The very first thing Roger Federer said during his on-court interview after defeating Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez 6-3, 6-4 Saturday night at the Rogers Cup in Toronto was how happy he was for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France.
The Frenchman will be his opponent in Sunday afternoon's final. It's not Djokovic, or Nadal, or countryman Stan Wawrinka. But Federer doesn't think that makes it any easier.
"I'm happy for Jo that he's playing well again, I must say. He's struggled for some time. We're not talking major struggle like he can't play tennis anymore. He's been fit, which is important for him, No. 1, because he did have some major issues I think with his back and some other things. I think it was a matter of time that he got it all together again, especially in terms of confidence," Federer said. "It's a big tournament for him now already, and this is now like a final with less pressure, my opinion, for him. I think getting to the final was the hard part for him."
After defeating lower-ranked countrymen Édouard Roger-Vasselin and Jérémy Chardy, Tsonga trounced top seed Novak Djokovic, helped in part by Djokovic's off-form and the fact that another Frenchman, Gaël Monfils, had softened him up a little bit by pushing him to a third-set tiebreaker in the previous round. Then Tsonga took out Andy Murray. Then he took out No. 7 Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria. So you can see where Federer was going with that.
That's three wins over top-10 players in three days – a career quota for a lot of players.
"He beat me here in Canada too maybe once or twice. I'm not sure." Federer said of their 11-4 head-to-head record.
He certainly did, although on both those occasions the men played in Montreal, where Federer hasn't had quite the same success he has enjoyed in Toronto. Tsonga defeated him in a third-set tiebreak in the quarter-finals in 2009, and then returned to Montreal two years later and did it again in the third round.
"You think you're in a safe place sometimes in the rally, and he takes one step and, you know, just hits it and the point is over," Federer said. "He's one of the few guys besides Stan and other guys who are not the Big 4 sort of thing who can do that. That's why he's been in the top 10 for so long. Like I said, for him it's just really being physically fit, you know. The rest then sort of takes care of itself normally."
The last time Tsonga had beaten a top-10 player (never mind a top-3) was at the French Open 14 months ago, when he took out Federer in the quarterfinals.
Tsonga wanted Federer in the final. And he got him. "Just because it's always an honor for me to play against him in such a good arena. Yeah, it can be one of the biggest victories for me if I am able to beat him," Tsonga said.
"Always when you play against Roger, it's always special. First, because you play in a big arena, in a big stadium, anyway, and every time, you know, the crowd is for him. So, you know, it's quite a good sensation, you know. It's quite a good feeling when you win against 10,000 people."
It will be more like 12,500 at the Rexall Centre Sunday afternoon. In a tournament decimated by the early departure of most of the top seeds, it's as good a final as you could ask for. No. 1, because Federer is in it. And his opponent is a talented, charismatic crowd-pleaser who can light it up.
Federer last won the Canadian event in 2006. He also went on to win the U.S. Open that year, if you're looking for signs from above. Then again, what didn't Federer win in 2006?