All Murray had to do was win a set and he would be in the semi-finals for the third time in his fifth straight year at the World Tour Finals.
And in 2012 in particular, it would have a special feel. For this year, he came to his fourth tournament on home soil as a Wimbledon finalist, Olympic champion and winner of a Grand Slam. His public had high hopes of their local hero, and he had high expectations of himself.
Quite apart from putting together his best season in tennis—and he will end the year as No3 for the first time in his career—he should have felt hugely confident in taking on the Frenchman. Seven times they had played and six times Murray had won—the only blot being the opening round of the Australian Open almost five years ago.
In fairness, their contests on grass had been very competitive, but all of their best-of-three hard-court matches had been straight-set wins for Murray.
As for Tsonga, despite recently taking on a coach for the first time in over a year and a strong indoor run that included the title in Metz and the final in Stockholm—also reaching the final in outdoor Beijing in between—he seemed to have lacked the focus and confidence that took him to the finals here last year.
He faded badly against Djokovic in his first match and did the same in the third set against Berdych. He would have to find something special to avoid the plane home before the weekend.
Unfortunately, the Frenchman looked a shadow of the charismatic, crowd-thrilling man who last year took Federer to three sets, winning an exhilarating tiebreak in the second. Murray broke him in the opening game of the match with a terrific sliced backhand and, as if to rub salt into the wound, broke again in the third with another error from the Frenchman.
It was as though his two defeats this week had knocked the stuffing out of Tsonga, and Murray’s slicing and dicing, his scampering defence around the baseline and paucity of errors, simply unpicked Tsonga’s stitching too.
Tsonga held serve in the fifth game and there was a flicker of the French genius at the net with a volley winner to take the seventh, as well. There was even the prospect of a needle and thread for Tsonga as Murray served out for rather more than just the set or the match… for a place in the semis of the World Tour Finals. He led 40-15 but a nervy ace took him to deuce before he served it out, 6-2.
Murray hadn’t faced a break point, had made just seven errors to Tsonga’s 17, and he hadn’t dropped too many points on serve, either, despite putting only half of his first deliveries into the box. But the significance of the moment was clear, as he roared and fist-pumped no fewer than five times on the way back to his chair.
The line crossed, it seemed to lift the shackles from both men, though not before Murray had opened this set just as he opened the first: a break, a 2-0 lead and almost a 3-0 lead as Tsonga survived two deuces in the third game.
Their rallies cranked up, with some of the old Tsonga flair making a more frequent appearance. This at last became tennis to sit back and enjoy, with the offensive Tsonga taking on the defensive Murray. The Frenchman paid the price of 12 errors to only three from Murray at the set’s mid point, but his tactics paid off in the eighth game as a sequence of winners had him outscoring the Briton 12 to five on that side of the scales.
A glorious half volley forced a lob error from the serving Murray to take the score to 0-40, and a huge forehand winner from Tsonga left his opponent rooted to the baseline. It was all square, 4-4, and soon it was 5-4 to Tsonga.
Already the Frenchman had come to the net 14 times compared with five in the first set, and had won 10 points as a result. He had begun to walk that Ali strut, talking at himself, finding some fight. It forced Murray’s hand: He would have to take on the attack himself.
Tsonga, though, saved his serve in the 11th game, exchanging angled touch volleys of the most acute kind and pumping up his serve. He survived, indeed he led on points in the set by 37-34: Murray had to serve to take it to a tie-breaker.
Again his nerves showed. A double fault took the game to deuce and a backhand error brought up break point. But a Tsonga error made it deuce again. Now Murray blistered a couple of forehands to force the tiebreak after all, and continued to fire the forehand, now down the line, now cross-court, to build a 6-2 lead. He closed the set, 7-3, with a bang: a 135mph ace.
The words between the men at the net were wreathed in smiles. Such gestures are in the nature of the Frenchman, and a broad smile has become a more regular and welcome feature on Murray’s face, too. His home crowd has noticed, and it is surely his demonstrations of emotion, both in loss and victory, that have turned him into a true British favourite.
Who he plays in Sunday’s semi-final remains a mystery. It could be Roger Federer—and how poignant that would be after sharing the spoils in their other two London meetings this year—or it may be Juan Martin del Potro—and the last time they met was at this very event three years ago.
Murray won, but Del Potro took the last-four place. But he will not watch the face-off between the two on Saturday: He will be practising instead:
“They played a couple weeks ago indoors, and Juan won that one just. He’s played well indoors the last few weeks, and over the years, he’s played well. So he’s tough on the surface.”
And on Federer? “He’s played very well so far here, he likes the conditions when they’re like this. It helps his timing. When he’s timing the ball well, he plays great tennis.”
Whichever you cut the cake, then, it will be a challenge. As the slogan of this year’s World Tour Finals tells fans and players alike: It all ends here, and very, very soon.
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford