Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Nalbandian met in the Masters Series final in Paris. The winner would go to the year end championships in Shanghai. The loser would go home.People looked at Pete Sampras as a brilliant shotmaker and supreme big match player but a somewhat boring personality. I always thought shotmakers were emotional players, players who fed off the moment and only fully blossomed when the stakes were high. And they were, in my mind, the opposite of players such as, say, Sampras’ opponent Ivan Lendl who prepared for the moment as much as he fed off it. Lendl popped off to cardio conditioning classes when year round conditioning was a new idea for professional athletes and changed his home court surface to match the US open surface precisely. Roger Federer threw me off too because he’s another brilliant shotmaker yet you hardly heard a peep out of him during a match, and while people called his domination boring more than they called his personality boring – he’s always been very good about doing media interviews and photo shoots, they did ask for more expressiveness on court. Now that Marcos Baghdatis is on the shelf until he can figure out that being a professional athlete means putting in some time at the gym and doing a few forward bends now and then to avoid injury, we have the best candidate in some time that combines raw, in the moment shotmaking, with an electrical personality: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And this week at the Masters Series event in Paris, he’s come through in spades. I’m not wild about Jo-Willie’s thumbs pointing at shoulders celebration that says “look at me, look at what I did” in a way that out-egos even the biggest prima donna in US football or world soccer, but I’m an old fuddy duddy about that. Younger fans seem to like such things. But Jo-Willie has it all: big serve, athleticism, speed, and big shots on big points, and this week he put it all together. He started the week ranked number 13 and made his way to the Paris final despite never having reached a quarterfinal at a Masters Series event, and if he could beat his opponent in the final, David Nalbandian, he’d be in the year end championships, something few people expected. If Nalbandian won the match, he’d be the one flying off to Shanghai for the championships and not many people expected that a few weeks ago either. Nalbandian was the guy who looked nervous at the beginning of the match. He hit a double fault to lose his first service game. Jo-Willie was a bit shaky but, unlike his earlier matches this week, he came out and blanketed the net early and held on to the break of serve to win the first set 6-3. Jo-Willie blanketed the net behind seven aces in that first set and that was huge for him because he struggled this week when his first serve hasn’t been there. It’s not a Sampras-like serve but he won’t be able to beat an un-fatigued Novak Djkovic or a never-fatigued Rafael Nadal without it, he’s just not steady enough from the baseline. Lucky for him the year end championships are indoors on a very slick surface and Nadal and Federer are ailing and Djkovic isn’t playing well. He might do very well at the year end championships but that would be misleading because he skipped the slower courts this year – both clay and hard court, so we don’t know how he’ll do through an entire season. Serving at 3-4 in the second set, Jo-Willie hit and error and followed that up with a double fault and found himself down three break points. He hit four aces to pull himself through the game and that’s the marquee of top players like Sampras and Federer: their serve gets them out of trouble. But both of those players had power and consistency and Jo-Willie has only one of those skills at the moment, and it’s not consistency. Which cost Jo-Willie the second set. He went down three set points while serving at 4-5 to stay in the second set after hitting a few balls out of the court. He hit another ball into the net to give Nalbandian the set, 6-4. Jo-Willie is inconsistent because he insists on pounding every ball as hard as he can and when it works it’s beautiful. Nalbandian couldn’t get his first serve in and Jo-Willie pounded away successfully enough to break Nalbandian early in the third set and go up 2-1. If Jo-Willie could hang on to that break just long enough, he’d have an all expenses paid trip to Shanghai. And he did hang on, literally. Serving for the match, he hit a popup volley then served a double fault and found himself down three break points yet again. Nalbandian gave up the first break point when he couldn’t return a second serve, Jo-Willie then got away with another popup volley and followed that up with tremendous second serve to get back to deuce. Another ace and one more punishing forehand and he’d done it, he’d won his first Masters Series shield. There was no “look at me” celebration, though, just tears and a hug for every member of his family. He’d have hugged every spectator if he could have, and I’d have given him a hug because I’ve been waiting, like all of us, for another shotmaking machine who can rise to the occasion. First, though, Jo-Willie will need a broader ground game and that’ll not only get him through the slower court seasons, but a few finesse shots might also take some pressure off his body and let him actually get through an entire season.
A quick note explaining why I’m in recovery from Halloween and why you should join us tomorrow to look at the Paris final.I’m supposed to write today but I haven’t been able to recover from Halloween. I went to the West Hollywood Halloween Street Party last night to see the show and a show it was – thousands of people, rolling DJ platforms, two stages, plenty of dressed up Sarah Palins (many, of course, in drag), a few John McCains, an entire band of medieval Samurai, and a neon superhero. Not sure I’d go again, though. It took an hour and a half to find a bus and just as it got close to my destination, some sadly drunk person threw up all over the bus. Anyway, I’ll be writing tomorrow instead and that’s not so bad because I’ll cover the Paris final and whoever wins it gets the eighth and final place in the year end championships. In the semifinals today, David Nalbandian hung on to beat Nikolay Davydenko in three sets and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga just smashed James Blake. I certainly didn’t expect Nalbandian to be anywhere close to a Shanghai appearance after his mixed results earlier this year even though he almost pulled it off late last year and ended up one ranking place out of the running. I hoped against hope that Tsonga would recover from his perennially injured status long enough to put a serious run of tournaments together and he has. It’s not very often that the last match of the regular season means this much so join me tomorrow to look at what happened. Whaddya think, Nalbandian or Tsonga?