By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Rafa Nadal bowed out of the ATP World Tour Finals on Thursday as for the second time in 48 hours, the Spaniard had no answer against an inspired opponent, this time in the imposing form of French powerhouse Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
While Roger Federer's thrashing of Nadal was a masterful demonstration of the sport's classical arts, Tsonga's 6-7 4-6 6-3 victory in the final match of Group B was a sustained barrage of heavy artillery that eventually overwhelmed the former world number one.
Tsonga, 26, joined group winner Federer in the semi-finals after the Swiss maintained his 100 percent record with a 6-1 3-6 6-3 defeat of American Mardy Fish in a dead rubber.
Defeat extended Nadal's mediocre record at the season-ender.
In the five years he has qualified he has only made the final once, losing to Federer at the O2 Arena last year.
This year he never looked like adding the prestigious title to his 10 grand slams from the opening day when he labored past tournament debutant Fish in three sets.
"I think I didn't play well tonight," the 25-year-old, who since winning the French Open for a sixth time in June has not won another title, told reporters.
"The first two sets I didn't play bad, but I didn't play well, and to win these kind of matches you have to play well. I played without anything special tonight."
While Nadal was clearly disappointed with the level of his performance it would be harsh to take anything away from Tsonga who produced one of the best performances of his career to reach the semi-finals of the event for the first time.
"Tonight, I just played amazing tennis," Tsonga told reporters, adding that he spent the day before the match looking at the video of his run to the Australian Open final in 2008 when he also beat Nadal.
"I was looking at that and I thought, 'Wow!' Before I had lots of energy and I was running faster, hitting harder, but I was crazy on court. This year, maybe I've improved this, but I'm better in my head."
Crunching huge groundstrokes off both wings and storming the net to pound down smashes and some silky volleys, Tsonga continually worried the Nadal serve without being able to engineer the break his play deserved.
Nadal hung on but Tsonga produced a superb tiebreak, moving 6-2 ahead before sealing the set with an ace.
The second set was a similar story, although this time Tsonga suffered a brief dip in the 10th game and Nadal pounced on his fourth set point to set up a late-night decider in front of an enthralled 17,500-capacity crowd.
The majority inside the cavernous arena would have expected Nadal to complete the comeback but as he later put it, the third set turned into a "disaster" for the Mallorcan.
Tsonga broke Nadal's serve at 1-1 when his drop volley proved elusive for the Spaniard and he repeated the trick to forge into a 5-2 lead. Three double faults halted his charge to the finish line but Nadal surrendered his serve, and the match, cheaply in the next game.
"The third set was disaster," Nadal, who still has the consolation of a Davis Cup final next weekend against Argentina, said. "He's dangerous player. Best of luck for him. Jo deserved it more than me."
The composition of the semi-finals will become clear on Friday when world number one Novak Djokovic takes on fellow Serb Janko Tipsarevic and David Ferrer, who is already assured a last-four berth, faces Tomas Berdych.
Defending champion Federer warmed up for the semis with a one hour 47 minute workout against weary American Fish who gave a spirited display despite already being knocked out after defeats against Nadal and Tsonga.
Fans with expensive day session tickets must have feared the worst when Federer cruised through the first set in half and hour but they were given value for money as Fish made a match of it thereafter.
"Bottom line is I'm going away 0-3, which is hard but I had a great experience just being part of this," said Fish. "It gives me a lot of ammunition to come back next year."
Federer is now just two wins away from a record sixth title at the season-ender, moving ahead of the five he shares with Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ian Ransom)