Friday, June 29, 2007
Powerful Tsonga quietly impressing
By Greg Garber ESPN.com
WIMBLEDON, England -- For four days, this soggy little tennis tournament went almost nauseatingly true to form. The top 12 women's seeds and the top 10 men's seeds all advanced to the third round.
On Friday, finally, all hell broke loose at the All England Club. The improbable became routine:
Janko Tipsarevic, once the most likely to succeed as the world's best junior player at the ages of 13, 15 and 17, had digressed to least likely. The stealth 23-year-old Serbian, who had lost all eight of his matches against players ranked in the top 10, ended that streak. Tipsarevic advanced further in a Grand Slam than ever before, stunning No. 5 seed Fernando Gonzalez 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 8-6. Tipsarevic rallied from facing a match point at 2-5 in the fifth set in a draining match that consumed three hours and 35 minutes.
And then there was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a powerful player once seen as a potential Grand Slam champion who slid deep into obscurity after a series of injuries. The 22-year-old French wild card defeated Feliciano Lopez -- who earlier took out British hero Tim Henman -- 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3. Tsonga, who bears a more-than-passing resemblance to a young Muhammad Ali, continues to be the hottest player in professional tennis, having won (including qualifying) an astonishing 33 of 35 matches.
Laura Granville, a 26-year-old from Chicago, matched her best Grand Slam effort ever and utterly shocked No. 9 Martin Hingis, 6-4, 6-2.
Other surprises included: No. 9 seed James Blake's loss to Juan Carlos Ferrero, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6 (4); No. 8 seed Anna Chakvetadze's defeat by Michaella Krajicek, 7-6 (8), 6-7 (5), 6-2; and No. 15 seed Ivan Ljubicic's loss to Paul-Henri Mathieu, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-3.
"Ever since I was a kid, my dream was to win matches on Centre Court of Wimbledon, because for me this is the most important tournament in the world," Tipsarevic said. "I was saying this since I was 12."
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played just four matches this season before reeling off three straight wins at Wimbledon.
This seemed to underline the day's unlikely events as well as anything.
Tipsarevic is seeded No. 28 here, but his gradual progress has been obscured by the three ascendant fellow Serbs who all made the semifinals earlier this month at Roland Garros. No. 3 seed Jelena Jankovic, No. 4 Novak Djokovic and No. 6 Ana Ivanovic have all enjoyed far greater prominence -- until now.
The world now knows that Tipsarevic:
• Has a collection of piercings through his lip and eyebrow and a tattoo on his left arm that quotes Dostoyevsky, "The beauty will save the world."
• Strings his rackets with arresting red strings.
• Says there are zero hard courts in Serbia, which leaves outsiders wondering how the country has become a tennis power.
"People keep asking me, 'How is this possible? What is happening in the country?'" he said. "Maybe some radiation from the bombing or stuff."
On a serious note, he said, "My passing from junior to senior tennis was not maybe as some people expected. If you are the No. 1 junior, you would expect more from yourself. I mean, it's never too late. I am 23. I am playing great tennis."
As much as anyone in tennis, Tsonga can identify with Tipsarevic. He, too, languished after a brilliant start on the junior circuit. He, too, is playing great tennis.
Tsonga won the 2003 U.S. Open junior tournament and finished the year as the No. 2-ranked male junior, behind Marcos Baghdatis. But would he be a Roger Federer or Stefan Edberg -- who were themselves top-ranked juniors -- or more of a Kristian Pless or Gilles Muller?
The latter was the obvious answer as Tsonga crept to the edge of the top 100, then was struck by serious back, knee and shoulder injuries. Suddenly, four years later, he is an overnight sensation. Tsonga is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds and has equally huge strokes.
Healthy at last, he served notice at this year's Australian Open where, as a wild card, he split tiebreakers with Andy Roddick in the first round before losing in four sets. Since losing to Kenneth Carlsen in a Challenger event in Sarajevo, he has been nearly unconscious. After winning a string of Challenger and Futures events, Tsonga arrived in England in June and immediately faced a scheduling dilemma.
He solved it by driving back and forth between the Surbiton Challenger and qualifying for The Queen's Club in London. In one weekend, he managed to win five matches, including the Surbiton final over Ivo Karlovic, the match that landed him in the main draw at Queen's. He knocked off former world No. 1 and Queen's champion Lleyton Hewitt before falling in the third round.
At Wimbledon, he has been a revelation. In the final game against Lopez, Tsonga banged three aces and an unreturnable serve. He finished the match with 16 aces and just as many effectively unreturnable serves.
Tsonga has won all three of his matches and all nine of his sets. Next up is a delicious all-French matchup with Richard Gasquet.
"For two years, I played like six tournaments per year," Tsonga said. "I played very good these years, but it's not enough. I can't get up in the rankings. It was my back and my shoulders."
And he's healthy now?
Tsonga beamed the incandescent smile of someone who has finally reached his potential.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.