PARIS — Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s surprisingly straightforward 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 quarterfinal victory over Roger Federer at the French Open on Tuesday could be seen through two different lenses.
It could be seen through the lens of a Federer analyst, who now has more confirmation than ever of a great and classy champion’s slow fade from Grand Slam power.
There were hints aplenty under pressure in the brilliant Paris sunshine: shots off the frame; leaps that did not appear to leave as much space between the red clay and Federer’s sneakers as usual; missed opportunities off short balls; and even missed overheads.
“Missing smashes goes hand in hand with missing so many other things,” said Federer, sounding more melancholy than devastated.
But there was also the much more rose-colored lens available to Tsonga observers, of which there will now be millions more than usual in France.
Tsonga, a 28-year-old who professes to prefer the quiet life of the Swiss countryside to the Parisian party scene, does not yet have a Grand Slam title. But he undeniably has charisma, just like France’s last men’s singles champion at Roland Garros: Yannick Noah, who won here with brio in 1983 and remains one of France’s most popular men 30 years later.
It still seems early, very early, to start talking about history repeating itself. The pretournament favorites — the seven-time champion Rafael Nadal and top-ranked Novak Djokovic — are still in contention in the other half of the draw and on course for a semifinal showdown.
But the sixth-seeded Tsonga does have an opening in his half with a semifinal Friday against David Ferrer of Spain rather than a bona fide member of the game’s ruling oligarchy known quite rightly as the Big Four.
The 31-year-old Ferrer, unlike Tsonga, has never even reached a major final. But the bad news for the French bandwagon is that the fourth-seeded Ferrer, like Tsonga, has yet to drop a set in Paris this year and was in relentless, energy-conserving form again Tuesday as he overwhelmed his compatriot Tommy Robredo, 6-2, 6-1, 6-1, in 1 hour 26 minutes.
No, it will not be easy for Tsonga, soaring confidence and all, to reach the final in Paris this year, but the French are dreaming of another 1983, another Noah.
“It’s not too early to think about it because they are both charismatic players, because it’s been exactly 30 years and because they are both French guys of mixed race,” said Cedric Pioline, the former French star and French Open semifinalist. “There are parallels that are there right in front of us, that are true and that we cannot ignore.
“The atmosphere that was there today, you could almost feel like it was a final. The semifinal against Ferrer will be another note higher, and if Jo does indeed manage to reach the final, I don’t know who’ll be across the net, but it won’t be a French player that’s for sure, and the atmosphere behind him will be enormous, enormous. There will be so much energy and if he can put both his fingers right into the socket and feel all that power, it will be, wow, like triple turbo.”
Asked what kind of relationship he had with Noah, now a popular singer, Tsonga said: “Well, when he sings, I dance. That’s my relationship. When he says something to me, I listen to him.”
For at least the next two rest days, France and Tsonga will have to settle for his victory over Federer, who had beaten him in nine of their 12 previous matches, most recently at this year’s Australian Open in a five-set crowd pleaser that presaged a closer match Tuesday.
Federer struck first, breaking Tsonga in the fifth game and was soon up by 4-2. But Federer could not hold a 40-15 lead in his next service game, and Tsonga never trailed again. He dominated with his first serve and took surprising advantage of Federer’s.
Tsonga’s weaknesses have long been clear: returns and a backhand that has long lacked the pop of his world-class serve and forehand. He did damage with it regularly Tuesday, however, perhaps a product of changes made this year under his Australian coach Roger Rasheed, who has previously been taskmaster and innovator in chief with Lleyton Hewitt and Tsonga’s talented compatriot Gaël Monfils.
While Federer had to settle for that lone break in the first set, Tsonga broke Federer eight times in all, winning 42 percent of the points on Federer’s first serve and a whopping 58 percent of the points on Federer’s second serve.
Federer rebuffed any suggestion that he was suffering from a revival of the back problems that have intermittently affected him.
“No, no issues,” he said.
“I thought he played great today,” he said of Tsonga. “He was in all areas better than me today. That’s why the result was pretty clean. You know, no doubt about it. I was impressed by the way he played today.”
Tsonga has spoiled major moments for Federer in the quarterfinals before. At Wimbledon in 2011, he became the first man in history to overcome a two-set deficit and beat Federer in a Grand Slam tournament.