Hands up who saw that one coming. The smiley, explosive Frenchman, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, has been out in the tennis wilderness for the last year and a half. Who knew the Rogers Cup in north-west Toronto could change that all around? Tsonga compiled a stunning and surely unmatched week of victories over no fewer than four players in the world’s top 10 to claim his second Masters 1000 crown.
Since an Open 13 title in Marseille and a semi-final at Roland Garros in 2013, there hasn’t been much to shout about for Tsonga. He was plagued by injury over the latter part of last season, missing the North American hard-court swing; thus, he didn’t qualify for the World Tour Finals.
2014 has been a year defined by consistent losses to the Big Four and other players that a man of Tsonga’s talent should be beating. He’s lost in the fourth round at each of the Grand Slams thus far (Federer in Australia, Djokovic at Roland Garros and Wimbledon). Whilst these defeats to the Big Four have always been there, these ones were particularly hefty, all comfortably in straight sets.
Then the Frenchman stepped off the plane at Toronto to begin the hard-court season. Seeded at No. 13, Jo had to negotiate two tricking countrymen in the opening two rounds in Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Jeremy Chardy.
Wimbledon champion and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was his third-round opponent. Tsonga had lost to the Serb on 11 of the past 12 occasions (a walkover being the exception). With Djokovic enduring some sort of post-wedding blues and fatigue from a testing clay-and-grass period, and far from his all-conquering best, the Frenchman took full advantage and thrashed him 6-2, 6-2.
Matchups weren’t getting any easier. Two-time Rogers Cup winner Andy Murray was on the other side of the net in the quarterfinals. It was a tight match throughout, with Tsonga taking the opener in a tie-break, before the Briton hit back to tie the contest and have a 3-0 lead in the decider. But Tsonga’s serve and firepower off the ground came through against a faltering Murray, and he rallied to take the third set 6-4.
That win was another against a vastly inferior head-to-head, with Murray having a 9-1 record before Toronto.
Moving on, young star Grigor Dimitrov was swatted away in the last four, setting a final date with Roger Federer. Incredibly, Tsonga downed the great Swiss in straight sets, 7-5 7-6 (3) again serving magnificently and piling the pressure on an out-of-sorts Federer from the baseline. From midway in the first set, Roger never really had any control of proceedings and it was surprising that he actually managed to get the second set into a tiebreak.
So we’ve seen what Tsonga can do in a week if his game all comes together. He beat three members of the Power Four and arguably the guy who is most likely to break their stranglehold on the ATP tour in Dimitrov. He served a massive 77 aces in total; his forehand was brutal and even his returns, which have never been the biggest strength, were consistently deep, forcing opponents back off the baseline.
But can Jo do this on a consistent basis and get back to reaching the latter stages of the major tournaments, and maybe even win one? Well, when he serves that well and hits forehands like clockwork, it’s going to be extremely difficult for anyone in the game to beat him.
Federer described it to the Montreal Gazette: “I just think he can overpower guys…serve up a storm.” Also, apart from the match against Murray, he didn’t really have a characteristic off-period in a match that has hindered him in the past.
After that sensational run to the title, Tsonga climbed five spots in the rankings, back up to No. 10. If he can back it up with a strong performance this week in Cincinnati, then he could be a real dark horse for success in New York. We have to expect Djokovic and Murray to rebound again though and intensify their level. Not to detract from an amazing run of wins, but these guys that Tsonga beats can play better and he’ll have to be on the top of his game, match after match, if he wants to extend his lead at the top of the US Open Series.
Before Toronto’s Rogers Cup though, the vast majority of tennis experts (if any) wouldn’t have had Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the equation for big titles in North America this summer. Every week that went by in 2014, he seemed to be getting further away from the very top of the men’s game and from that elusive first Grand Slam title. How much can change in a week on the ATP tour.