Rafael Nadal crashed out of the ATP World Tour Finals on Thursday as France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won 7-6 (7/2), 4-6, 6-3 in a thrilling shoot-out for a place in the semi-finals.
World number two Nadal had to win his final Group B match to join Roger Federer and David Ferrer in the last four at London's O2 Arena, but last year's runner-up bowed out after his second successive defeat in the season finale.
Tsonga's victory means he will play the winner of Group A in Saturday's semi-finals, while Nadal - who is yet to win this tournament - will return home to rest his aching limbs before leading Spain's challenge in the Davis Cup final against Argentina.
With Federer safely through as group winner and Mardy Fish already eliminated it was a straight fight between Nadal and Tsonga to qualify alongside the Swiss star.
Nadal had won six of his eight meetings with Tsonga, but the Frenchman could take heart from his previous meeting with Nadal in London, which he won at Queen's Club earlier this year.
Tsonga's cause was also helped by Nadal's late season fatigue. The 10-time Grand Slam winner suffered one of the more comprehensive defeats of his career on Tuesday when Roger Federer routed him 6-3, 6-0 and he admitted he has been feeling the strain of a gruelling campaign.
Right from the first point, it was clear Tsonga would try to keep Nadal at bay by serve-volleying whenever possible. It was a tactic that worked beautifully.
Tsonga was never threatened on his own serve and the only break-points fell to the Frenchman in the fourth game, although he was unable to convert them as Nadal displayed all his battling qualities.
It was fitting that such a high-quality set needed a tie-break to settle it and Tsonga was finally able to edge in front as his brilliantly cushioned volley secured a 4-2 lead.
Nadal had no response and Tsonga seized his chance, firing down an ace to take the set.
However much Nadal has been feeling the strain of late, he rarely throws in the towel and he kept fighting in a tense second set that exploded into life in the 10th game.
Nadal had three set points on Tsonga's serve but looked to have blown his chance as the Frenchman saved them all.
However Nadal kept pressing and secured a fourth set point.
This time Tsonga cracked, sending a forehand wide to concede the set.
Crucially the often erratic Tsonga didn't lose his cool and he hit back quickly to earn three break points in the third game of the final set.
Nadal saved one but a miscued forehand on the second gave Tsonga the breakthrough.
Tsonga looked home and dry when he broke again to move 5-2 ahead, yet the Frenchman double-faulted on break point as he tried to serve out the match.
That gave Nadal a glimmer of hope which was swiftly snuffed out as Tsonga regained his composure to break for the last time.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|