How Djokovic responds to pressure will dictate match

1/26/2008 - Tennis

MELBOURNE, Australia -- The Australian Open famously produces surprises in late rounds, but Sunday's matchup in the final is one of the most unpredictable in years. Third-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia and France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have never met before, and both are looking for their first Grand Slam title.

Tsonga, who will crack the top 20 next week whether or not he's the victor, has never won an ATP-level tournament. The 22-year-old could become only the third man in the post-1968 Open era to win his first-ever title at a Slam, along with Mats Wilander of Sweden and Brazil's Gustavo Kuerten, who did it at the French Open in 1982 and 1997, respectively. Tsonga beat three top-10 players -- including No. 2 Rafael Nadal -- to reach the finals.

Djokovic has not lost a set on his way to the final, a relatively uneventful path until he shocked Roger Federer in straight sets in the semifinals -- the second time in six months that he has upset the world No. 1. He lost to Federer in last year's U.S. Open final.

Given the novel matchup, we decided to ask some veteran tennis writers for their opinions on how things might shake out.

Christopher Clarey, New York Times/International Herald Tribune (United States):

The key to the match is how well Djokovic returns Tsonga's serve. If Tsonga has a great serving day and keeps Djokovic off him, he has a chance. Tsonga has beaten a lot of different kinds of players in this tournament, but Djokovic hits the ball really flat, and his groundstrokes are so precise. Tsonga is going to have to get down really low to get them back, whereas against Nadal, the balls were bouncing high. Since he's fast, he was able to get to them and hit them at a nice angle. It's going to be fun -- I have no idea how Tsonga is going to react.

Barry Flatman, Sunday Times of London (England):

The key is Tsonga's mind, whether he thinks he can do the same thing he did against Nadal. I think Djokovic will be more varied in his approach, and he won't leave the ball as short as Nadal did. Djokovic in four sets.

Philippe Bouin, L'Equipe (France):

The mentality of both men will be the key. If Tsonga starts well, then Djokovic will feel the pressure of being the one who's supposed to win. He likes to be the underdog. I think the crowd will be more on Tsonga's side, and that could get to Djokovic. If Tsonga comes out feeling relaxed, it should be an entertaining match.

Ubaldo Scanagatta, La Nazione (Italy):

I don't think Tsonga can play twice in a row as well as he played in the semis. Djokovic plays inside the baseline and Nadal plays far behind, and especially on hard court, that makes a huge difference. Plus, I have a feeling that Djokovic is so acrobatic and athletic and elastic that he can reach the kinds of serves Tsonga will deliver. Then you add Djokovic's experience. The only little advantage Tsonga has is that right now, he has nothing to lose, and so he will be loose.

Tom Perrotta, Tennis Magazine and Tennis.com (United States):

To me, the key is Tsonga's nerves. I don't expect Djokovic to be nervous, and he's a fearsome competitor. I think he expected to beat Roger the other night -- the kid is amazing that way -- while Tsonga thinks what he did against Nadal is amazing. Tsonga's offense is good enough to beat Djokovic's defense if he can play like he did the other night, but the odds of that are not good. Then again, Djokovic has never been the favorite in a match like this. It's an odd situation, a tricky situation.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.