Jo-Willie Tsonga Plays to Perfection: An Appreciation

One more look at Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s amazing victory over Rafel Nadal in the Australian Open semifinals

Now that the Australian Open is over and Novak Djokovic took home the men’s title, let’s go back to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s semifinal victory over Rafael Nadal because this was as close to a perfect match as I’ve ever seen.

Tsonga himself was stunned at the end of it. I’ve seen people in the zone before but they were usually high level players who’d been around for a while. And even then, they usually fell out of the zone at some point in the match. Tsonga never did.

In yoga we call it one pointed focus. All you see and hear is the ball. Nothing distracts you from your purpose. In the first game of the match there was a stab volley and a stunning reflex volley when Nadal tried to pass Tsonga at close range. Tsonga turned the ball so sharply that it went from one sideline to the other and never reached the service line.

When a young player breaks out like this, it looks like he arrived all in one moment. You don’t see the years and years of practice and problems he worked through. The bulging disc, a stomach problem, the jitters when he was a junior, the chubby body that preceded the muscular one you see today. But Tsonga played through all of it and, on this day, everything came together and he played the perfect match.

Tsonga was up 5-2 already and Nadal looked rattled. He put a jump overhead into the net. Tsonga then hammered a forehand down the line and left Nadal standing there staring at the ball. I mean Jo-Willie was overpowering. On the next point he hit an approach and followed that with a racket-deadening drop volley that wilted and died on the court. The thing is that this was an accident. He mishit it. That’s what happens when you’re in the in the space that Tsonga was occupying.

You can’t play like this unless you’re relaxed and easy because you couldn’t respond quickly enough. You’d bee too tight. Thoughts would only interfere. Doubt would interfere. Worry would interfere. Fear would interfere.

When I used to dance, we called it body time. The mind was shoved aside and we were moving without thinking or doing. The body responded with lightning quick movement because it knew just what to do. You couldn’t think too much not only because it would slow you down but because you’d fall out of body time and the fraction of difference in response is the difference between a hit and miss.

Tsonga won the first set 6-2. Now it was real. This wasn’t just a streak, he was destroying Nadal and he wasn’t working that hard at it.

Here’s another thing and it has always puzzled me: why is Rafa so successful at holding serve? Yes he moves his serve around and changes speed and spin, but his first serve averages under 110mph (177kmh). Tsonga had no trouble returning it. He won almost half of the points on his return of serve.

Things that were going right for Tsonga were going wrong for Rafa. Tsonga hit a volley that Rafa could have gotten to easily but he tripped and lost his racket. Even when Tsonga hit an average shot, he got away with it.

Then it got ridiculous. Serving at 1-1 in the second set Tsonga hit a serve and ran in behind it. Nadal’s return bounced at his feet but Tsonga managed to short-hop it for yet another dropper. If Tsonga looks a bit like Muhammad Ali, he was also playing like him. Jo-Willie was rope-a-doping Rafa: smash the ball then soften it and hit the drop shot. Deep then short then hard then soft. The ropes in this case being the baseline, the sideline, and the service line and Tsonga hit them all night long.

Three games later and now we were just laughing because how more ridiculous could it get? Nadal hit a forehand that drove Tsonga outside the doubles line then followed that up with his own drop shot just a few feet over the net. Tsonga ran from one corner of the court to the other and hit the ball up the line and past Nadal. The guy is 6ft 2in (187cm) and 200lbs (90kg) and he just outhustled Nadal, the fastest guy on tour.

It’s not like Nadal was playing poorly. He wasn’t making errors, he got almost 70% of his first serves in, and he hit tough dipping passing shots. At 4-3 Nadal hit another dipper at Tsonga’s backhand. Tsonga smacked his racket on the ground as he stabbed at the ball and came up with yet another perfect drop shot. One more fancy volley and a jump overhead and Tsonga served for the set. His third ace in the game came in at 139mph (224kmh).

Certainly Roger Federer has played his share of exceptional matches so what was so special about this? It’s a slam, it’s the semis and Tsonga is not just winning, he’s slaying the competition: a slow court specialist who hadn’t lost a set on this slow hard court. I’ve never seen an unseeded guy dominate the competition so clearly this late in a slam.

Tsonga was so focused that everything was easy for him. He didn’t have to think about it. He floated off the court at the end still in his focused state. Then he remembered, he’d just eased his way into a grand slam final and he could barely believe it.