Jo-Wilfried Tsonga passed some important tests in his second and third round matches in Paris.

Damn, the guy is a shotmaker. In the third game of the match in the Paris Masters event between Radek Stepanek and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Stepanek hit a lazy forehand to the middle of the ad court and Tsonga ran around his backhand until he was standing smack dab in the middle of the doubles alley and hit an inside out forehand at such an angle that it landed in the corner of the opposite service box.

Stepanek is a funny hybrid player. He does everything well but nothing spectacularly. He serves enough aces to be a consistent serve and volleyer, he can be magical at the net – he’s the best doubles player among the singles player but maybe only because Roger Federer hardly ever plays doubles. And he’s willing to be the villain.

Mind games have gone out of fashion in the current version of the ATP tour except for some systemic tics like Rafael Nadal’s 30 second time outs between each point (you can page through a Nadal match quick and easy by clicking on the skip forward button on your DVR remote which skips ahead exactly 30 seconds) and Novak Djokovic’s incessant ball bouncing, but Stepanek has an entire range of annoyance tactics that rival his bag of strategic skills. Tsonga was serving at 1-2 in the first set when Stepanek spun a beautiful pirouette and hit a backhand volley winner then backpedaled the entire length of the court in appreciation of his marvelousness.

Stepanek is lucky he’s not a baseball player. If he hit a home run and pulled off that same behavior on a baseball field, the next time he came to plate he’d find a baseball lodged in his ear. I suppose Tsonga could direct a serve at Stepanek’s private parts, it has been done before though, I believe, not intentionally. Tsonga had his chance. He can be just as magical at the net but he let Stepanek take control of the net and found himself down set point in the first set after having lost his serve. Stepanek served and volleyed and did a showman’s leap when he hit a short hop volley off Tsonga’s return. If I were Tsonga, I’d have rocketed the ball right at Stepanek’s head being the hothead I am. Tsonga, not as hotheaded but maybe a slight bit annoyed at Stepanek’s show, overhit his approach shot and that was that, Stepanek had the first set 6-3.

Tsonga has never played Stepanek before and it was an important growing up moment for him. You can’t blast a trickster off the court because they’ll avoid getting into a groundstroke battle with you by taking away the net just as Stepanek did in this match. Any top player should be able to overpower Stepanek, but it takes skill and it was interesting to watch Tsonga try to figure it out.

Tsonga beat that other trickster, Fabrice Santoro, on a fast surface in Lyon last week but it took him three sets to do it and by the look of this match today, I’m guessing Stepanek could have beaten him on a slower outdoor court. As for Stepanek, let’s see how Tsonga figured him out.

Serving at 2-3 in the second set, Stepanek took another one of his little showman hops as he hit another cute shot at the net, but this time Tsonga hit a beautiful cross court approach shot for a winner and followed that up with a passing shot down the line to get his first break point. Not only did that get Tsonga’s home crowd going but it got Stepanek in trouble. On break point, Stepanek hit a fault then smashed the ball in anger to the consternation of Tsonga’s people. He followed that up with a double fault to lose his serve. You live by annoyance, you die by annoyance.

But Tsonga still hadn’t figured it out. Serving at 4-2 he saved two break points by outsteadying Stepanek – rule number one against the trickster: keep the ball in play – and taking over the net, but he still ended up giving the break back because he couldn’t handle Stepanek’s elegant junk. It looked like he’d finally figured it out when he gobbled up Stepanek’s slices and misdirections and pulled even by winning the second set 6-4, but he lost his serve again early in the third set because he didn’t get to the net and when he did, he wasn’t putting the ball away. He couldn’t quite decide when to smash the ball or not.

Tsonga is a rhythm player and an emotion player. Those passing shots gave him his rhythm and then, with Stepanek serving to stay in the match at 4-5, he found his emotion. He hit a shot down the line he thought was in because he couldn’t hear the out call over the roar of the crowd and by then it was too late to challenge. That got him mad and now he started going for his shots instead of fooling around and he came up with three great shots in a row to close out the match: a beautiful running passing shot, a high looping topspin lob that landed just inside the line, and a return that curled round the doubles alley and back into the court. He had the break on Stepanek and he had the match, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

Tsonga’s third round opponent, Novak Djokovic, is a different matter altogether. He WILL slug it out with you from the baseline and he has a better backhand than Tsonga. But he’s not as cute at the net and that is Tsonga’s advantage. Would Tsonga figure out how to use it?

Pretty much, yeah. Djokovic was serving at 2-2 in the first set when Tsonga hit a drop shot. He followed that up with a push volley that should have been a putaway volley, but he managed to win the point by picking off a lob volley and hitting in right at Djokovic to get a break point. Djokovic hit an error on an easy forehand to lose his serve and then it was time to ask: Can Djokovic get through an entire season and stay in top form? Or, more to the point, will Andy Murray overtake Djokovic before Djokovic can overtake Roger Federer?

Djokovic is in the top four and the other three players are trucking along and he’s not. Rafael Nadal, Federer, and Murray are still alive in Paris and each of them reached the semifinals in Madrid, while Djokovic lost to Tsonga in the Bangkok final then lost early in Madrid. You could say Djokovic did better last fall when he won the title in Vienna and reached the semifinals in Madrid.

Djokovic has three sterling titles this year: the Australian Open, and the Masters Series events in Rome and Indian Wells, but Murray has a slam final, two Masters Series events, and five titles altogether – the same number Djokovic had last year. So it’s not looking good for Djokovic if Murray can stay injury free.

Tsonga held onto his break to take the first set though it wasn’t easy, and he showed his Pete Sampras jump overhead early in the second set. Athleticism is all good and well but consistency is better as Tsonga lost his serve a few points later then completely fell apart in the second set. His thigh was bothering him – he took a medical time out at the end of the second set which he lost 6-1 – but he had only to look across the net to find someone who plays well despite injury, real or imagined.

And you could say Tsonga learned that lesson too. In Djokovic’s first service game in the third set, Tsonga lunged to return a wide serve then ran down a low shot to the other corner and batted the ball past Djokovic at the net for a break point. Then he outdid that on the next point by flicking a deep Djokovic volley crosscourt for the break.

In both of Tsonga’s matches he played a few magical points in very important situations to get the win. Before we get carried away, we should remember that while Djokovic has trouble staying strong the entire year, Tsonga barely plays half the year due to his multiple injuries. But we did see some important progress this past few days and I’m thrilled about that because I’m still looking forward to seeing that magic in many more slams to come.

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