Thursday, January 24, 2008
Unflappable Tsonga puts on the show of his lifetime
By Patrick McEnroe ESPN
Rafael Nadal entered his matchup with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga without conceding a single set. Nadal, a three-time Grand Slam champion, was poised to reach his first major hard court final. Tsonga was making his first foray into a semifinal of this magnitude.
Nadal is one of the quickest, most relentless players on tour, and he had yet to be physically tested. The Spaniard has played in big-time matches at prestigious events, while Tsonga had never experienced pressure like this. Though no one would have ever known after watching this match.
It wasn't so much that Tsonga defeated Nadal as it was the manner in which he deliberately took care of business, executing shot after shot with perfection in his 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 victory.
On the surface, entering the encounter, it was plausible Tsonga could win, but the reality was slim. His shellacking of the world No. 2 was shocking, and how he maintained that level of play throughout the entire match was astonishing.
What is encouraging for Tsonga, aside from the actual match result, is that he did nothing out of his element. He's more than capable of producing these shots. But to play at that level, physically and mentally, is an ominous sign for anyone who steps in his path.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had never been past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. But he hit 17 aces and dominated No. 2 Rafael Nadal to reach the Australian Open final on Thursday.
The Frenchman has an unflappable disposition. His frame of mind is to go out and dictate play from the onset. It worked to perfection, dismantling a player whose high expectations were dashed in shocking fashion.
Tsonga is an emotional player, but he's able to keep it in check. He is endearing and has an infectious personality, and the crowd was behind him all the way. To maintain the proverbial zone -- physically and mentally -- for that duration is something that happens only once in a while.
He's also extremely fluid, a competitor devoid of any weaknesses. Not only is Tsonga explosive off both wings, but his touch volleys and all-around guile only add to his package. There's no telling how good he can become.
In the past few years, there's been an uncanny run of unheralded players to reach the Australian Open final: Arnaud Clement, Rainer Schuettler, Marcos Baghdatis, even Fernando Gonzalez last year. He was the 10th seed, but there was no indication the Chilean could make that run. Their one commonality, though, is none have ever been back -- to any major final.
Tsonga is different. He may or may not win this title, but it's difficult to fathom he won't be a familiar face deep into Grand Slams as the years go on. He has that X factor: the proficiency to play intelligent, assertive tennis.
The one caveat for the Frenchman is to stay injury-free. He's only 22, but has already been marred by a herniated disc and shoulder and abdominal injuries. If he maintains his health, the newest Australian Open finalist is going to be a perennial top-10 player, at the very least.
As much as Tsonga can now revel in the biggest match of his life, Nadal has to be feeling despondent.
His plight in hard court Grand Slams has been dissected for a few years, and his hopes of ridding that monkey were again derailed.
But this encounter was not about Nadal taking a step back. It was the story of a relatively unknown shot-maker who took five steps forward. We saw the emergence of a new star, a guy with a big-time game who took advantage of the grandest moment of his life.
Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, provides analysis for ESPN.com during the tennis season.