After one of the best matches in his career, Jo Wilfried Tsonga, despite losing, can take comfort in knowing the gap between him and the top 4 is shrinking. His game has always been a threat to any player, but a new coach and a newfound appreciation of his potential indicates that only better tennis is ahead for the Frenchman.
No one has ever questioned ‘Big Jo’s’ talent level, but it was always hard to believe that he could keep up the consistency required to take out a gruelling two-week grand slam. His amazing run at the 2008 Australian Open where en-route to the final, he took out Andy Murray, Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal, showed that his brand of tennis was well suited to taking out quality opposition. Despite only producing flashes of the brilliance in the following years, he has become the only man to defeat Murray, Nadal, Federer and Djokovic in Grand Slams.
These massive wins have come from what I believe to be the most destructive brand of tennis on tour. No other player has the combination of extreme athleticism and sheer power, making it very difficult for him to be put into a negative situation in the rally. The best example of this was in the Australian Open Semi Final where he downright flogged Rafael Nadal 6-2 6-3 6-2. The Spaniard’s renowned defence was helpless against a barrage of power, putting him in a defensive position even when serving. Admittedly, in 2008, Nadal still did not have the serve he has today, and it was more of a rally starter, but nevertheless, Tsonga went all out on returning games resulting in five breaks of serve.
So why is his game so threatening to these top players? While upsets over the top tier do not come often, there is a common trend to the defeats: Power hitting. Players like Tsonga, Berdych, Del Potro, Soderling all have roughly the same game plan when they take on these stars, it’s just whether they can be in good enough form to execute it. Take Berdych for example. Good enough to play an amazing quarter final at Wimbledon in 2010 and the 2012 US Open against Federer, but then can’t back it up for the rest of the tournament. This is definitely the case with Soderling at the French Open, taking out both Nadal and Federer in separate years, but can’t take it all through to the final.
Out of these players, Tsonga definitely has the most potential. There are a multitude of questions about the court coverage of Berdych and Del Potro, but not with Jo. While having power equal to, if not greater than these two, he has some of the best movement on tour. A theme of these Australian Open matches in 2008 was him chasing down drop shots from 4 metres behind the baseline – a sight to behold. He has the best serve out of these players, as well as the best net game. He has never been afraid to venture forward to finish a point, making him a complete all-court player.
Over the offseason, Tsonga has added Roger Rasheed to his box, in the hope that an experienced coach can help take them next step. Rasheed, who is well known for demanding his players be extremely fit, is the perfect match for Tsonga. Not only has he improved this aspect of Tsonga’s game, it seems the mental lapses that cost him in the past have gone. Time after time he would make seemingly simple straight set matches into 4 set or even 5 set battles. A great example of this was the 2012 Australian Open, which was a very strange tournament for Jo. A first round matchup against Dennis Istomin was a 4 set victory, with the match level after 2 sets – not the most confidence boosting opening round. He seemed to correct this effort in the next two rounds with simple 3 set victories, but fell in 5 sets to Kei Nishikori. Now we are big Nishikori fans here at Blindside, but there is no way he should beat Tsonga over 5 sets. A 2-6 6-2 6-1 3-6 6-3 score line indicates that Tsonga switched off completely in the 2nd and 3rd sets giving up two breaks of serve in each. Whether he thought the match would continue like the 1st set and see him through easily to the quarter finals will never be known, but it is safe to day that just like Andy Murray, coaching adjustments have had teh greatest impact on the mental aspects of Tsonga’s game.
His match against Federer in the Australian Open showed this newfound mental application. Despite the loss, and not being as dominant as he can be, Tsonga‘s focus was at the best we’ve seen. It was only through amazing play in the first and third set tiebreakers by Federer, was the 17-time Grand Slam Champion able to progress. This is not taking any credit away from Federer, who played an amazing match in his own right, but I believe it was only his experience that took him through the tight situations. Throughout the entire 5 sets, there was not one lapse from Tsonga. In previous cases, the Tsonga of old would have thrown in a few loose games, and in a 10 minute window, would have thrown away a set. Taking a look at the sets he lost, this was definitely not the case, taking Federer to tiebreaks which could have easily gone his way he if wasn’t playing the greatest player of all time.
So what can he do over the next couple of years? He has had great results at every Grand Slam, pushing Novak Djokovic to the brink of defeat in the 2012 French Open, quarterfinals at the 2011 US Open, as well as reaching consecutive Semi-Finals at Wimbledon. These results definitely show he has the game for any of the Grand Slams, but I believe his best chance is to take out Wimbledon – based purely on what his opponents won’t be able to do. Defending is much harder on the grass, so any advantage Djokovic and Murray gain in this area may be reduced just enough to give Tsonga a chance. The Federer grass puzzle has been solved once before by Tsonga, but I still believe he will be the hardest to get through on this surface. It will take a performance very similar to his 2011 victory, but this new level of game seen at the 2013 Australian Open should give him great confidence heading into the remainder of the 2013 season.