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The Duality of #10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

In Tennis on December 16, 2013 at 5:12 pm

In the 2013 Australian Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga defeated Michael Llodra, Go Saeda, Blaz Kavcic, and close friend Richard Gasquet en route to a quarterfinal loss to Roger Federer,  6-7(4), 6-4, 6-7(4), 6-3, 3-6.

Australian Open Tennis

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s entrance into professional tennis relevancy was meteoric. In 2008, unseeded, the Frenchman put together a string of upsets (defeating Andy Murray, Sam Warburg, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, fellow countryman Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny, and Rafael Nadal) to land himself in the finals against then-world-number-3 Novak Djokovic. Tsonga won the first set of the championship match before losing in four – Jo-Wilfried’s first set victory was the only set that Nole lost in the tournament.

Here are some words that are often used when describing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: acrobatic, potent, aggressive, dynamic, percussive. More than anything, Tsonga is defined by his potential; at his best, Tsonga can beat anyone on the tour.

There are players that make it into the ATP top 10 by stringing together a series of smaller wins, by playing consistently well enough throughout the year to accrue the points, essentially by grinding it out. Tsonga is not one of these players. At any tournament, in any match, Tsonga is poised to go off. Watching the Frenchman play pushes the viewer to the edge of their seat, not wanting to miss some of the miraculous shots that he’s proved himself capable of producing, or the artistry with which he constructs, dictates, and wins points when he is at his best.

But potential is defined not only by its upper limit – it is rooted in its baseline’s lowness. That is, potential matters because it is about momentary ascension. Its inconsistency is what makes it an important characteristic (and a difficult to measure metric). Another way to frame Tsonga’s potential is to think about the possible outcomes in Melbourne this coming January: we can’t really expect Tsonga to win the Australian Open, but we also know in the back of our minds that Tsonga absolutely could win the Australian Open. He has the tools necessary – the deep and heavy forehand, a precise backhand on which he can impart devastating pace or bewildering spin, a serve that marries thoughtful placement with arm-numbing power, and impeccable touch at net. At 6’ 2” and 200 lbs, he processes the athleticism necessary to wrestle control of a point back from Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray. (This is of course only true when he is healthy. It is important to remember that Tsonga has a bad history of injuries, and that his professional career almost ended before it began with a series of issues – a herniated disc, two consecutive shoulder injuries, and abdominal troubles – in 2005.)  It also helps that Tstonga never took well to his home country’s red clay – he favors hard courts, and his record against the top players at the Australian Open is better than elsewhere. Tsonga is 6-11 against Novak Djokovic, but is 5-1 against the Serb on indoor hard courts.

After fighting for a semifinals appearances at Roland Garros – where he fell to Spaniard David Ferrer, 1-6, 7-6(3), 2-6 – Jo-Wilfried’s 2013 campaign sputtered out. Tsonga retired in the second round of Wimbledon with a left knee injury while up two sets to one against Latvian Ernests Gulbis. The same knee injury would cause Tsonga to drop out of the US Open. His deep runs earlier in the year, combined with a semifinals appearance at the Shanghai Masters 1000, garnered Tsonga the 8th seed at the BNP Paribas Masters 1000, a critical tournament late in the season. After a first round bye, Tsonga fell in the second round to Kei Nishikori in straight sets, 1-6, 7-6(4), 7-6(7). (Tsonga had defeated Nishikori in Shanghai en route to his semifinal.) Tsonga’s loss to Nishikori shut the Frenchman out of the Barclays ATP World Tour Final in London.

Despite his emotive and gregarious demeanor, it can be hard to read which Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will show up at a tournament – he presents a true duality. We may see the calm, powerful, controlling player who can challenge anyone (he of the deep runs at Monte Carlo, Roland Garros, and Shanghai), or it may be the error- and injury-prone player who drops sets inexplicably (see the Paris loss to Nishikori, wherein Tsonga dropped two set-points in the third set tiebreak). If the former Tsonga steps on to the court in Melbourne, anything could happen.

Insomniac’s Replay: Wawrinka vs. Nadal

In Tennis on May 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Perhaps, amidst the presumably tasteful heat of the Madrid spring, it is possible to join the partisan crowd in chants of ‘vamos!’ as their champion enters the court, bucking like a long-haired, championship starved bull, his groundstrokes breaking thunderously like hooves on the terre battue as he ventures ever forward.

But on a chilly night in Brooklyn, with egregiously honking cabs and impossibly awake flocks singing as they jingle their keys, it’s much easier to fall in love with the cracking, elegant, puppy-dogged matador.
Stanislas Wawrinka, like his illustrious country-mate, is tennis personified. While his muscle-bound opponent is said to have a normal arm and ‘big’ one, Stan is more aptly described as having one normal arm and a skinny arm. But really, the left is only neglected because the right one does so much. There are few sights in tennis quite like a perfectly struck one hander, and it is a sight that fans were treated to time after time in the Madrid Open finals. To complicate and mix the bullish metaphor, it is most accurately described as a lasso, gracefully looping through the air to snag a perfectly timed winner.

Losing like this is hardly losing at all.

Fatalism at the Australian Open

In Tennis on January 15, 2013 at 10:42 pm

0-40, in just the second game of the match,  American Tim Smyczech tosses the ball high above his head, decides he doesn’t quite know what to do with it, catches the ball and fidgets a bit before trying again. Who could blame Smyczech for his moment of indecision? Kick the ball out wide and it comes right back. Slide the ball down the T and it comes right back. Blast the ball down the middle and…

Nobody can blame Smyczech. Artful Spanish footwork has rendered the very concept of ‘choice’ meaningless.

Finally, Smyczech decides that kicking the serve out wide is something he’s done before, so hell, why not. When the ball comes back deep and heavy, Smyczech cracks his whipping backhand crosscourt, pulling Ferrer out wide. When the shot comes back deep and heavy, Smyczech cracks his whipping forehand crosscourt, pulling the Spaniard wider. By the time Smyczech slaps a winning volley to the open court 12 shots later, the match is lost. Deciding to claw back into this service game has already cost him more than he has.  Ferrer 6-0, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3