There he was: In the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He was on Centre Court, facing the greatest player of his generation, if not all time. The stadium was packed; the atmosphere, electric. And the score, while not in his favor, wasn’t an embarrassment.
So instead of panicking, Tsonga appreciated everything about the moment. Then he took a breath and focused on two things: hitting the ball and holding his serve.
The result was a stunning upset, with the 12th-seeded Tsonga storming back to derail Federer’s pursuit of a seventh Wimbledon championship, 3-6, 6-7 (7-3), 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
The 200-pound Tsonga, who is built more like a prizefighter than a tennis player — his resemblance to the boxing legend has earned him the nickname “Ali” — pumped his fists and performed five joyful pirouettes around Centre Court in celebration.
“Today I was not scared on big points,” said Tsonga, 26, the second-best men’s player in France, who had beaten Federer only once in five previous meetings. “I think I’m the kind of player who likes these big moments. So I hope I will have some more.”
It was the first time Federer had lost a Grand Slam match after winning the first two sets.
With a record 16 Grand Slam titles on his resume, the Swiss champion was the lone top-four seed to fall at Wimbledon on Wednesday.
Top seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal ushered out Mardy Fish, the last American, 6-3, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. In the process, he debunked speculation that he’s hampered by a foot injury sustained Monday.
Nadal advanced to a semifinal Friday with fourth-seeded Andy Murray, who easily handled Feliciano Lopez 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 to keep alive Britain’s hopes for its first home-grown men’s Wimbledon champion since Fred Perry claimed the title in 1936.
Friday’s other semifinal will pit Tsonga against second-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who subdued 18-year-old Australian qualifier Bernard Tomic, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
Since winning the first of his six Wimbledon titles in 2003, Federer has compiled a record worthy of staking a claim as the best ever to play the game.
But for a second consecutive year, he failed to advance past Wimbledon’s quarterfinals.
Despite murmurs that the great Swiss has lost his edge, few anticipated that he’d fail to reach the final at Wimbledon, where his skill has been so majestically displayed.
Federer, who has never indulged in false modesty, said that apart from Wednesday’s outcome, he was happy with the way he played against Tsonga.
“Except the score, many, many things went right in the match,” said Federer, 29. “I’m pretty pleased with my performance today. It’s kind of hard going out of the tournament that way. At least it took him sort of a special performance to beat me. He played an amazing match; didn’t give me many chances.”
That said, Tsonga looked tense in the first set, while Federer was a study in grace. There was nothing extraneous about his movement — no needless display of brawn or bravado. His strokes were as finely constructed and precise as a Swiss watch as he raced through the first set in 27 minutes.
Tsonga relaxed in the second set and starting hitting his forehand and serve with abandon. And he only got bolder after losing the second-set tiebreak.
“You have to stay consistent and keep your serve, and that’s it,” said Tsonga, who broke Federer’s vaunted serve to win the third set. “When you are at two-sets-to-one, you say, ‘OK, I can win another one.’ And then it’s the fifth set.”
Tsonga’s booming serve (18 aces) was critical to the outcome. Federer didn’t manage a break point through the last four sets. And Tsonga gambled huge on his forehand, finishing with 63 winners to Federer’s 57.
Tsonga broke Federer in the opening game of the fifth set. Serving for the match at 5-4, Tsonga didn’t surrender a point, closing with a sharply angled serve that Federer could only stab with his backhand. The return sailed long, and Tsonga crumpled to his knees.
Asked afterward if he felt capable of winning another Grand Slam title, Federer said: “I think I definitely can. I wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t the case.”