Roger Federer dropped the first set and failed to convert his first 15 break-point opportunities but still managed to defeat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 2-6, 7-6, 6-1 to reach the semifinals of the 2014 Monte-Carlo Masters.
The meeting marked the 15th time Federer and Tsonga have faced off in their careers.
It was the first clash to take place outside of a major since 2011, however. Their last three matches have occurred on the Grand Slam stage, with Federer winning twice, and when they were suppose to play in Doha two years ago the Swiss star had to pull out due to injury.
After trading holds early in the match, the first key moment came with Tsonga serving at 2-2. Federer was finally able to make inroads of the Frenchman's serve and earned himself two chances to break. He couldn't convert either opportunity.
The very next game Tsonga was able to earn the first break. Playing as if the prior game gave him a major jolt of energy, the charismatic star put Federer on the defensive and then in typical fashion he took a chance and ripped a winner to close out the game.
TennisTV noted the set-changing shot:
Federer's play dropped off considerably after that quick change in momentum and Tsonga did well to take advantage. He fended off an effort from the 17-time major champion to get the break right back and then closed out the set with a second straight break.
Although Tsonga played well, especially during high-pressure points on his own serve, the first set result had more to do with Federer not playing his best. He was missing what would normally be routine shots for him and it prevented him from mounting a comeback once Tsonga got the break.
Perhaps the early struggles shouldn't have come as a surprise. Federer admitted ahead of the match that he wasn't sure exactly what to expect from his quarterfinal opponent, as quoted by the Associated Press (via ABC News):
I've seen Jo play different kind of quality matches lately, so not quite sure he's going to play, how aggressive, how passive. I'm going to have to have an open mind.
The stats from the opening set illustrate those issues (via TennisTV):
Federer proceeded to squander several chances early in the second set. He had Tsonga on the ropes in each of his first two service games. Despite earning five break points, he couldn't get the point he needed most.
It was due to uncharacteristically lackluster play on key points from Federer once again. He would get himself in position to grab control of the set and then on break point his shots would sail wide or into the net. The normally stoic star even showed some frustration.
He even received a code violation for crushing a ball out of play after a routine miss in the middle of the set, as Live Tennis pointed out:
When was the last time Federer got a code violation? Ball abuse after he smacks one out of the stadium in anger after a return miss.— Live Tennis (@livetennis) April 18, 2014
The fan favorites continued to trade service holds deep into the second set, much to the delight of the crowd. Federer fought his way out of a 0-30 hole in the final game to force a tiebreak after squandering 10 break points in the set.
Federer, knowing his margin for error was completely eliminated, finally rose to the occasion. He wisely hit behind Tsonga to give himself the mini-break at 3-1 and then got a little help from the Frenchman, who double faulted to make it 4-1.
Tsonga eventually fought back to level the tiebreaker at 6-6, saving a trio of set points in the process. Federer then took the next two points to force a deciding third set.
SI.com's Beyond The Baseline noted the crowd reaction when the longtime superstar finally broke through:
The crowd goes wild as Federer takes the second set tiebreaker to force a third set vs. Tsonga. Nearly blew a 6-3 lead in the breaker. #atp— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) April 18, 2014
Failing the win the tiebreak also seemed to take the wind out of the sails of Tsonga. Despite being a tremendous athlete, fitness has always been a question mark and Federer certainly looked like the fresher player in the third set.
After holding in the opening game, the fourth seed was at long last able to secure his first break of the match to rush out to a quick 2-0 lead. It came on his 16th break-point attempt of the match after being unable to convert the first 15.
Federer then consolidated the break to make it 3-0 and was on cruise control from there. There was a feeling that if Tsonga wasn't able to shut the door in the second set that the edge would shift to the opposite side of the court, and that's exactly what happened.
He took the final set 6-1.
Ultimately, the match could have lopsided in Federer's favor if he converted his early break chances. But Tsonga deserves credit for stepping up on those key points, he just didn't have enough left in the tank to pull out the victory once the second set slipped away.
How will the tournament finish for Federer?
Federer will play the winner of Novak Djokovic and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the semifinals. Although the Spaniard has already knocked off Alexandr Dolgopolov and Tomas Berdych, it would be a surprise if Djokovic didn't advance.
Assuming the second seed does move on, it will make the 34th meeting between two of the sport's biggest stars. Federer holds a 17-16 advantage overall, but Djokovic has won four of the last five matches, including their most recent battle in Indian Wells.
Federer will need to take far greater advantage of what's sure to be more limited chances if he's going to reach the final.