Commentary

Scintillating Tsonga not going anywhere

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's enthralling and powerful play has invoked memories of last year's run to the Australian Open final. Healthy and dominant again, there's something mystical about this giant talent.

Originally Published: January 27, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Jo-Wilfried TsongaWilliam West/Getty ImagesJo-Wilfried Tsonga has picked up exactly where he left off one year ago Down Under.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- It seemed like déjà vu, and not just because Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is French.

In a scene identical to this point in time last year, the same people were gathered in the same hallway outside the men's locker room in Rod Laver Arena, all smiles after Tsonga advanced to the money portion of the Australian Open, dispatching James Blake in the fourth round with barely a hiccup Monday night.

But appearances are deceiving. Tsonga was No. 38 coming into this tournament in 2008, a dynamic but incongruously fragile player whose tremendous potential had stalled time after time because of a tender back. He's a top-10 player now, having built a solid season on the foundation of his career-altering run to the final here. Although injury once again sidelined Tsonga for a big chunk of last season -- including the French Open and Wimbledon -- he came back strong and won two titles on the indoor circuit late in the year. His championship before a home crowd at the Masters Series event in Paris in October 2008 sealed his status as a superstar.

Will Melbourne once again prove magical for this giant talent?

"He likes this place,'' said Tsonga's agent, Morgan Menahem. "It put him on the face of the earth. But what we want for him right now more than anything is to play a full season. He's No. 7 now, having played 15 tournaments last year. Imagine if he played 21.''

French Davis Cup captain Guy Forget also cautioned against mystical thinking. "What was important was that he made the final of a Grand Slam, whether it was here or the U.S. Open or anywhere,'' Forget said. "That lets you know you're a player capable of those results.''

Tsonga himself, as mild-mannered and serene off-court as he is dramatic on it, pursed his lips slightly in thought as he considered the question. "I feel really free here, the Aussies are so nice, everyone's walking around in T-shirts and shorts, it's pretty cool,'' he said. "But last year was a totally different thing.''

Yet to a spectator's eyes, Tsonga does seem infused with a mystical power as he prowls the two-toned blue surface at Rod Laver, mobile and powerful as a panther. He says he's trying to be more calculated about the risks he takes, but still goes for some shots with seeming telepathy. On Monday night, Tsonga flashed parallel to the net to return one cross-court beauty from Blake, moving into space like a soccer player anticipating a pass and flicking a reaction shot for a winner.

He often stalks around carrying on an animated conversation with himself between points. Tsonga says he has always done that, and his longtime coach, Eric Winogradsky, says he's tried to channel that impulse rather than stifle it.

"He has a need to express himself, and he sometimes forgets to just take a moment, take his time and breathe,'' Winogradsky said. "But I think he motivates himself this way.''

Tsonga actually got more of a breather than he would have liked during the third set against Blake when play was halted for about 8 minutes to wait out the noisy fireworks show in honor of Australia's national holiday. The pause seemed to help Blake, who took a 5-2 lead but was unable to convert a set point as Tsonga came roaring back.

"He looked a little stiff after the delay,'' ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said. "It's interesting, when I was coaching Andre [Agassi], that happened twice here and they played through it. If it was 85 degrees, it's one thing, but it was cold out there and [Tsonga] is a big guy. I thought he was lucky to get out of it in three -- James let him off the hook a little bit."

Gilbert said that Tsonga should be able to sustain a high ranking if he can stay healthy.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Mark Dadswell/Getty ImagesJo-Wilfried Tsonga has dropped a paltry one set en route to the quarterfinals.
"He's got that look, like he's not going to be one of those guys who has one good Slam and then you never really hear from him again,'' Gilbert said.

His performance is all the more impressive because he arrived in Melbourne in questionable shape, having withdrawn from the lead-up event in Sydney with back spasms. "He was limping when I got here,'' said Menahem, who represents another charismatic French athlete, the NBA's Tony Parker. "It was day-to-day.''

But the unpredictable condition cleared up with treatment. Tsonga loosened up with a tough second-round match against Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic and had one space-cadet set against pint-sized Israeli Dudi Sela. His focus was sharper against Blake, where Tsonga looked as if he were picking up where he left off a year ago.

His quarterfinal opponent is Andy Murray-conqueror Fernando Verdasco of Spain. French reporters joked Monday that a mini-Davis Cup is going on in Australia, with Gilles Simon set to play Rafael Nadal in the upper half of the bracket. Tsonga will have to hope that No. 15 Verdasco is not in Davis Cup shape. The lefty was the difference in Spain's upset of Argentina in the 2008 final, helping win the doubles point and winning the clinching singles match. He also reached the final in a lead-up event earlier this month in Brisbane.

"He's in great form, and he sort of won Davis Cup all by himself, which gave him a lot of confidence,'' said Tsonga, who has never played Verdasco.

Forget predicts an encouraging progression. "He sets the bar higher for every opponent,'' he said.

If Tsonga advances to the final four, there will be at least one big difference from last year. Menahem said the player's parents won't be making that last-second, round-the-world flight from their home in Le Mans, France. "They're working, and it was really tough on them last time,'' Menahem said.

Tsonga can climb only one more rung on the ladder than he did last year, and unlike most players, he's willing to entertain the possibility. "I might win the tournament,'' he said, grinning broadly. "That would be extraordinary.''

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.