Much of Australian Open 2014 has been not what we thought it would be. When we have predicted thumpings, we get thrillers. And when we have expected cliff-hangers, we get cruises.
The latter was certainly the case on Monday night at Rod Laver Arena, when Roger Federer met Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the fourth round. It was billed as having the potential to be as good as their quarter-final was here just 12 months ago, a scintillating five-setter that Federer won by sliverous margins.
But on this occasion, Federer came to play and Tsonga didn’t. Destroying the 10th seed 6-3 7-5 6-4 in just an hour and 52 minutes, the Swiss was quite frankly excellent, giving weight to the suggestion that he is at his best level for at least six months. Tsonga, by contrast, was not.
Federer, the sixth seed, faced just one break point, deep into the third set. Tsonga faced seven, losing three. And that was it.
“I’m very pleased,” Federer said. “I was able to play my game, mix it up, come to the net. I was surprised that things worked out for me.
“This was the kind of match I was hoping to play against Jo in Paris in the quarters. I got a hiding that time. So this is nice.”
One of Federer’s most pertinent statistics, perhaps an early indication of the Edberg effect, was his fondness for the net. He came in 41 times, winning 34 of those exchanges. He even serve and volleyed, winning six of eight.
“The question is can you then do it. Does Jo allow you to? Is he serving too big?,” Federer replied when asked if that was a pre-ordained tactic. “I was hoping I could play a little bit aggressive. So I think it worked out better than I thought it would. You know, I was good at net. I was consistent. I was solid. I was quick. I had the right mindset.”
Those words apply to his entire performance.
He broke Tsonga on the Frenchman’s first service game, a high bouncing return giving him time to rush the net and forcing Tsonga to miss the pass. It set the tone of the match, Federer twinkle-toed in his red shoes, Tsonga laboured in his white ones.
The second set was tighter, it taking Federer until the fifth game to break, and he was lucky to do so, a slice backhand net cord giving him the much-needed opportunity. But he seized the early advantage in the third, taking Tsonga’s serve against in the third game. He had three more chances to widen the game at 4-2, but the 10th seed, the only player ever to beat Federer from two sets to love down, clung on. But there was no fightback. Federer served out to love, a quiet fist pump acknowledging the achievement of reaching yet another Grand Slam quarter-final, his 11th in a row at the Australian Open.
“I felt, All right, things are working for me tonight. Let me try to run away with it in the first set. I had some missed opportunities midway through the second set. I think I had twice Love‑30.
“Thought I could have done a bit better, but Jo did well to hang around and serve well when he had to. Yeah, so that second set was key, I thought.
“Then the third, I felt like, Okay, if I can get off to a good start in the third, which I did, things were going to look good. I’m happy I got the job done in three.”
Federer’s task now, is to do it all over again. Andy Murray is a different player from Tsonga. He does not give the same power back to you, and he is arguably a far better defender. He is also one of the few players to have a winning head-to-head against the 17-time major champion. But Federer knows all of this.
“I think we're both coming into this match with a good feeling. We're both coming into this match, though, with some doubts slightly,” Federer said.
“It's good to see he took care of his draw, and here we are again. I'm looking forward to the match, I must say. Yeah, I wonder how it's going to play out. Was it here the last time we played? That was a great match. So I hope we both can reproduce something similar.”
To beat Murray, Federer knows he must do what he did against Tsonga, be aggressive, determined, and clinical. And not get drawn into hitting from the back. Because that is when Murray can be as annoying as a very persistent mosquito, and suddenly those free-flowing forehands and backhands don’t find their spots so easily.
“I hope I can continue playing at a high level,” Federer said about the challenge ahead.
“What I've shown over the last three to four months to myself is that I'm more confident, that I know I'm most likely going to play okay in my next match, which wasn't always the case midway through last year when I didn't know how I was going to feel actually during the match.
“I feel like I can think ahead. I can think tactics. I can think many things out there.”
He thinks he can win, too.