Tsonga powerless to stop Murray's relentless march to semi-finals

Sat, Nov 10, 2012, 00:00

TENNIS:It took Andy Murray 33 minutes to reach the semi-finals of the Barclay’s ATP World Tour Finals, and, despite a spirited fightback in the remaining hour or so, there was not a thing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could do to stop his progress.

Given the labyrinthian maths attached to the round-robin format, Murray needed only to take the first set of last night’s match to join Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the weekend’s matches and he did it so convincingly in that dazzling first half-hour that he gave substance to the conviction that he can win this finale to the season, a fitting garland to an Olympic gold medal and the US Open title.

That he spoiled the canvas with minor lapses when Tsonga finally came to life, and needed a tie-break to secure victory, signalled only that perhaps he fell victim to complacency, knowing his place was secure.

Murray is likely to meet Federer in tomorrow’s semi-finals, unless Juan Martin del Potro does to the Swiss in Group B today what he did to him in the final in Basel two weeks ago.

But enough of the maths.

In brushing away Tsonga’s edgy challenge in front of an enthralled audience, Murray produced tennis of the highest quality in the first set and for some of the second, subtle and clever in its conception, near-perfect in its execution.

It took him a little over and hour and a half to win 6-2, 7-6 after holding four match points, and he finished with as lovely a flourish as he began, his third ace piercing the still night air, Tsonga, rooted to the spot, able only to smile in acknowledgement.

And what a start Murray made: he had two break points in as many minutes and from that point onwards, he kept his foot on the pedal. It was a delight (for Murray and his supporters, at least) to see his devilish under-cut backhands slide and fade so low the Frenchman could not have hauled them over the net with butterfly net.

So comfortable was Murray against even the most thunderous of Tsonga’s serves, he some times crept a foot or two inside the court to take them on the rise, returning with much interest, either flat and powerful or with angled cut and drift.

Bewilderment induces desperation and Tsonga’s response to humiliation on a par with that which Murray inflicted on him at Queen’s two years ago was to belt the cover off the ball, tactics that took no heed of the boundaries of the court and only deepened his crisis.

It was power without responsibility.

He checked Murray’s progress briefly in the fifth and seventh games but had to fight with blind faith in his talent to do it, several shots crunching the lines.

Broken near the start of the second set, Tsonga showed admirable spirit to break back in the seventh game, then came to life with a roar and smash, before edging ahead, with serve. Murray, stung, grabbed two break points in the eighth game, and they headed for the tie-break, territory in which he as always felt assured of prevailing.

In the earlier Group A match, Djokovic beat a fragile Tomas Berdych 6-2, 7-6 in a curious mixture of brilliance and lassitude. He almost blew it in the tie-break, falling behind 5-1 and had to scramble back from 6-3 as Berdych collapsed.

Despite Djokovic’s protestation later that this and the other matches in this end-of-season tournament satisfied the high standards set throughout the year, it was an uneven contest.

“I don’t agree,” he said, mustering full politeness when it was suggested a certain weariness had invaded some of the performances. “I think the quality of tennis has been really good this week.” Other witnesses read it a little differently.

Berdych, for one, observed, “It wasn’t one of my best matches against him.”

Janko Tipsarevic, after losing badly to Federer the night before, described his own tennis as “horrible”. There were further lapses here and there – understandable ones after 11 months of high-intensity competition – which were not so prevalent in the big tournaments of 2012, and with good reason.

This, for instance, was Djokovic’s 73rd win in 85 matches, nine more outings than he had in 2011, his year of years. He is, by any standards in any era, a remarkable player, and ought to be allowed the odd ordinary performance – even if he does not see it that way.

Only the Spanish grinder David Ferrer, with 88 matches, has played more often; Tipsarevic posted 84 for the season, followed by Berdych (82), then Federer and Del Potro (both 80).

Murray, meanwhile, was playing only his 71st match and, although he has suffered physically with a chronic back injury that briefly threatened to bring him to ground at Roland Garros, he was as fresh as a spring lamb in eventually mastering Tsonga.

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