- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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MELBOURNE, Australia -- Remember the old joke about how you fit an elephant into the glove compartment? The answer: Look at him through the wrong end of the binoculars, pick him up with a tweezers and move him.
No one would ever mistake the swift and agile Rafael Nadal for a lumbering pachyderm, but he is as big an animal as roams the tennis jungle. Thursday night, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga somehow shrunk him down to normal size.
The 22-year-old from France continued his stampede through the Australian Open by outmuscling, outmaneuvering and outwitting the world No. 2 in the semifinal with an outrageous blend of power and touch. Tsonga's creative weaponry was video-game perfect, from lashing groundstrokes to spinning drop volleys to change-of-pace serves to contortionist angled shots at the net.
"He's the real deal," said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill after watching Tsonga's 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 domination of Nadal. "He's not someone who's going to be a flashy finalist here that you never hear from again. He's going to be entrenched in the top 10. And if he plays like this Sunday, it's going to take a hell of an effort to stop him."
There was a reason Nadal only made a dozen unforced errors in the entire match. The man who gets to everything found most of what Tsonga threw at him out of reach Thursday. As one sign in the crowd proclaimed, it was a "Tsonga tsunami" that washed away any chance Nadal would finally get a chance to contest a Grand Slam hard-court final against Roger Federer.
The crowd of 15,000 at Rod Laver Arena didn't seem to mind, giving Tsonga standing ovations at the end of each of the first two sets. But Tsonga stayed self-contained until the very end. His body actually appeared to go limp momentarily after he hit another perfect ace out wide on match point, but he recovered and began skipping around his end of the court with fists held high.
"I felt like I couldn't do anything wrong, like I wasn't going to make any mistakes, like I could put all the strength I wanted into the ball and I wasn't going to blow it," Tsonga told French-speaking reporters, clear-eyed but somewhat shell-shocked by his own prowess. "Today I played the match everyone dreams of having in their life."
Nadal gave Tsonga a tip of the bandana and said there was nothing he could have done. "We have to accept today," he said. "He played unbelievable."
When it was suggested that Tsonga was lucky, Nadal shook his head.
"He's not lucky, no," Nadal said. "Not lucky when he beat [Andy] Murray, when he beat [Richard] Gasquet, when he beat [Mikhail] Youzhny. It's not lucky." But he did add, "Is not his real level. Sure, he can play like this, but not every week."
Tsonga is constantly compared to look-alike Muhammad Ali. But as reporters probed for an explanation of his superlative play, his who-knows shrug was more reminiscent of another icon, Michael Jordan, in his prime.
Asked if he had made an Ali-like statement in the match, Tsonga said, "Maybe in my own way. I said, 'I'm here. I'm not stealing this. You're going to have to beat me.'"
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at email@example.com.
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