Tsonga’s US Open Appeal
August 26, 2011 · Print This Article
by: Rob York
Watching him plough through the Australian Open draw three and a half years ago, I couldn’t shake a feeling of familiarity.
Yes, I had seen him play before, but primarily in some early-round defeats, and clearly not like this. There was something about his broad shoulders and swaggering gait, plus his unusual mannerisms when the ball was not in play, such as squealing after particularly egregious misses and hopping around in celebration after wins.
But mostly it was his game: He took huge swings at forehands, often skipping out on rallies by going for depth, aiming to either hit winners or set up his exceptional volleying. Unlike the high-percentage play of his peers who clung to the baseline, he was so confident on serve that he was free to take such chances.
And then I saw him dive for a shot, and it occurred to me: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is Boris Becker.
And much as Boom-Boom blasted his way onto the scene, devastating a long trail of opponents one his way to his first Queens and Wimbledon titles in 1985, the Frenchman Tsonga in a two-week period went from obscurity to giant killer, toppling Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny, and finally Rafael Nadal to reach the 2008 AO final. Even in defeat to Novak Djokovic in that championship match, the 22-year-old sent an exciting message to the rest of the field: Attacking tennis wasn’t dead.
Becker, of course, was much younger when he broke through in ’85, a 17-year-old with a huge serve, complete game and intrinsic love of competition. Part of the reason Tsonga was still little-known at 22 was because he’d not been able to compete in so many events, having spent much of his early career hobbled by injuries.
This predicament would, sadly, continue. In the same year as his breakthrough Tsonga missed the next two majors with an injured knee. The next time he reached a slam semi would be the 2010 AO, beating Djokovic on the way, but injuries returned. Throughout his straight-set defeat against Roger Federer, the Frenchman could be seen clutching his side, the result of too many sudden changes in direction.
But that match revealed another, perhaps related problem: Tsonga was not progressing as a player. While he shared Becker’s big first serve, penetrating forehand and good feel around the net, Jo-Willy had few other options, and very little in the way of a backup plan. Part of the reason for his early success was that Becker’s big first serve was more reliable in tight situations and his second serve was much harder to handle. He had a one-handed backhand that could be chipped or driven, ideal for keeping baseliners off balance.
Against Federer, Tsonga found himself pitted against an opponent with the same strengths – forehand, serve and net play – plus quite a bit more defense and patience.
Perhaps his injuries kept him from developing more options. Maybe this had also kept him from becoming the clutch performer that Becker was at an early age. Whatever the case, Tsonga lost 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 that day, the same score by which he’d beaten Nadal – at the same round of the same event – just two years earlier. Injured or not, the Frenchman’s shot selection, which had looked overwhelming when he was riding a hot streak, now appeared one-dimensional.
In the aftermath of that event, the pattern continued, with Tsonga losing between the third round and the quarters of the subsequent majors, with the exception of the 2010 US Open; another event he missed due to injury.
When he faced Federer again at the 2011 Wimbledon, he was playing in the main draw of just his 15th Grand Slam. That’s right, one less major than The Great Swiss has won.
His game may not have progressed much beyond his belt –serve, belt-forehand-and-show-flair-doing-it approach, but once again Tsonga was on a hot streak. Having beaten Nadal again at Queens, the Frenchman had enough confidence to pull off something no one had done before: beat Federer at a major after losing the first two sets.
For the now-30-year-old Swiss, it may have been just the latest of his recent disappointments. Tsonga, after all, joins Juan Martin del Potro, Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych among big guys with big forehands who’ve ushered Federer out of majors in recent years.
But for the Frenchman, there were signs that this might be the start of something new, even though he again fell to Djokovic in the following round. Only weeks later, Tsonga defeated Federer a second time in Canada, this time running away with the third set by a score of 6-1.
Once again, though, he was derailed by injury, having to quit in the semis. His momentum spent, he fell early the next week in Cincinnati.
The US Open, played on a slick surface and in a boisterous atmosphere, is one where Tsonga ought to thrive. Coming as it does at the end of a long season, New York has never lifted the Frenchman past a fourth round appearance. The results of this summer should inspire him to new successes, provided his injury has mended and he’s gotten the practice he needs.
Past results would suggest that he won’t, though, and it’ll be some months before he recovers. If the Frenchman has any of that Beckeresque flair left in him this summer, though, now would be a good time to start some new habits. It wouldn’t just be good for him; a game full of baseliners could use a little Boom-Boom.