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Often compared to a butterfly-bee hybrid a la Muhammad Ali, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reminds us of an electrifying fusion between thunder and lightning.  While his percussive groundstrokes crash through the court like thunder, he flashes around the court with the dizzying speed and brilliance of lightning flashes.  The French translation for “inclement weather” forms the subject of our fourth player profile, which will break down five achievements, five disappointments, three strengths, and three weaknesses,  much as have our earlier articles on Radwanska, Li, and Youzhny.  Happy reading!  🙂

Best of Five:  Achievements:

5)  2010 Australian Open:  Rebounding from a wrist injury and experimenting with a new racket, Tsonga didn’t dominate in Melbourne as he had two years earlier, but he displayed impressive willpower in a pair of five-set wins over challenging opponents.  Before his fourth-round clash with Nicolas Almagro, he had never played a five-set match in his career, and one might not have expected his draining game to adapt well to such marathons.  On the contrary, Tsonga not only dispatched Almagro with thrilling tennis late in the final set but returned a round later to win another epic over Djokovic by steadfastly wearing down the Serb until his fragile fitness crumbled.  In the wake of those exhausting victories, his lopsided loss to Federer represented neither a surprise nor an embarrassment for the Frenchman.

4) 2008 Bangkok:  His first career title, the Thailand tournament started inauspiciously with a nail-biting win over Lukas Dlouhy.  Gradually playing himself into the tournament, however, Tsonga ultimately crushed his compatriot Monfils in the semifinals (never underestimate the emotional significance of a victory over a top compatriot) and defeated Djokovic in a competitive but not overly tense final.  Less than a year after his loss to the Serb in the Melbourne championship match, this win signaled a momentum shift in their head-to-head, which has swung distinctly in the Frenchman’s favor.  Halting several months of injury-hampered and erratic play, his achievements here illustrated his recovery from summer knee surgery and set the stage for #2 on our list.

3)  2009 Rogers Cup:  We’re thrilled to say that we witnessed this highlight in person, both the systematic third-round demolition of Simon and the quarterfinal comeback against Federer.  Another win over a fellow Frenchman, the Simon match showcased Tsonga’s ability to slash through even the most obdurate defensive armor with his explosive offense.  Even more impressive, the Federer upset revealed his capacity to rally from a seemingly terminal deficit (1-5 in the third set against the world #1) with a combination of intelligent point construction and electric shotmaking.  Certainly, Federer allowed Tsonga to regain his footing with passive, error-strewn play, but Jo-Wilfried deserves substantial credit for staying positive and focused in adversity.  He remains the only player other than Nadal on clay to erase a 1-5 deficit against the 16-time Slam champion.

2)  2008 Paris Masters:  Soaking up the home pressure admirably, Tsonga won his first and so far only Masters shield at this fall indoor event, where he endured three three-setters against dangerous foes.  Overcoming Djokovic again in the third round, the Frenchman found himself embroiled in a razor-sharp serving duel with Roddick; despite losing the first set, he found a way to break the American’s delivery before squeaking through a suspenseful third-set tiebreak.  Although one might think him a little weary after this delicious affair, he retained sufficient energy to prevail over David Nalbandian in a high-quality final.  Serving for the title at 5-4 in the third set, disaster loomed when he lost the first three points.  Unruffled by the triple break point threat, Tsonga connected with five crushing serves in a row to close out the formidable Argentine and secure a last-minute slot in the year-end championship.  For once, the French crowd’s rabid support of “les bleus” seemed justified. 

1)  2008 Australian Open:  Ousting a flustered Murray in the opening round, Tsonga capitalized upon the momentum surge of that upset to rumble past a series of equally imposing opponents.  Much more imposing then than he is now, Gasquet succumbed to Jo-Wilfried’s barrage in a scintillating four-setter before the streaking Youzhny’s challenge subsided in straight sets.  Yet the climax of Tsonga’s spectacular run was still to come:  a breathtaking demolition of world #2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, which represented the most lopsided loss of the Spaniard’s Slam career to that date.  Clubbing serves and forehands while angling off feathery volleys, the Frenchman remained relentless from the first point to the last.  His game predictably came back to earth in a final against Djokovic, but not before he had dismayed the Serb by capturing the first set (and the hearts of the Melbourne fans).

Worst of Five:  Disappointments:

5)  2009 Cincinnati:  Just days after his memorable win over Federer, Tsonga suffered a startling loss to the Australian journeyman Chris Guccione in the opening round of this pre-US Open Masters Series.  Losing the first set in a tense tiebreak, he mustered little resistance or effort in the second set.  This dispirited performance hinted at his struggle to maintain momentum from one week to the next over the course of the ATP’s grueling calendar; his physically exhausting style of quick-strike tennis renders him less durable than many of his peers.  Furthermoe, observers questioned his competitive willpower when confronting adversity, a trait essential to establish oneself among the game’s elite.

4)  2009 Indian Wells / Miami:  Following two titles the previous month in South Africa and Marseille, Tsonga surely expected more from himself than a premature loss to Andreev in the California desert and a listless defeat in Miami against Djokovic, whom he had defeated in their previous four clashes.  Perhaps his Davis Cup exertions the previous weekend in Europe took a toll, but these two matches still raised eyebrows among those (including us) who expected him to excel at top events in the wake of a sterling 2008. 

3)  2009 Australian Open:  A year removed from his thrilling charge to the Melbourne final, Tsonga fell well short of his own lofty standards during a four-set quarterfinal loss to Verdasco just two days after a dominant performance against Blake.  Although the Spaniard enjoyed the best tournament of his career that fortnight, the Frenchman visibly faded after the first two sets, inciting observers to question both his physical fitness and his mental focus.  Like many of his compatriots, said some commentators, Tsonga preferred style over substance and strove to entertain the audience rather than simply win matches as efficiently as possible.  Dramatic but inefficient, two early-round matches against Ljubicic and Sela may have siphoned away the energy that he would have needed to defuse the smoldering Verdasco.

2)  2009 Wimbledon:  We expected that Tsonga’s blistering serves and deft volleys would allow him to enjoy an extended sojourn at Wimbledon, where the grass rewards players who move forward to finish points.  Falling to Ivo Karlovic in a fourth-set tiebreak before the middle weekend, the Frenchman lacked the composure to cope with the Croat’s idiosyncratic style, which consistently troubles top-10 stars.  Rather than seizing his opportunities to exploit Karlovic’s second serve during the inevitable tiebreaks, Tsonga donated unfocused, half-hearted returns that telegraphed his frustration while lifting pressure from his opponent.

1)  2008 Indian Wells:  A nerve-jangling, three-set epic against Nadal might not appear a major disappointment at first glance.  Still, Tsonga held a one-set lead and eventually a 5-2 lead in the final set before dropping the last five games to the Spaniard.  In addition to wasting this opportunity to score another eye-catching win, he surrended the momentum in his mini-rivalry with Rafa, who predictably has consolidated his edge since that afternoon.  The stark contrast with his overwhelming victory over Nadal in the Australian Open semifinal just a few months before this match suggested that Tsonga may be a player who achieves spectacular but sporadic success but lacks the consistency to capitalize on those accomplishments.

Best of Three:  Strengths:

1)  Serve-forehand combination:  Probably the most rhythmic element of Tsonga’s game, his service motion rarely deserts him at critical stages in a match.  As a result, his first-serve percentage often has been startlingly high (75-80% or better) for entire matches against top competition, despite the prodigious power with which he strikes the shot.  When the Frenchman is serving at such levels, few foes can string together points on his service games but must instead channel their energies towards the essential task of holding their own serve.  Should the ball float back towards Tsonga, moreover, his bone-crushing forehand swiftly dispatches it towards a line or corner.  Although he can hit this shot cross-court, down-the-line, inside-out, or inside-in, the direction often doesn’t matter greatly because the sheer weight of the ball drives it past his flustered opponent or puts him in a hopelessly defensive position.  Since merely punching the ball back into play usually doesn’t suffice, therefore, the opponent confronts the challenge of striking it cleanly in order to pre-empt the inevitable forehand missile.  When Tsonga’s game is clicking on a fast surface, only the most adept returners can solve that conundrum.

2)  Net play:  Despite his football-like physique, Tsonga displays the grace of a dancer during his forays to the net, where he angles delicate volleys towards the sidelines and creates imaginative drop shots.  Defying even Nadal’s lithe movement, the latter weapons left the Spaniard frozen at the baseline or hopelessly mired in mid-court during their Australian Open meeting.  Combined with an automatic, Sampras-esque overhead, these volleys provide Tsonga with yet another way to finish points quickly without permitting his adversary to settle into a rhythm.  Occasionally serving and volleying in a vintage tactic, the sight of his massive frame hurtling forwards with unbridled aggression has unnerved opponents into routine errors.  In an era saturated with baseline bashers, this staccato play (if properly executed) can produce manifold rewards, especially against the less experienced and the easily intimidated.

3)  Athleticism:  Leaping, lunging, dashing, and diving, Tsonga ranks among the most natural athletes in tennis and probably could have excelled in almost any sport.  Few players can levitate to smash an overhead, then sprawl across the court to stab a volley…and win the point.  At 6-5 in the first-set tiebreak against Federer at the Rogers Cup, Tsonga thundered into the net behind a massive serve and dispatched a commanding overhead.  Since Federer is Federer, the ball found its way back over the net and in a highly awkward position that would have stymied most average net rushers.  Crashing onto the court with the full weight of his body, however, Tsonga barely flicked the volley over the net with the edge of his racket.  Visibly disconcerted by this display, the rarely ruffled Swiss legend slashed a backhand pass into the net and trudged to his chair, surely still struggling to grasp what had happened.  In addition to winning points for Tsonga, such moments can leave a lingering psychological impact upon his opponents, causing them to play tentatively and nervously as though bracing themselves for the unthinkable.

Worst of Three:  Weaknesses:

1)  Backhand:  Typically a neutral shot with little purpose, Tsonga’s two-hander possesses none of his forehand’s intensity and frequently is shielded by the Frenchman by running around it.  The backhand is a valuable meter of his confidence, for he’ll guide passive slices towards the middle of the court when he’s nervous or unfocused while swinging through it forcefully only at his motivated best.  Players with superior backhands like Murray, Del Potro, or Soderling can expose this side in crosscourt rallies that push him progressively further into his backhand corner.  When he confronts opponents who can hit winners off both groundstrokes, Tsonga’s asymmetry becomes a liability and sometimes forces him into overly aggressive forehands as he seeks to protect his lopsided court positioning.  The additional movement and footwork involved in regularly running around his backhand, even on hard courts, combine with his already exhausting style to drain energy and render him susceptible to injury.

2)  Return of serve:  As Federer once said of Tsonga, he can wander through games at a time without making a return before suddenly raining a series of savage blows.  Perhaps more demanding of a player’s focus than any other shot, the return has exposed Tsonga’s struggles to maintain his concentration throughout the match.  Rarely do Djokovic’s infinite ball bounces reap greater rewards than when he plays the Frenchman, whose mind has long since drifted four bounces before the serve.  On the physical level, Tsonga’s generally less-than-crisp footwork looks especially unsightly on the return, for which he relies heavily upon his arm to steer the ball.   Beyond subjecting the shoulder and elbow joints to unnecessary stress, stiff, exaggerated arm motions permit less control on the return than does a balanced, firmly grounded stance. 

3)  Shot selection / point construction:  We’re not sure how to translate “point construction” into French, but neither is Tsonga if one can judge from his impetuous, instinctive style.  Rather than engaging in the chess matches crafted by the subject of our third profile, Mikhail Youzhny, the Frenchman invariably lets fly with a forehand at the earliest opportunity when in an aggressive mood; when in a passive mood, he merely pokes the ball lethargically and aimlessly around the court until he misses or his opponent takes a risk.  This quick-strike brand of tennis results in barrages of flamboyant, inspiring winners if his artillery is striking its targets with precision.  When his radar is a shade or two off, however, his reluctance (or inability) to modulate his aggression impedes his efforts to readjust his range and rediscover his rhythm.  Embedded deep in Tsonga’s character, a contempt for compromise has defined both his most stunning and his most hideous performances.

Recap:   In order to establish himself as a perennial threat at all grass and hard-court tournaments, Tsonga must find a way to reduce his extended injury absences, which have hampered his efforts to consolidate momentum and climb upwards through the rankings.  Nevertheless, his serve-based, quick-strike style generally ages as well as a French wine, for players such as Sampras and Roddick have remained dangerous deep into their 20s.  If he can learn to problem-solve more effectively on court, he’ll suffer fewer of the bizarre clunkers that have punctuated his rollercoaster career.  When he’s in the mood, the sky is the limit for his accomplishments.  The challenge that he and his coach, Eric Winogradsky, must confront is to turn that mood into a permanent state of being.  We’d give him probably a little less than a 50% chance at winning a Slam, but he might well capture trophies at the most significant best-of-three tournaments, such as the North American Masters events.


We hope that you enjoyed this fourth profile in our series on players who cross and recross the boundary between contender and pretender.  Any ideas for a fifth topic?  🙂  There should be time for us to explore someone new during the week of Strasbourg and Warsaw.  Meanwhile, we’ll be returning tomorrow with a preview of the WTA Rome quarterfinals.  Keep those ajdes flowing!  😉

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