Sometimes a tennis match is like a good book — keeping us entertained and guessing what the protagonists will do next before everything winds up in a satisfying if yet sometimes surprising ending. Plenty were hoping that the third straight meeting this month on a Sunday between Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the finals of the ATP World Tour Finals would not only go three sets, but provide an exciting climax to a year-end event that had its moments, but not yet enough of them to make it a memorable conclusion to the season.
For those unable to attend in person and had to rely on watching it on T.V. or through live text commentaries on various websites, the opening games were much like the beginning chapters of a novel as each player and the fans settled into the surroundings of the O2 Arena. Though Federer struggled at times with his serve, both men held early for 3-all. Tsonga’s forays to net made the narrative feel like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” with fans reacting with awe or horror at the results Tsonga’s volleys produced. If Federer’s game is like a textbook on how to replicate each stroke to perfection, Tsonga’s style of play is more like a cookbook – all the ingredients are there for a successful dinner, but the last minute addition of some extra spice will either make the dish one to savor or one to swallow with a stifled groan.
Like so many times before, Federer stepped up his game, breaking Tsonga en route to close out the first set 6-3. The tension felt by fans wasn’t from what was happening on the court at the start of the second set, but more from the sinking realization that the match might not go three sets as expected. Angst covered Tsonga’s face as he managed to hold serve early on to stay with Federer. But when Federer pounced to break for a 3-2 lead, and then a few games later stepped up to the line to serve for the match at 5-4, it felt like we were witnessing the last paragraph of a short story rather than a hoped-for epic.
But then, the plot thickened.
Federer seemed to let the moment get to him and his first serve went awry giving Tsonga three break points. Suddenly, the inevitable changed to the impossible, even the unthinkable. Was Tsonga going to survive? He missed his first two chances, crashing to the court during the second break point after trying to run down a Federer shot. But on his third and final try, Tsonga got a short ball and made the most of it, setting up a smash winner that gave him the game for 5-all and hope.
When Federer unleashed an ace to set up a tiebreak, the best word to describe the moment was – suspense. But it was short lived as Federer jumped out to a 5-2 lead and it felt like the final plot twists were already laid out. But not so fast. Tsonga served big to keep it close at 5-4, but with Federer having two serves of his own, the ending felt close and almost inevitable. But no, Federer netted a forehand giving Tsonga the mini-break back but then held for 6-5, giving Federer championship point and placing all of the pressure back on Tsonga. Down match point, Tsonga, like a valiant knight with his back against the wall in some fantasy tale, whipped a forehand winner, sending his foe reeling. Tsonga surged ahead to claim the second set tiebreak to the amazement of everyone, including Federer himself who probably felt like a trap door had opened up on the blue court when he was so close to the exits.
Talk about a page turner.
Sometimes they say books or scripts lose their way in the early stages of the third act and the start of the third set was no exception as both men held serve but not with any of the dramatic shotmaking from just ten minutes earlier. But like thumbing through the last remaining pages of a novel and realizing one could probably finish the whole thing in a quick read, the moment of reckoning was nigh.
Serving at 3-4, Tsonga despite his best efforts saved two break points, but the relentless probing groundstrokes of his foe were too much for the Frenchman as on the third break point Tsonga hit a shot wide giving Federer want he wanted – a chance to serve out the match and write his own ending to a fairytale week. Unlike 45 minutes earlier, this time Federer was calm and confident, sending down perfect serves like a magician with a wand until he found himself with three championship points. If Tsonga had any last minute heroics left in him, now was the time to show it.
But Federer wasn’t going to let Tsonga do any last minute rewrites on his Hollywood ending. With a silky second serve, Federer set up a smash which he put away well out of Tsonga’s reach, closing out the match and the title followed by an eruption of emotion from him and the 17,500 on hand. Federer’s 6-3, 6-7 (6), 6-3 victory earned him his sixth career year-end title and his 70th title overall. But the real winners were the fans who either watched or read their way online thorough this battle between two of the world’s best. Not only were they thankful of being able to take in the best match of the event, but they also got want any fan hopes for when they first sit down to take in a match anywhere in the world.