite players who’d never looked like losing. The latecomers were promptly shoved onto the tracks, there to await their doom. The exception, in every way, was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who’d easily out-paced his early round opponents, reached the station at a dead run, and barely paused as he barrelled into a distracted Roger Federer, who was busy tying his shoelace. That onrushing roar was the train they’d intended to board; the sound, Hugo Weaving once insisted, of inevitability.†

All four quarterfinals ended in straight sets, and none of them took very long. The whole affair could only have been quicker if had Roland Garros scheduled them all to be played simultaneously. To be fair, the tournament did its level best. As it was, the baffling decision to run two of them side by side combined with the sense of crushing inevitability – except in the case of Federer, whose defeat was crushing for other reasons – to ensure that a hitherto fascinating tournament foundered mid-way through its final week. One hopes, with diaphanous naivety, that things pick up for the semifinals.

(6) Tsonga d. (2) Federer 7/5 6/3 6/3

The concern coming into the quarterfinals was that Federer’s imposing early performances had come against undeniably weak opposition – a pair of qualifiers and a hobbled Julien Benneteau – thereby distorting one’s perception of his form. Even in struggling to see off a gallant Gilles Simon, the Swiss had looked easily superior when he was playing well, although he’d worryingly punctuated these periods of dominance with a patch in which he could barely have played worse, thus padding the match out to five sets. The hope among his innumerable fans was that this merely reflected the issues he traditionally has with this particular Frenchman, and that they would evaporate when faced with another particular Frenchman. To the contention that Federer had not yet faced a player like Tsonga in this tournament, the reasonable response was that nor had Tsonga faced a player like Federer. At least it had seemed reasonable.

As it happened, I doubt whether Tsonga had ever faced a Federer quite like the one he encountered on Tuesday. If he had, he would certainly have won more than three of their twelve matches. On the other hand, Federer has encountered this version of Tsonga before. It was glimpsed for a few sets in Melbourne in January, and for three definitive sets at Wimbledon two years ago. It is the version in which Tsonga swings as hard as he can at everything, and doesn’t miss. Word is that conditions were playing fast, but it’s hard to imagine conditions that would play slow when a guy this powerful and athletic sustains that calibre of attack, from both wings and everywhere in the court. The only clue that this was clay court tennis lay in the visual evidence that they were actually playing on a clay court.

Federer led by a break early in the first set, but that provided little comfort, since it had come entirely in defiance of the run of play. The four points Tsonga had lost on serve to be broken were almost the only ones he’d lose for the set (there was one other on an unlucky netcord). He served near eighty per cent throughout the first set, and never dropped below seventy per cent for the match. Meanwhile Federer barely had an easy service game all day: Tsonga, typically a weak returner, was virtuosic even in this area. Federer admittedly didn’t serve well – both pace and percentages were low, and I cannot recall another match in which he served no aces – but this was largely in keeping with the rest of his game. It vaguely recalled the heavy losses in Indian Wells and Rome. However, whereas the first of those was heavily influenced by a back injury, and the second by suicidal aggression, this latest was simply a matter of playing badly against an opponent when only the best would have sufficed. In truth, Federer has hardly played well since Cincinnati last August, which he won without dropping serve. Since then he hasn’t won a title, and is now 3-10 against top eight opponents. Those who point to Federer’s poor season would do well to lengthen their perspective.

Hope for Federer briefly flared when he broke Tsonga at the start of the third set, but it was only a break back, and it only monetarily delayed a result that was by now seeming inevitable as well as crushing. Interviewed afterwards, Federer, amidst heartfelt praise for his opponent, professed himself ‘sad’ at the way he’d played. It was an unusual but not inappropriate description: not angry, or disappointed, or frustrated, or chagrined, but saddened. Tsonga, on the other hand, was jubilant; he does jubilation as well as anyone, although Roger Rasheed’s proud tears ran him close. What was especially gratifying about his performance was how consistent it was, not merely throughout the duration of today’s match, but with his other performances this week. He’d looked great already, but he hadn’t faced anyone like Federer. Now he has faced someone like Federer, and he still looks great.

(4) Ferrer d. (32) Robredo, 6/2 6/1 6/1

One hopes he still looks great against David Ferrer, whom he faces next. Ferrer accounted for Robredo with an ease that would be termed effortless if it was anyone else. It was effortful, but inexorable, although I wouldn’t say it was necessarily very interesting. When Ferrer moved ahead by two sets to none, commentary and social media united in entirely expected proclamations that Robredo now had him precisely where he wanted him. This provided momentary interest, in that it invited the question of whether a joke is fundamentally less funny when everyone makes it at the same time. The answer, we now know, is that yes, it is. There isn’t much more to say about the match – believe me, I’d like to – except that Ferrer did all those things he normally does, and that he’s better at all of them than Robredo is. He’ll fancy his chances of pushing through to the final, although I’d be neglectful if I didn’t point out that he, like Federer, hasn’t faced anyone like Tsonga yet.

(1) Djokovic d. (12) Haas, 6/3 7/6 7/5

Novak Djokovic had faced someone like Haas just the round before, in the form of Philipp Kohlschreiber. They’re both gifted German shotmakers, though they of course have their differences. Kohlschreiber, for example, managed to grab a set from Djokovic before submerging into a deep dirty puddle of squandered break points. Djokovic was better today than he’d been on Monday, especially early, and was thus better-equipped to fend off another gifted German shotmaker making shots. He never looked like losing: it wasn’t anything like as close as the scoreline suggests, since all the excitement was confined to the German’s service games, at least until the end.

Before the match there’d been sufficient talk of Haas’ victory over Djokovic in Miami that were we given the merest hint of the hype that would have accompanied a third round encounter between Nadal and Lukas Rosol, inspiring one to thank heaven and Fabio Fognini that this match never eventuated. Djokovic had already gone through it with Grigor Dimitrov, to whom he’d lost in Madrid a few weeks ago. I’m not sure if people really expect lightning to strike twice, although it’s probably just a feeble effort to drum up interest by pretending that the men who audaciously upset the world number one in a best of three Masters event would somehow reprise that effort in a Major. Naturally anything can happen in sport, but Djokovic had reached the semifinals or better at eleven consecutive Majors, and this is the one he now desires the most.

(3) Nadal d. (9) Wawrinka, 6/2 6/3 6/1

At least Haas had actually beaten Djokovic a few times. Wawrinka hadn’t taken a set off Nadal in ten matches, the most recent of these in the Caja Magica last month. On a day in which the all the results felt pre-ordained – Maria Sharapova’s strange first set notwithstanding – this one felt the least intriguing of the lot. And so it proved. Again, I’d love to say more, but like Ferrer’s win over Robredo, this match consisted of Nadal doing all those things he does well in general, but especially well on clay, and incredibly well at Roland Garros. He started slowly in his first three rounds, but seems to have abandoned that strategy, probably for the better. Today he started quickly, and never faced much opposition from an over-matched Wawrinka. The Swiss had survived a very long match the round before, but any chance that his resultant weariness would affect today’s outcome was rendered negligible. Perhaps with more spring in his legs he might have leapt aside as the train bore down, but really, there simply wasn’t time.

† While we work through that image, take a moment to consider how fabulous an addition to the Radio Roland Garros team Agent Smith would make, especially calling Kevin Anderson’s matches.

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