James Lawton: Frenchman finds nerve and adventure to force Federer to lose the faith

Former champion forfeits two-set lead for first time at Grand Slam

Maybe you doubted there is anything more poignant in all of sport than the sight of a great champion falling against the ropes? You should, then, have been in the Centre Court here yesterday for the fall of Roger Federer.

You should have measured the distance he dived, the speed with which he slipped from some ultimate competitive grace to the confusion of the profoundest defeat.

You should have seen the dwindling body language and failing technique of the man who some time ago was enshrined as the most brilliant tennis player of all time when his opponent Jo-Wilfried Tsonga suddenly realised he could be rather more than another ritual victim in Federer's extraordinary career.

The 26-year-old Frenchman, known as the Muhammad Ali of tennis not for his legendary deeds but a striking physical resemblance to the great fighter, won his most famous victory not because he sensed that the man who had won 16 Grand Slam titles was suddenly, at 29, cornered and vulnerable.

No, it was because he reached a decision that, at the highest level of sport, so often provokes the kind of upset represented by Tsonga's 3-6, 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 quarter-final triumph stretched over three hours and eight minutes of relentlessly intensifying action.

Tsonga grasped that there was only one way to break the enormous odds that had built against him when Federer moved clinically into his two-set lead. He didn't have the statistics but he knew the reality that in Grand Slam action Federer never loses such a lead – not until yesterday.

His record in 178 major tournament matches was a stunning 100 per cent after creating such an advantage before Tsonga began to produce shots which spoke of a talented player who knew that he was doomed without a major infusion of nerve and adventure.

The result was tennis as taut and brilliant as a world heavyweight title fight of the highest quality. For a while it was another Federer masterclass, an exhibition of the game's most subtle arts. Then Tsonga broke the Swiss master at the start of the third – and the desperate lunges of a drowning man became a superb, explosive pursuit of a semi-final place. No longer could Federer pull the string as effortlessly as a master puppeteer. He could play the most calculated shot only to see it wither against the force of the Frenchman's desperate but also inspired game.

The Centre Court had plenty of reasons to believe that Federer would find a way to check his tailspin but the more he ransacked his memory for the best of his game the more it seemed that he had surrendered, fatally, the vital momentum. In the first two sets Federer again made something like nonsense of the fact that he was seeking his first win in six Grand Slam tournaments. His shots not so much hit the lines as caressed them; his backhand looked as close to perfection as he had ever wanted it and his service was clinical enough to put the big-hitting Tsonga continually on the back foot.

But this was before Tsonga moved into a dimension which has often promised before but rarely reached at the most vital moments of his career. The Frenchman's own service acquired a weight and an accuracy that stripped down Federer's self-belief and when it came to the fifth set there was an increasing sense that the great man's faith in himself was draining away.

In the royal box Jack Nicklaus, still the greatest golfer of all time with 18 major titles – against Tiger Woods' 14 – hunched forward in his seat, the most rapt expression on his face. Perhaps he knew precisely the pressure mounting on his fellow champion, the terrible sense that he could no longer inflict himself on any situation.

When the cruel verdict was in, when Tsonga danced triumphantly across the Centre Court and Federer forlornly packed his bag, the big question came with an almost indecent haste.

Federer was asked if it felt like the end of an era. No it didn't, not to him. It felt like the end of a great tennis match. "No, I don't feel that way," he said, "because I played too good. It wasn't a shocking second-round loss in straight sets, some stupid match I played. It was a great match I think, from both sides. I really think I played well and I also thought Jo played an amazing match, as good as I've seen him play for a long period of time.

"You have to respect that, you have to understand it. That's why I don't believe I have to look too far ahead. I just have to accept what he did – and not forget that I have played well."

Tsonga was asked if he had felt a strange, strong force of inspiration. "Yes, yes," he said, "there was a lot of it. I felt so good on the court. I was quick. I was just perfect today. All the time I was feeling as though I was in a dream, even at two sets down because I was in a quarter-final with Roger Federer. The stadium was full. It was 6-3, 6-7. I was not ridiculous. I was in my match.

"You don't think to yourself, 'Roger Federer never loses from this position.' You just say that you have to be consistent, keep at your serve – and that's it. Then it comes true. When you are at two sets to one you say, 'OK, I can win another set – and then you are in the fifth set and you feel you can do anything."

Federer insists that he can still pursue the highest goals; he points out that Tsonga, for all his excellence on the Centre Court, was having his day of days, taking huge cuts at the ball and seeing everything work as if in a dream.

It was no reason to believe that an era had ended, he insisted, but the more he said it the more you had to wonder that he may just have been trying to soften the impact of his fall. This, it was impossible not to suspect, was the kind of defeat that makes the greatest of champions wonder quite how much time is left.

Federer loss in numbers

0 The number of times before yesterday that Federer had lost a Grand Slam match after going two sets ahead.

1 Break points created by Roger Federer, who could not get near Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's serve.

4 Times Federer had beaten Tsonga in previous meetings. Tsonga had only beaten Federer once before.

6 Consecutive Grand Slam tournaments that Federer hasn't won, dating back to last year's French Open.

9 Years since the last time Federer won no Grand Slams in a season. He has only the US Open left in 2011.

9 Break points created by Tsonga. He converted three of them, one in each of the third, fourth and fifth sets.

18 Aces delivered by the big-serving Tsonga. Federer had 17.

27 Minutes it took for Federer to take the very one-sided first set, which he won 6-3.

63 Winners hit by Tsonga yesterday. Federer managed six fewer, with 57 winners of his own.

121 Average speed, in miles per hour, of Tsonga's first serve. Federer's average was 114 mph.

135 Tsonga's fastest serve, in miles per hour. Federer's best was down at 126mph.

178 Grand Slam matches in which Federer had gone two sets up without losing before today.

There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'