Tsinging a Tsonga: Top-Ranked Frenchman Drops Gasquet, Reaches Quarterfinal

Tsonga used plenty of these fierce forehands to conquer a compatriot today.

Although they stand just two places apart in the rankings, the seventh-seeded Tsonga and the ninth-seeded Gasquet bear little resemblance in their perception as dark horse threats.  While the latter brought a 1-13 record in fourth-round matches at majors into this tilt, the former has compiled enough upsets and near-upsets over the Big Four to make him a figure of note for even the casual fan.  Much of the reason for those contrasting levels of performance in key matches lies in their respective games.  In the modern era of the ATP, Tsonga’s massive serve-forehand combinations usually trump the grace and touch of his compatriot, who fell to him today 6-4 3-6 6-4 6-2 in a match that evened their record at 4-4.

From the outset, Gasquet looked much more like the player who had lost 13 of 14 fourth-round matches at majors than the man with a winning record against Tsonga.  He dropped his serve in the opening game, while his opponent held easily and soon earned two more break points as a half-bagel loomed.  Digging out of those virtual set points, Gasquet stemmed the slide of momentum to stay within range.  Through the rest of the first set, he continued to knock on the door of opportunity without quite breaking through the uneven but more powerful Tsonga.

Finally, with the higher-ranked Frenchman serving for the match, the first break points appeared for his compatriot.  Dashing towards the net ruthlessly to finish points, an inspired Gasquet sprinted around nearly the entire court before unleashing a passing-hot winner that left Tsonga frozen and mired at 0-40.  From there, though, the seventh seed methodically erased each of the break points with solid serving and tighter focus.  As deeply as he positioned himself to return, Gasquet could not find ways to keep his opponent’s first serves or forehands in play long enough to assert himself in the rallies.  Two futile challenges later, Tsonga closed out the first set.

But the winner of the opening stanza had lost two of the past three meetings between these famously variable Frenchmen.  Tsonga’s carelessness predictably caught up with him early in the second set, when he surrendered his first break in the fourth game.  Having grown steadier as the match progressed, Gasquet kept a high first-serve percentage and won nearly every point behind that shot.  Meanwhile, Tsonga’s body language illustrated his discouragement as the unforced errors flowed ever more quickly from his racket.  He never earned a break point on his compatriot’s serve, allowing the set to slip away without much resistance.

Righting his bateau immediately in the second set, Tsonga followed a quick hold with a long game on Gasquet’s serve during which he stayed more consistent in rallies.  An unwise attack on the net behind an indifferent passing shot would have produced the break had not the ninth seed’s volley caught the back of the baseline.  Two points later, Gasquet surrendered the early lead anyway and allowed Tsonga to consolidate behind thumping aces.  The role of impenetrability of serve shifted back to the seventh seed, recalling the first set, as the world #10 merely clung to his own games without mounting a serious threat on the return.  Rumbling to the net with bravado, Tsonga prevented his compatriot from timing his elongated strokes with precision.  But the two Frenchmen entertained the Rod Laver audience with clever touch shots such as drop shot-lob combinations and slices with side spin that created an elegant counterpoint to their serves.

Serving to take a two-sets-to-one lead, Tsonga fell behind early in the game just as he had in the first set, this time attempting a strange one-handed backhand pass that found the net.  Gasquet’s success ebbed and flowed in proportion to his court positioning, for he struggled to trouble Tsonga when he stayed passively behind the baseline in retrieval mode.  Pinned back there for the next four points after taking a 0-30 lead, he allowed his countryman to close out the set without facing a break point.

A double fault hastened Gasquet’s demise early in the fourth set, when he dropped his first service game as his shoulders seemed to slump.  The challenge of mounting a comeback to win the last two sets perhaps seemed too implausible for a Frenchman not known for his mental tenacity or his physical fitness.  More relaxed than in the previous sets, Tsonga rocketed serves and forehands through the court almost at will.  The uneventful fourth set ended with Tsonga once again in the quarterfinals of the major where he reached the championship match five long years ago.

Projected to face Federer there, he will need to maintain his focus for longer spells and avoid falling behind early in important service games.  That match will mark a key test for him early in his partnership with Roger Rasheed.  Winless against the top eight in 2012, Tsonga would benefit enormously from reviving his status as a genuine threat to them in 2013.