As the 2012 Australian Open rapidly approaches, most of the questions regarding the men's game will revolve around the Big Four. And rightfully so.
In 2011, it was Djokovic and Nadal—in that order—controlling things through the U.S Open, Murray sweeping the fall Asian swing and Federer gobbling everything else up through the finish line. In 2010, it was Federer early, Rafa for the lion's share, and Federer at the very end, with Djokovic and Murray plucking occasionally in between. And so on.
They've been especially greedy at the Slams. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have won a ridiculous 26 of the last 27 majors, and together the foursome has occupied 43 of the 64 slam semifinal spots since 2008.
Maybe the question we should be asking as the tour heads down under is, "Can anyone beat these guys before the semis?"
The answer is not likely. Djokovic and Nadal still seem other-worldly, Federer's won 19 matches in a row and reached eight straight Aussie Open semis, and Murray made the final four of every slam in 2011.
To make matters more predictable, their challengers, by and large, either seem not in form, out of shape or just not up to snuff.
Former giant-slayer Robin Soderling is ill with mononucleosis and will miss the Australian Open. 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, despite some game battles with Nadal and Djokovic last year, still hasn't seemed the same since a career-altering wrist injury in 2010.
David Ferrer, though tenacious, appears to lack the firepower to topple the giants in present form. Tomas Berdych has all the tools, yet seems to be missing that extra something needed to take the next step. Mardy Fish lacks the variety and Andy Roddick may be done.
Enter, thankfully, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the man each member of the Big Four least wants to see in their quarter next week. He's beaten each of them at a major and is in fine form.
If there's anyone out there who can prevent another Big Four final four, you'd have to think it's Tsonga.
He certainly has the weapons. His serve could be the best on tour, sporting more aces than anyone in 2011 and the third-highest percentage of points won on first serve. Simply put, if Mr. Tsonga's getting his first serve in, he can take the match right off his opponent's racquet.
Has anyone ever made Federer look as hopeless as he did at Wimbledon last year?
Obviously, this is big against the greats. No matter how bad things look for the Frenchman, he always knows he can serve himself back into the match.
Tsonga also backs up his serve with a bludgeoning forehand, another crucial ingredient for success against the best. Just ask Andy Roddick how far a big serve-vanilla forehand combo will get you in today's game.
It's nice to be able to thump a first serve when you really need a point, but its even nicer to end things with a monster forehand if a return is somehow summoned.
And don't the members of the Big Four always seem to muster a tricky return when they need it? Tsonga has the ability to swat those replies away with finality.
Lastly, Jo-Wilfried possesses a surprisingly effective net game for someone with such brute power. His touch is soft, his angles are sharp and his size makes him tough to lob. This lets him follow his big serves and forehands forward and win points quickly.
The top four all have an uncanny knack of getting back into points with superb defense. Tsonga's net game can cut those efforts off before they start. Just check out his 2008 Australian Open victory over Rafa, a master class volleying display.
Of course, Tsonga has his flaws.
His backhand can be spotty, and his defense is not top-flight. His return game is below average. Clearly, he's vulnerable when not serving well.
But most of the time, his offense can mask the weaknesses. After all, with that serve, he really only needs to piece together one good return game a set. And even if he doesn't, chances are he'll blast his way into a tiebreak, a pretty good format for deadly servers. Tsonga was 27-17 in tiebreakers in 2011.
Furthermore, the evidence indicates that Tsonga's getting better, or at least more consistent.
He had an excellent second half of 2011, shooting up 13 ranking spots from the beginning of Wimbledon on. In that time frame, he beat both Federer and Nadal and won his sixth career title at Metz.
More importantly, he kept the head-scratching losses to inferior opponents to a minimum. He finished the year brilliantly, losing only two tight finals to Federer in Paris and the WTF respectively. As it stands now, Tsonga's world ranking of sixth ties a career high.
This developing consistency has allowed the Frenchman to hone his big-match toughness and belief-barriers for most when it comes to beating the top four at majors. He obviously handled the pressure of a Wimbledon five-setter against Federer adeptly, and didn't exactly wilt against a machine-like Djokovic in the semis.
He bravely battled back from a two-sets-to-one deficit against Mardy Fish in the Round of 16 at Flushing Meadows for a five-set win, and that with all of Arthur Ashe Stadium cheering against him. Though his sloppy performance against Federer in the quarters was disappointing, the fact that the match remained as tense as it did—despite the Swiss' commanding lead throughout—is a testament to how dangerous a player Tsonga has become.
He was pretty clutch in London at the end of the year, too.
He gritted his way through a tight three-set win against Rafa, a feat not easily accomplished. He then saved several match points with do-or-die winners against Fed in the championship to force a third set. Though he eventually fell short, no one left the O2 questioning Jo-Wilfried's mental toughness.
And so, at a time in men's tennis when the hierarchy has never seemed so cemented, the ever-improving Tsonga approaches Melbourne as the best bet to disrupt the oligarchy that has become the Big Four. To do it, he'll need to serve impeccably, let his forehand rip and keep it together.
It's not likely, but you can bet that Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray are all hoping he lands in someone else's bracket next week.
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