- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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WIMBLEDON, London -- It is mandate time for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. At his lowest, he was defeated by Novak Djokovic on the red clay of Roland Garros, in front of his countrymen, when he knew he should have been tasting the champagne of his first-ever semifinal there three weeks ago. But he issued a warning of rebirth in defeat, a signal of what his talents could bring, of what he forecast to be his next act.
"I'll try to remember this match and this loss so I have more confidence in tournaments like Wimbledon," Tsonga said on that day, when he could not convert just one of his four match points against Djokovic in that heartbreaking five-set loss. "Because if I can hurt top players on clay, I can't do worse on grass."
Tsonga now finds himself in an interesting, dangerous space, another contestant awash in talent unable to transform signature victories into wins versus the trio of legendary performers named Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. The challenge for Tsonga is not to win when he is carried by the emotions of the crowd, but to become a consistent, world-class performer, free of the lulls and upsets.
It was here at Wimbledon one year ago that Tsonga recorded the most memorable victory of his career, a five-set stunner over Federer that came after he trailed by two sets. Federer had been 181-0 in his career when winning the first two sets of a five-set match. It wasn't simply the victory over Federer that elevated Tsonga, but the way he won. Tsonga was no longer just the showman. He beat Federer with top-shelf weapons -- a huge forehand, a powerful serve and an athletic game on the baseline, and at the net, which electrified a crowd who knew they were about to witness something unprecedented.
Tuesday, against Lleyton Hewitt, a former Wimbledon champ and two-time Grand Slam winner and crowd favorite, Tsonga played focused and offensively from the beginning, refusing to take his time to settle into the match. There were the usual Tsonga flamboyances: He ripped top serves at 133, 135 and 137 mph and fired forehands through the court that left Hewitt with nothing to do but watch.
Hewitt is a proud, aging champion who is healing from injuries. He is far better than his world No. 202 ranking, but Tsonga essentially blew him off the court, ripping forehands and serving 10 big, banging aces in the first set, 21 overall. He buried Hewitt with his first serve and wasn't broken in the match.
Without dips of energy or loss of focus, Tsonga was through to the second round in three workmanlike sets, making good, at least for one afternoon, on his vow that the pain of losing to Djokovic would galvanize him.
"Jo has a chance," Hewitt said. "He can beat Federer, came back from two sets to love down last year in a big match and beat Rog. So, you're putting your hand up there. The tough thing for him, deep in the tournament, he's going to have to beat two, maybe three good players in a row probably. He still comes a little bit in and out of matches I think mentally, but obviously if he's serving well, then he's going to be very tough to beat."
From experience, Tsonga knows the significance of the Djokovic epic lies in his hands. It could propel him into a next level in which he challenges Andy Murray and the top three, or it could be nothing more than a great day with a bad result.
Since beating Federer at Wimbledon, Tsonga is 2-6 combined versus Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. At Wimbledon, Tsonga is in Nadal's section of the draw, with a potentially dynamic quarterfinal looming.
Tsonga must ensure that he backs up any kind of springboard victory. There is always the fear to follow up. Take, for instance, Donald Young, who has beaten Gael Monfils and Murray before falling backward in the rankings from 38th to 51st.
John Isner defeated Djokovic at Indian Wells and Federer in Davis Cup earlier this year, and then lost in the first round here after falling in the second round at Roland Garros. Bernard Tomic, the Australian rising star, made a quarterfinal run at the Australian Open but was then bounced in the second round at Roland Garros by Santiago Giraldo and in the first here by David Goffin.
"It's tough. I think that sort of next year after you break through, to keep it up and continue doing [it] is difficult," Hewitt said of Tomic. "Everybody obviously had massive expectations for him to do well."
Tsonga is attempting to enter the elite territory no player outside of Djokovic and Nadal has been consistent enough to enter. By escaping the first round without drama, Tsonga took a small, important step.
"You know what? It's difficult," Tsonga said. "I improve my game every year, and even if I improve my game, [the elite players] are still far from me for the moment, so this is what's difficult. It's because with them, they improve all the time, and then all the time, and then all the time. They are three and they want more and more and more and more, so it is difficult for us to follow them.
"But I try, and I hope they will stop improving while I continue to do so."
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga suffered a heartbreaking loss at the French Open. And that might be the best thing that could have happened to him.