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Steve Flink: Swan Tsong 2008

11/3/2008 5:03:00 PM

by Steve Flink

The image keeps re-emerging with absolute clarity in the eye of my mind. Over and over again, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga releases aces with uncanny precision, lunges with alacrity to either side of his body for volleys of exquisite elegance and touch, races across the baseline to strike forehand passing shots at full stretch into the most narrow of open spaces. He moves back gracefully to smack the cleanest and most potent of overheads well out of his adversaries reach. He approaches the net commandingly behind sidespin and flat forehand approach shots, coming forward without any inhibition, taking control of his own destiny. He seems somehow larger than life. I am delighted that he is ending this season with flair, panache, and a rekindled spirit.

Tsonga's triumph at the last Masters Series event of 2008 in Paris this past week was the product of his unbridled aggression, his remarkable worth ethic, his supreme grit and grace under pressure, and his fierce determination. The victory was a tribute to his character and fortitude, a testament to his durability as a competitor. Tsonga--- the fast charging player who enthralled us by reaching the final of the Australian Open back in January--- had lost valuable time in the middle of this season as he endured knee surgery on May 27. He was forced out of the French Open and Wimbledon, and returned to the game three months later at the U.S. Open, devoid of preparation.

And yet, despite missing such a large chunk of the year including those two major events, he has swiftly moved back to the top of his game. His first big step was in Bangkok, where he took the Thailand Open by ousting world No. 3 Novak Djokovic, the accomplished individual who had beaten Tsonga in the Australian Open championship match after the electrifying Frenchman had toppled both Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal on his road to the final. Tsonga then made it to the semifinals in Lyon. But despite those impressive showings, no one was prepared for Tsonga's startling run last week in Paris. Not even Tsonga himself could have envisioned such a celebratory time.

Consider precisely what he did at that event. After receiving a first round bye, he met Radek Stepanek in the second round. Stepanek came at him forcefully, attacked persistently, and imposed his assertive style impressively early on. Tsonga could easily have been sent out of the tournament right then and there after conceding the opening set. But he fought back with typical pride to gain a 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory. Next up for Tsonga was Djokovic in the round of 16. I thought Djokovic would avenge his loss to Tsonga in Thailand, figuring he would exploit his solid return of serve, his superior ground game, and his match playing acumen to get a win.

Tsonga had other notions. The key to that contest occurred when Tsonga served for the opening set at 5-4. He fell behind 0-40. Had he been broken at that crucial juncture, had he gone on to lose that set, he could well have lost the contest. But Tsonga displayed his competitive mettle when he needed it most. At 5-4, 0-40, his big first serve to the backhand was more than Djokovic could handle. At 15-40, he played a perfect serve-and-volley combination that set up an overhead winner. An ace lifted him back to deuce. And the highly charged Tsonga held on to close out that set.

Djokovic, sorely in need of a confidence boost after an arduous past five months, struck back unwaveringly to take the second set. He had momentum on his side. He was clicking on every front. He was looking more and more like a winner. But Tsonga once more raised his game, and lowered Djokovic's morale in the process. Djokovic was serving at 0-1, 30-30. He approached the net behind a forehand down the line and appeared to be in good shape. But Tsonga drove a magnificent backhand pass down the line for a winner to reach 30-40. Break point down, Djokovic punched a highly respectable backhand volley down the line. Tsonga tracked it down and then whipped an astonishing crosscourt forehand passing shot just inside the sideline.

That was a defining moment in the match. Tsonga was unbreakable and unshakable thereafter, closing out a well deserved 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 victory over the Serbian. The win earned Tsonga a quarterfinal appointment against Andy Roddick. At the outset of that battle, Roddick was overwhelming an apprehensive Tsonga. Roddick led 2-0, and had three break points for 3-0. Tsonga was having a bad serving evening, but he managed to hold on to keep himself in the set. At 2-4, Tsonga survived a three deuce game. He held again, but just barely.

Roddick, meanwhile, was serving prodigiously on his way to a 4-3, 40-0 lead. He had won 15 of 16 service points until that moment. But, inexplicably, he was broken for 4-4 and Tsonga held for 5-4. Although Roddick collected three games in a row to win the first set, the chemistry had been altered; Tsonga had sunk his teeth into the match, and the 26-year-old American was much less sure of himself and was no longer ripping flat two-handed backhands with depth and pace as he had done earlier. Nevertheless, Roddick had ten break points spread out over three different service games. He was the victim of his own caution on those huge points, but Tsonga was unrelenting in his aggression, and he had his share of luck as well.

Tsonga took the second set 6-4, but then double faulted at break point to trail 2-1 in the third. Roddick did not exploit the opening. Serving at break point down in the following game, Roddick took a relatively short ball and drilled it inside-out off the forehand into the corner. The shot was called out, but had Roddick challenged it, he would have seen that the replay showed the ball clipping both the baseline and sideline. It was 2-2. Both players held on all the way into a fitting, final set tie-break. Tsonga surged to 6-2 before Roddick saved three match points, but the Frenchman took the tie-break 7-5 with one last piece of daring play, nailing a sidespin forehand approach deep to the backhand, then delicately angling a forehand drop volley crosscourt for a match concluding winner. Match to Tsonga: 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5).

In the semifinals, Tsonga meticulously took apart James Blake 6-4, 6-3 without losing his serve, without even facing a break point. He was almost letter perfect in every aspect of his game, and Blake never really had a chance. And so the stage was set for a final round confrontation between Tsonga and the defending champion David Nalbandian, the Argentine who had produced a gem of a performance in ousting Andy Murray in a straight set quarterfinal.

Nalbandian and Tsonga knew when they walked on court that the winner of their collision would make it into the eight man field for the prestigious season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai. They recognized fully what was at stake. As the wily veteran, as one of the hottest players in the world across the last month on the indoor circuit, as someone who for the second year in a row had saved his best tennis for the end of the season, Nalbandian seemingly had a distinct advantage over Tsonga. Tsonga had the luxury of competing for his fans in a Davis Cup type of atmosphere, but Nalbandian wore the robe of experience. That is why I thought he would win this final round skirmish.

I was fundamentally wrong. Tsonga stepped up to the occasion ably and energetically. He took advantage of a nervous start from Nalbandian. The Argentine double faulted at break point down to give Tsonga a 2-0 first set lead, and Tsonga served stupendously to take that set 6-3. In every service game, he came through with at least one ace. Nalbandian--- one of the game's finest on the return of serve, could not pick that serve at all. Tsonga burned his adversary time and again with the explosive wide serve in the advantage court. He kept him off guard all match long.

Tsonga looked entirely capable of a straight set victory, but Nalbandian competed honorably and was fortunate to be serving first in the second set. Tsonga served at 3-4, 0-40, but he burst out of that dire predicament with two aces on his way back to deuce, and two more from there as he reached 4-4. Nalbandian, however, was not put off course. When Tsonga served at 4-5, the Argentine broke his opponent for the first and only time in the contest to make it one set all. Nalbandian was ascendant, and he served first again in the final set.

Tsonga remained resolute and purposeful. At 1-1 in that third set, Nalbandian cracked. He won only one point on his serve in that game and made four unforced errors, including three off his more vulnerable forehand side. Tsonga held on safely the rest of the way, but it wasn't easy. At 3-2 he drifted behind break point, serving another timely ace to rescue himself there. Finally, serving for the match at 5-4, Tsonga found himself in that familiar bleak corner at 0-40. With typical audacity and self-assuredness, he then swept five consecutive points to complete a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 win, serving his 25th ace on the penultimate point of the match.

What made all of this a joy for me as I watched it on television was how much Tsonga reminded all of us that his run to the Australian Open final at the start of 2008 was no accidental journey. He played a terrific match there to beat Murray in the opening round, and his straight set win over Nadal in the semifinals was a signature performance, an overwhelming display of shot making versatility and athleticism. He was not ready then to win it all and garner a first Grand Slam championship, and Djokovic deservedly toppled Tsonga in a come from behind four set final.

The problems with his knee prevented Tsonga from replicating the form he reached in Melbourne as he moved through the early stages of 2008. He nearly stopped Nadal again at Indian Wells, but the Spaniard ferociously retaliated from 2-5 down in the final set to defeat Tsonga. Over the summer, he was largely forgotten as his Australian Open heroics faded into the background of the year. But now he is back in the forefront of the game.

Tsonga has much room left to grow his game. His counter-attacks brilliantly off the forehand but his backhand pass could be much better. His return of serve is sporadically brilliant but could be more solid. His second serve can be excellent but that is another area where he could make progress. His game can be too streaky now, but there is no reason why he can't iron out a lot of his technical wrinkles.

And yet, he has so much going for him. His first serve is a mighty weapon, and very hard to read. Very few right-handers can go wide in the ad court as effectively and explosively as he can. He can volley with pace when he needs it, and his touch in the forecourt is breathtaking. His overhead is outstanding. No matter how deep the lob, he gets back behind it and smashes with brutality and dependability.

All in all, I am encouraged about Tsonga. He will be very dangerous in the eight man field at Shanghai, going in there on a wave of conviction, ready to build on what he has done across the autumn. I expect to see him among the four semifinalists, and it would not surprise me if he made it to the final. Tsonga has set himself up for a terrific year in 2009. He even has an outside chance to come away with a Grand Slam championship next year.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga gets my vote for the most charismatic player in tennis. Let's hope he avoids serious injuries in the next couple of years. The more he is around in the latter stages of majors, the better off the sport will be.

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