Awesome Nadal eases through the gears in Tsonga hammering
Rafael Nadal sent out a warning to Roger Federer ahead of their potential Wimbledon semi-final yesterday with a straight-sets hammering of former world No 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The pre-match chatter had centred on whether Tsonga, a two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, might be able to unsettle Nadal as Nick Kyrgios had on Thursday. In the event, Nadal delivered an exhibition of bruising, clinical tennis and eased into the fourth round in just one hour and 48 minutes.
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Tsonga battled hard but, as a Centre Court spectator screamed: "It's not your fault, he's too good!" Tsonga responded with a smile and, after holding serve to extend the match by another game, celebrated with mock jubilation, earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
It was that kind of afternoon - with a mutual respect between the players, especially once the battle was over and they met at the net for an extended embrace. Tsonga has always been loved in these parts, and what a contrast his easy smile made to Thursday's dust-up with Kyrgios. Playing a more conventional opponent seemed to liberate Nadal, who performed like a man relieved to be back on dry land after a hazardous voyage.
"I played a solid match," Nadal said. "I felt very comfortable out there. The second round I played a little bit better than the first round. Today I played better than in the second round."
Nadal is famously neurotic about talking up his chances, but the implication here was clear: I have been good, and I am only getting better. Though how much room for improvement there is for Nadal is questionable.
Against Tsonga, he produced 34 winners compared to 12 unforced errors, and consistently hit shots that had Tsonga laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all.
Underpinning it all was the extraordinary rhythm Nadal found on his serve. He made 69 per cent of his first serves, and won 88 per cent of those points - helping to prevent Tsonga from creating a break point all match.
"It's obvious that on grass, if you want to have success, you can't give the opponent a lot of opportunities to break you, no?" Nadal said of the importance of continuing to serve well. "Even if you are a good returner, you will not have a big chances to have plenty of breaks on this surface. It's so important to serve well."
As well as his dominance on serve, Nadal was also keen to mention the consistency of his groundstrokes. Whenever the rallies became extended, Nadal would invariably outlast Tsonga, finding particular joy with the pattern of whipping his cross-court forehand to the Frenchman's ropey backhand.
The success Nadal enjoyed from the baseline follows suggestions from players like Milos Raonic that the courts are playing slower than usual this year.
Raonic even claimed that by next week, with the baseline getting sticky, the Wimbledon lawns would be "no different than moving on a clay court".
If that is the case, then Nadal will have even more cause for optimism ahead of that possible semi. First though, Nadal will have to negotiate past Dan Evans or Joao Sousa, before a presentable-looking quarter-final against either Sam Querrey or Tennys Sandgren. Federer, for his part, eased past Lucas Pouille 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 last night and will face Italy's 17th seed, Matteo Berrettini, in tomorrow's fourth round.
For Tsonga meanwhile, there was the sense that there may not be too many more visits to Centre Court. Now 34 and ranked No 72, he is one of so many pretenders to have fallen by the wayside attempting to keep pace with the two great titans of modern tennis.
Should a few more challengers end up the same way next week, Wimbledon will ready itself for the most tantalising of semi-finals.