Roger Federer is one of those sportspeople whose body language could spark a betting plunge. When injury-free, loose and unencumbered by doubt, he seems to walk a foot taller.
On Monday night, he swaggered onto Rod Laver Arena like he owned the place, surveyed the packed house and made short shrift of a highly-talented opponent.
On paper, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga loomed as one of the trickier fourth round propositions. The Frenchman is one of a handful of players to have genuinely troubled the Swiss great over the past half decade. He dispatched him in straight sets at Roland Garros in 2013 and had upset him on centre court at Wimbledon several years earlier.
His unpredictability, aggression and athleticism have invariably disrupted the Swiss master’s rhythm. He remains an unfulfilled talent however, having made just one Grand Slam Final, the 2008 Australian Open. In the era of the ‘Big Four’, Tsonga has been consistently and reluctantly perched on the next rung down.
But on Monday night his serve was quickly blunted and he was soon at the mercy of Federer’s full repertoire of tricks – the drop shots, chips, charges, lobs and preposterous passing shots. In just under half an hour, he won 6-3 – a clinical return of serve to those inclined to pension him off.
Tsonga finally got a look-in in the second set but was still unable to penetrate Federer’s serve. At 5-5 and 30-30, a net chord dribbled in and The Dodger duly broke to win 7-5. His greater willingness to attack the net and volley – perhaps attributable to his new mentor and childhood hero Stefan Edberg – was clearly evident. And the tricks kept coming.
Tsonga’s mind perhaps momentarily drifted back to their 2011 Wimbledon match, when Federer coughed up a two-set lead to bow out in five. But when Federer broke his first service game in the third set, Tsonga’s head dropped. At one stage, he belted a ball that may well have ended up in the Yarra River and everyone present felt his frustration.
Going down 6-3, 7-5, 6-4, he had, in every facet of the game, been completely dismantled.
Of course, beating Tsonga is one thing. Next up is Andy Murray, who dropped a set, wrecked a racket and threw the odd wobbly, but who continues to progress with decidedly less fanfare than the other title aspirants. The Scot has an 11-9 record in their meetings, including last year’s Australian Open Semi Final and the Olympic Final in 2012. It looms as the most appetising contest of the tournament thus far.
Earlier, his great rival Rafael Nadal did away with Japan’s Kei Nishikori, despite being broken four times and being obliged to play beyond three hours. The straight sets scoreline belied what was one of the more entertaining matches of the tournament and easily the No. 1 seed’s biggest test to date. The Japanese player served for the third set at 5-4, but missed a dolly of a chance for a set point, whereupon Nadal proved too strong in the ensuing tie-break. As Federer knows too well, you just can’t give Raffa a sniff.
The women’s draw is even more of a raffle now, after another hobbled, former champion was bundled out. Maria Sharapova has never looked quite right this fortnight and when she took an off-court medical time out to tend to a nagging hip injury, things went rapidly downhill.
Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova is a full foot shorter than the Russian and won just four Grand Slam matches last year, but turned in the match of her life to roll the second seed. Sharapova’s seven double faults in the deciding set pretty much told the story. She now will presumably stick around to support her Bulgarian boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov, who booked a date with Nadal in the quarter-finals, before fulfilling her commentary commitments at the Sochi Olympics.