Friday, March 18, 2016

HEY JO: WHERE YOU GONNA RUN TO NOW?

Wasn't there a time when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had Novak Djokovic's number?  Does anybody remember that?  I sure as hell do.  In fact, because he appeared to freeze in the headlights in Australia in 2008, the subsequent ease with which he dispensed with his two years' junior rival in 5 of the next 6 encounters over the next two years, left me with the sneaking suspicion that the result in Melbourne had in fact been a fluke.  That may sound absurd given the extent of Djokovic's lead in development, performance, fitness and results since 2011, and particularly during his ascent to the pinnacle of the game in 2015, but not so between 2008 and 2010.  Brad Gilbert proclaimed, prior to their encounter at the Australian Open in 2010, that Tsonga had Djokovic's number - and Djokovic did little to dispel that.

Most assumed that his victory in Bangkok was a form of muted revenge:  that Djokovic capitulated in straight sets, suggested that neither his heart nor the rest of his body were really committed to a victory that by all rights should have been his.  His victory in Paris could be set aside because of the overwhelming support from the audience that surely propelled the prodigal son's return to sit upon his throne at Bercy.  But it was the feckless capitulation of his Serbian rival in Shanghai that really brought to mind the possibility that Tsonga could be a player to challenge for major titles - at least if he had to play Djokovic for them.  Djokovic had already qualified for the semi-finals by virtue of his victories over del Potro and Davydenko, while Tsonga, having lost to those same two opponents, had no chance to progress.  Effectively this match was his final, his only chance to save face, in the very Chinese sense, and in Djokovic he faced his most daunting opponent.  

Yet, despite the cards he was dealt, Tsonga turned in a performance superior to those who sought the title that was lost to him.  Djokovic having started quickly, Tsonga dug deep and won 7-5 in the second, only to then obliterate his rival with the same score in the 3rd, that he had lost with in the first.  And it wasn't just the victory, but the beauty with which it was achieved - that languid gate, the deceptively easy racquet head acceleration, a glorious overhead that never seems to have to be hit twice, and a howitzer of a serve...man what a serve he has.  Up to then, Andy Roddick was the only man that didn't darken the room when he stood up from his chair, capable of producing that kind of accurate and consistent power in the serve.

To this day, there aren't too many players on tour who can produce 135 motherf---ers more than once a game, so you kind of wonder how he hasn't done more with it when it counts.  But as the great Pancho Gonzales always said, "You're only as good as your second serve," and therein lies the rub.  Tsonga doesn't so much hit the second serve with his racquet as he does with his ass...if you'll indulge me.  

Because his toss on the second serve is frequently too far to the left and behind his head, he lands heavily on his left leg and as a result, to maintain his balance and keep his momentum going forward, he adjusts by shifting his body weight (and by body weight, I mean his butt) so far to his right, that when serving to the ad court he often finishes the stroke landing both feet, in recovery in the deuce court.  It's ungainly, hit with excessive spin, and frequently lands short, in the net, or so softly, I could come over it with my backhand.

So, despite having a much better all around game than most of the players with comparable serves, like his similarly second serve challenged Spanish rival, Nico Almagro, Tsonga doesn't so much rely on his first serve, as abuse it.  Hit with the kind of ferocity that would make a novice flinch, there's little left in the tank when he has to go to the second serve...psychologically that is.  Yes, yes, I know...I don't believe in belief in tennis...but this is different.  When you miss your first serve too often, you can't afford to miss your second at all, and when you can't miss your second at all, like the smart kids on prom night, you tend to pull out a little early.  In fact, the two of them, with their suffering second serves together, is quite a sight...you'll never see two players with bigger deltas in quality between the first and second serves than these two, and the results are as exhilarating as they are unpredictable.


And something else happened to Tsonga over the next 13 matches with the Djoker - aside from losing 12 of them.  Like Andy Roddick famously panned in 2005, he seemed to lose that "je ne sais quoi" from his game, his allure...his twinkle, if you will...

Tsonga lost his mojo.

He's gotten some good results here and there, but only ever made it as far as the semi-finals 5 times in the last 32 majors since his maiden final.  He's won 2 masters shields in his career:  the aforementioned emotional victory in Paris in 2008 and a curiously gritty victory over Federer in Toronto two years ago (one of five over the Swiss GOAT).  Now all of this would be considered a good career for a slightly above average player, but Tsonga...Tsonga deigned to be so much more.  With a personality as big as his serve, he had all the tools for not just super stardom in the tennis, but probably the world of sports in general.  And being the doppelganger of a young Cassius Clay wouldn't have hurt at all, would it?




Well, it didn't help him.  His career bobbed and weaved, but never really landed a good punch.  Yes, he's one of only 3 players to have beaten all of the so-called "big 4" at least once at a major (Murray & Nadal AO2008, Djokovic AO2010, Federer Wimby 2011), he's never beaten more than one of them at once (with the exception of his maiden final in 2008, long before there was a big four, where he beat Andy Murray in the first round, and famously obliterated Nadal in the semi-final, and lost to the Djoker in the final).  And in this era of this rather tight-fisted quartet, if you want to win a major, chances are you're going to have to go through at least two, maybe three of them...unless of course, you're one of them!

Meanwhile the armies of his supporters around the world, who don't seem to mind the profligacy of this enormously talented and enormously popular player, persists.  This includes the famously fickle French who have forgiven him his Parisian trespasses (at Roland Garros, anyway), unlike his equally talented, and higher highest ranked compatriot Henri Leconte.  Him, the french mercilessly derided "a genius from the elbow down", according the late Great Bud Collinsand they never seemed to forgive him for simply losing at Roland Garros to the "wrong" guy.

My view on Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is that he is the biggest disappointment of my adult tennis watching life.  I love his game, I love his athleticism (he's one of the few players in tennis I'm quite certain would be world class in at least one other sport), and I really wish he had won a major at some point in his career.  Everything in his game is well above average, but everything seems to be missing just that little something.  The forehand, powerful as it can be, is produced rather convolutedly, and in my opinion breaks down when it absolutely can't.  His first serve, flamethrower that it is, usually only leaves enough left in the tank for the second serve to light a cigarette...or a joint.  And his backhand, varied and beautiful as it can be, has to be hit so far behind the baseline, because of his forehand, it is too easily isolated and picked on, like the one kid on the sandlot baseball team that you just know has to play right field.  Why?  Because.

And ultimately, Tsonga's biggest problem is that he's just too damn...well, how can I say this...French!  Not that there's anything inherently wrong with being French - my new favorite player is french, my old favorite player (the aforementioned Henri Leconte) is French, my favorite female player was French Belgian, my favorite backhand in tennis is Swiss French and my inspiration in tennis is French.

Hell, I even speak French.

But there's something our Gallic cousins across the pond have that produces as many good players as it destroys:

A love of beauty.

Take the Australians - please! they love sports, and as such they love Australians who are good at sports.  I mean these guys are going to run out of stadiums to name after their great tennis players if the real Bernard Tomic, or Nick "the Prick" ever get their collective heads out of their collective arses.  But I guarantee nobody on the other side of the planet will give a rat's if the next best's game is only as aesthetically appealing as an anus protruding from a forehead.  That's because all is forgiven...and I mean all is forgiven...in Australia, when you win, including very, very poor taste.

But above all, the French love beauty, and it is because they love beauty that they love tennis.  They don't like players who take themselves too seriously, but despite this they absolutely loved watching John McEnroe precisely because his game was so beautiful to behold.  I mean who else would make or watch a documentary about his most beautiful loss to Ivan "the Terrible" Lendl, in the 4th round in 1988 at Roland Garros?  They don't want to see some lumbering behemoth bludgeon his way from one indistinct victory after another (or 63 of them, for that matter).

They want to see something so beautiful that they're inspired.  They want the jeu de paumes to be a game of hands again.  They love Roger Federer because he's not Nadal - he is, in fact, the antithesis of Nadal.  His game isn't beautifully effective: it's effective because it's beautiful.  And isn't that, after all, the point?  Nobody goes to a bullfight to see who will win - they go to see the bloody, gory spectacle of courage and skill.  In this way, the French too, want to be entertained, and exhilarated, and the truth is that they don't care who does it, as long as they do it beautifully...preferably with a beautiful smile along the way.  But to the french, the words of Keats' "Ode On a Grecian Urn" are as true in tennis, as they are in life:


'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

Well, I have the feeling that Tsonga's concept of the game is just a little too beautiful.  He floats and stings, but neither can overwhelm the more pedantic, and imminently more effective games of his contemporaries, or the Swiss Mister to whom he would be supplicant.  In one point, his backhand volley drops lovingly 24 inches into his opponent's court, and in the next, it lands 24 inches short of his own net.  The exuberance with which we celebrate the former is followed by the exasperation with which we decry the latter: such is the metaphor of his game.  How else can you explain the inexplicable experiment with the occasional one-handed backhand, other than the undeniable aesthetic appeal of that particular shot?  And I've always been left with the impression that Tsonga hasn't honed in on one or two ways to reliably slog through all of the matches he should win.  Not because he cannot learn or acquire the skills to do so, but because he doesn't have the sensibility for it.

There is something impressive about someone who won't sacrifice the beauty in their chosen field of endeavor at the altar of efficacy, but there is also something tragic.  A little bit like a Hollywood starlet, well past her due date, that won't go out of the house without her make-up.  Admirable...but also a little pathetic.  I have to admit that I have a lot of sympathy for Tsonga, and a lot of patience for all the little things he does to entertain, but no more time for the all the more things he doesn't do to fulfill his capacity.

He should have been a contender, he should have been the next savior of French tennis.  Maybe he'll make the French fall in love with him all over again by winning the Davis Cup this year, with that other French hero as captain.  But I don't think Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will ever win a major.  No matter how beautiful his game or his smile, it just isn't good enough.  That may indeed say more about the game than his, but it is often the most beautifully sad paintings that truly speak to us.

The truth, when unsheathed like a bare bodkin, cuts like one too.


Tsonga and his little doppelganger...MMT Jr.

ADDENDUM: The following is a clip from Tsonga's match with Nishikori at the Australian Open this week - I swear I didn't watch this before writing this post, but much of what I discuss in this blog can be seen in this court level view.

Nishikori vs Tsonga Oz Open 2016 
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