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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
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.

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little