Last month, the #10YearChallenge bug bit the social media handle of the ATP tour too; they posted pictures of Roger Federer lifting the Australian Open trophy 10 years apart – in 2007 and 2017 – and everyone was properly tickled. It was a delightful reminder of Federer’s longevity, and a mark of just how privileged the current generation of tennis fans is.
Our privilege hasn’t been restricted just to Federer or the Big 3 though. The players that have grown old along with these legends have also put together some remarkable achievements for themselves, even if they don’t have Slam trophies to show for their efforts. They have toiled away in the shadows for years, and have contributed just as heavily as the Big 3 to the increased average life-span of tennis careers.
It was 11 years ago, at the 2008 Australian Open, that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga first made the world sit up and take notice of his outrageous gifts. And now, in 2019, he is still setting the court alight with his shot-making: he won the Montpellier title on Sunday, dismantling countryman Pierre-Hugues Herbert in the final.
It may not fit perfectly into the #10YearChallenge box, but Tsonga has never been about perfection. If anything, his remarkably long career has given us something even better: #11YearsOfTsonga have been all about unpredictable, unfettered genius, and the thrill-ride of spectacular moments that comes with it.
That run at the 2008 Australian Open is still remembered for its sheer sizzle and swagger, and as breakout performances go it seemed like the harbinger of consistent brilliance. The win over Rafael Nadal in the semi-final was as irresistible an exhibition of attacking tennis as any that had been seen since the days of Pete Sampras and Boris Becker; some of the volleys that Tsonga hit that day were so incredible they left even the great Nadal shaking his head in resignation.
Should we be disappointed that Tsonga never truly hit those heights on a sustained basis again, and failed to reach another Slam final? The superficial answer would be yes, but the manner of Tsonga’s win over Nadal should have given us an indication. That was a once-in-a-decade kind of performance; it was unreasonable to expect him to continue playing like that day-in and day-out, because it would just not have been humanly possible.
Instead, Tsonga did the next best thing: he used his power and athleticism to beat the players he was supposed to, and occasionally brought out his lightning-in-a-bottle self to defeat the very best in the business. For an entire decade he was a regular champion at middle-tier events and a reliable presence in the late rounds of Slams, carving out a respectable top 10 career for himself. And the sporadic wins over Federer, Nadal and Djokovic kept popping up to remind us just how good he could be when he went on one of his Midas-like streaks.
He continued in that vein up to 2017, a year in which he won a career-high four ATP titles. But 2018 brought along a serious left knee injury that required surgery, and he was forced to miss more than six months of the tour as his ranking slipped below 100. At 32, fears of retirement were in the air; it was hard to predict whether he’d ever return to the winners’ circle again.
Maybe it was the Big 3 effect that rubbed off on him. In a generation that’s become as much about seamless post-30 comebacks as about physics-defying play, Tsonga made his long-awaited comeback in the fall of 2018 and then came out in the new year looking as good as he ever has.
Tsonga’s first tournament of 2019 was the Brisbane International, where he surprised everyone by playing top-20 level tennis. He didn’t win the title, but in his quarter-final match against Next Gen star Alex de Minaur, Tsonga showed how even the most tireless defense is no match to pure, unadulterated offense. No matter how fast the Australian ran or how impressively he dug out would-be winners, Tsonga kept his foot firmly on the gas, and kept channeling the power of Thor into his shots.
At the Australian Open he was unlucky to run into Novak Djokovic in the second round, but even there he gave glimpses of his best. He pushed the World No 1 to the hilt in the second and third sets and had a few opportunities to grab the lead, but coughed up big errors on crucial points to surrender the match in straights.
That wasn’t to be repeated in Montpellier, where he displayed the calmness of a veteran from start to finish. Tsonga was ranked No 210 at the start of the tournament, but played more like a No 10. He kept his head despite dropping the first set to both Ugo Humbert and Jeremy Chardy, and when the time came to assert his dominance in the semis and finals, he did so without batting an eyelid.
Sure, the competition in Montpellier was nowhere close to what you’d find at a Masters or even a 500-level tournament. But Tsonga needed this win, if only to prove to himself that he still had it in him to bring his best when a title was on the line. It’s all very well to have a big serve and a powerful forehand, which Tsonga will likely have even after turning 50. But you need the serve and forehand to be at your command when there’s something at stake, and none of us were certain that was still the case with the Frenchman.
We know now. The serve was nearly unreturnable in the final, as Tsonga lost just four points on his first serve and nine service points overall. And the forehand, which has regularly burned holes in the court over the years, was just as imposing as it has always been.
Everyone likes to wax eloquent about the uniqueness of the Federer and Nadal forehands, and the robotic efficiency of the Djokovic forehand, but it is Tsonga’s (and also Del Potro’s) forehand that is more of a life-saver. With its flat power and line-painting accuracy, the Tsonga forehand does a truly fabulous job of masking the limitations in the rest of his game.
His backhand is nothing more than an awkward poke, and his movement is nothing to write home about, which means his forehand has to shoulder the lion’s share of the point-controlling responsibility in every match he plays. The fact that it has done precisely that for so many years, taking him all the way to two Masters titles and a career-high ranking of World No 5, should automatically earn it a place in the Groundstroke Hall of Fame.
There will, in all likelihood, be more opportunities for us to marvel at that groundstroke in the future. Tsonga has already achieved a whole lot in his career, and will be showered with nothing but glowing tributes if he decides to retire today. But looking at his expression of measured happiness after Herbert sent his last forehand return into the net, you get the feeling he wants more.
Tsonga is 33 now, and as the likes of Kevin Anderson and John Isner have shown, it is no longer as difficult to play your best tennis in your 30s as it once used to be. Yes, the Big 3 will always be a huge obstacle at the Slams, because Tsonga’s brand of relentlessly aggressive tennis is just not designed to beat them regularly. But in case they slip up, you know Tsonga is good enough to challenge everyone else – including the best of the Next Gen.
The Frenchman has lived in the shadows for 11 years now, despite his magical talents and persistent success. It would be nice if he got a few more moments of glory before he called it quits.
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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2019 10:32:22 IST