Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: How Can the Frenchman Break the "Big Four" Stronghold?
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As the eyes of the tennis world collectively shift from Wimbledon to the London Olympics (held at the same venue), and then to New York for the US Open the majority of fans only have a few questions on their mind.
Will Roger Federer consolidate his No. 1 ranking by winning the Gold Medal and/or a sixth US Open crown?
Can Novak Djokovic get back to his 2011 self and defend his US Open title?
Can Rafael Nadal shake off a stunning second-round defeat at the All-England Club to defend the Olympic Gold he won in 2008?
Will Andy Murray be able to please the home crowd and win a medal in London?
Between these four players, who, over the past few years have separated themselves from the pack in men's tennis, there is something for everyone.
As one moves down the world rankings, he or she will find players who have a less fervent fan base and aren't followed nearly as closely by the media.
Just one notch below the so called "Big Four", at No. 6 sits Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a player high on talent, but low on decision-making.
The first sighting of Tsonga came four years ago at the Australian Open, when, as an unseeded player, he stormed through the draw all the way to final, where he lost in four spirited sets to Djokovic. En route, he defeated two of the players mentioned above; Murray in the first round and Nadal in the semifinals.
Is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a True Threat at the US Open?
Injuries hindered Jo-Willy's progress over the next couple years, but near the end of 2011, things seemed to change.
A healthy Tsonga stunned Roger Federer in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, before losing in the semis once again to Djokovic. Then, when the indoor season came around, the flamboyant Frenchman made four out of a possible six finals, winning two titles.
Tsonga carried his solid play into 2012, winning an early-season event in Doha, and then making deep runs at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
He was one point away from making back-to-back Grand Slam semifinals.
At the French Open, Tsonga gave Djokovic, then the World No. 1, a great fight, grabbing four match points before losing in five excruciating sets.
Jo-Willy rubbed off that defeat quickly, as he took advantage of a Nadal-less draw at the All-England club, and he came very close to an appearance in the finals.
Looking at his recent results, it is clear that Tsonga is among the world's best.
The real question remains: can he really be the intruder into the top four? Even if not in the rankings, can Tsonga continue giving top players good fights and become a consistent force at major tournaments?
On talent-level alone, Tsonga is just a small notch below the rest of the upper-echelon of tennis.
His serve is the bigger than any of the big four members, and he has a tremendous forehand. His backhand needs some work (more on that later), but his touch around the net is surprisingly deft, and he has no problem staying aggressive and rushing the net.
However, if pure talent alone made a tennis player, Gael Monfils would be ranked in the top five and David Ferrer would be closer to thirty.
Tsonga needs to fix other parts of his game.
The mental aspect of his game that needs to be fixed has a simple solution: hire a coach.
Since he parted ways with Eric Winogradsky in early 2011, Tsonga has, in essence, been self-coached, with the occasional help of former pros Andre Agassi and Pat Rafter.
Agassi receives credit for Tsonga's improved physical fitness, which has enabled the Frenchman to play long, physical matches, whereas Rafter provides tactical help; most notably, the serve-and-volley tactic that Tsonga used effectively at Wimbledon. During his brief time at the top of the tennis world, Rafter usually employed the same tactic.
However, Tsonga needs to do something different.
As mentioned earlier, Jo-Willy's backhand is the groundstroke that needs the most work.
His two-handed backhand isn't necessarily bad, but, apparently, while practicing, Tsonga prefers to use a one-hander.
There is no problem with mixing between single and double-handers, but if one in every fifteen that you hit in matches, are two-handers, why would he work on his one-hander more often?
Who is the Best Player Outside the Top Four?
As a result, Tsonga's slice, not a very effective shot, is being used more and more often, and opponents enter matchup with a simple strategy: hit to Tsonga's backhand repeatedly until it cracks.
This is part of a bigger problem that will hinder Tsonga's growth as he attempts to join the ranks of Nole, Fed, and Rafa: decision-making.
Tsonga is an unapologetic risk-taker.
Routinely, his second serves clock at over 120 mph, usual speed for others' first balls. In his 2011 Wimbledon loss to Djokovic, he double-faulted to set up Djokovic with a break point, eventually costing him the match.
Other times, Jo-Wilfried will try to do too much with a ball that, if just aimed properly,will be a winner, and misses it completely.
Another risk commonly seen in the World No. 6's matches is when he dives about the court trying to retrieve a ball that is just out of his reach. Unless the point is absolutely vital, I would rather not see Tsonga sacrifice his body for a ball that he probably won't reach anyway.
Sometimes these risks are necessary, and some players, such as Murray, have been criticized for not having the "killer instinct". But Tsonga needs to mature and learn when it is proper to go for it all.
The biggest problem with going for too much is that sometimes it doesn't work. Thus, Tsonga has found himself on-and-off. Match-by-match, tournament-by-tournament, year-by-year, his results are ever so mixed.
Entering the AEGON Queen's Club Tournament last season, Jo-Willy was in a dry spell.
He hadn't made it to the quarterfinals of any of his previous seven tournaments. At Queen's, he made it all the way to the final, beating Nadal in the process, before losing a tough final to Murray.
That sparked the impressive end-of-year results mentioned earlier.
That has been a pattern of Tsonga's in many of his year's.
Tsonga has all the talent-- he just has to monitor his emotions, slow down his game a notch sometimes and improve his on and off court decision making.
With all this, Tsonga can continue to be the player that none of the "Big Four" members want to face-- and in time, he might even join the exclusive group.
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