Commentary

Djokovic needs to maintain mental toughness versus Tsonga

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is about to embark on the biggest moment of his life, but does he have enough game to come through Down Under?

Updated: January 26, 2008, 6:08 PM ET
By Darren Cahill | ESPN

Jo-Wilfried TsongaAP Photo/Dita AlangkaraAt No. 38, if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beats Novak Djokovic, he'll become the second-lowest-ranked player to win the Australian Open title since the inception of the rankings system in 1973.
Two weeks ago, not many experts would have predicted Novak Djokovic to be in the Australian Open final -- not with Roger Federer in his half of the draw -- and only a prescient few had unseeded and unproven Jo-Wilfried Tsonga emerging from the other section.

But, these two stars have played immaculate tennis, and one is a win from his first career Grand Slam title.

It's imperative Tsonga serve effectively, as he has done impressively en route to the final. He has shown all-around peerless tennis, which has only been amplified by his ability to hold serve efficiently, subsequently alleviating unneeded pressure.

Tsonga unloaded versus Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. He hit huge serves -- upward of 135 mph -- and judiciously kept his opponent off balance with a good array of drop shots. We're entering the unknown for this first-time finalist. He has the potential, but only now are we able to enjoy his talents.

The question with Tsonga is whether he can go five sets if it comes down to that, considering it would be uncharted territory. We have seen spectacular tennis from a Frenchman many of us never paid attention to before he knocked off the No. 2 player in the world, Nadal.

Will we see the French flair, again, from Tsonga? The manner in which he has manhandled his opponents throughout this tournament has been impressive, if not shocking. For the first time, though, he enters a match with expectations. How he holds up under pressure is going to be key in this matchup. The difference is that against Nadal, very few expected Tsonga to win, never mind blow the Spaniard off the court. He had nothing to lose.

At 22 years old, Tsonga enters the match as a slight underdog to his 20-year-old counterpart. He's been derailed by injuries -- a herniated disc and later shoulder injuries. In the tennis world, he's a late bloomer.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
James Knowler/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic, in his second Grand Slam final, will take on unheralded and unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Tsonga has done an incredible job of getting back in shape. He's one of the fittest players on tour now. Strength and conditioning is as important in this game today as it ever has been. The Frenchman was able to run down a lot of balls in the semifinals. He'll need to be just as quick in the final.

Djokovic, for the first time, is going to be favored in a high-profile match. He will need to control his nerves. His vulnerability in the third set versus David Ferrer in the quarterfinals was evident. He pulled through, but questions were raised.

Djokovic responded in the semifinals against Federer. He looked like a completely different player from the one we saw at the U.S. Open final just a few months earlier. He wasn't ready to handle the pressure of that situation, and it showed as he lost in straight sets. The Djokovic we're observing at the Australian Open has grown a lot.

He remained calm after going down an early break in the first set in his last match versus the world's top player. His comeback set the tone for the rest of the encounter. It spoke volumes about the maturation of Djokovic. We often forget how young he is. The Serb seems to have been around forever. If he can prove his mental game is consistently strong in high-tension situations, he is going to be a difficult force to overcome.

Djokovic, just as he did midway though the first set in disposing Federer, needs to flatten out his groundstrokes and disallow Tsonga time to get back in the point. Djokovic effectively held his ground on the baseline and was able to dictate play against Federer. Unlike Nadal, whose baseline game features heavy spin -- forceful on clay, but clearly neutralized on the new hard courts Down Under -- Djokovic can aggressively hit through the ball. If he doesn't, Tsonga will have time to retrieve and become the aggressor.

Djokovic also needs to maintain a high percentage of first serves to secure easy points. Tsonga has a skilled return and will press his opponent on second serves. If the third-seeded Serb is on the defensive, Tsonga will attack the net -- and he has a dynamite volley.

Experience is a key ingredient for Djokovic; he's been in a Slam final before. The way he handled Federer, and the toughness he showed, was a revelation. If he can avoid a letdown, Djokovic should win this final in four sets. But Tsonga is not a flash in the pan. He will jump on Djokovic if he doesn't employ and maintain aggressive tennis.

Darren Cahill, the former coach of Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, is providing Australian Open analysis for ESPN.