Once and future Champ
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a name tennis fans will remember
Posted: Wednesday January 30, 2008 2:21PM; Updated: Wednesday January 30, 2008 2:33PM
If you saw any of the 2008 Australian Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is a name you won't soon forget. He not only validates his nickname, "Ali," with his physical resemblance to the boxing legend, but his talent and charm bear a striking similarity as well:
Tsonga flows like a butterfly and swings like a bee.
The Aussie Open will be remembered for ushering in a new wave of young talent, in both the men's and women's draw. And while Novak Djokovic was the ultimate winner Down Under, the 22-year-old Tsonga emerged as a star.
American tennis fans are already abuzz about catching a glimpse of this new French talent when the Masters Series events hit U.S. soil in March, and the possibility of a second-round encounter with France in Davis Cup play just grew increasingly tantalizing.
Roger Federer's domination of men's professional tennis took its first legitimate hit last week (on any surface other than clay, that is). The ascent of the hard-hitting Djokovic was predictable after the 20-year-old made two Grand Slam semifinal appearances in '07, as well as a runner-up effort at the U.S. Open.
But Tsonga's leap from obscurity to within inches of a major title is a shock to most of the tennis world. Yet for those inside the game, it was met with more of a wry smile. He was a heralded young player after winning the '03 U.S. Open Junior Championships and was then beset with injuries (herniated disk, injured right shoulder, abdominal ailments) that he only played in eight tournaments over roughly two years.
Coming into the Australian Open, Tsonga had only won five Grand Slam matches, and amassed a relatively measly $450,000 in career prize money. Within two weeks in Melbourne, he trumped both marks.
Tsonga is a rare combination of power and speed. He demonstrated physical prowess that could match, if not surpass, the best three athletes on tour -- Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic -- while demonstrating technical and tactical skills that were equally devastating to his opponents.
Tsonga possesses an easy, fluid power that sports scientists refer to as "liquid power." He doesn't look like he's exerting any effort while on court, yet the ball "pops" off his racket. He zips around the court like he has a motor in his Adidases, and hiss serve routinely fires in at faster than 130 mph. When he unloads on his forehand, it feels like a hammer dropping.
Another staggering thought is how much he can still improve. The last time I saw Tsonga play last fall, his transition game and volleys were average at best. But after some time focusing on that part of his game during the December break, he had successfully bridged the gap between the baseline and the net.
In the semifinals against Nadal, Tsonga must have executed at least six silky sweet drop volleys at which the No. 2-ranked Spaniard could only shake his head in amazement.
Tsonga has risen to 18th in the rankings and there's only one direction in which he'll be going in the near future. His game translates on all surfaces. He'll adapt to the offensive game valued at Wimbledon, and his movement will be a tremendous asset at the French Open -- the French now have a legitimate hope of a homegrown champion at Roland Garros.
All of this is only equally matched by how captivating it is to watch Tsonga play. He not only accepts the responsibility of being an entertainer, but also embraces it. Whether it's a wag of his finger on break point to signal that he needs one more point, or dancing around in celebration after a victory, Tsonga connects with fans.
Tennis will be the better for it.
Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob writes every other week for SI.com.