Creature Vs. Creature: Hand of Stone Pummels Ali in a Thriller
For Rajat Jain’s counterpoint, arguing Tsonga’s chance to win, please click here
It has been mentioned ad infinitum that Jo Wilfried-Tsonga bears a striking resemblance to boxing legend Muhammad Ali, known to billions by his self-chosen nickname, “The Greatest.”
Chilean Fernando Gonzalez, Tsonga’s next opponent in the 2009 U.S. Open, is one of the hardest hitters in this era of power baseliners. He has acquired the nickname, “Mano de Piedra,” which literally means “hand of stone.”
Interestingly, we do not have to go back very far in history to find a similar nickname, and remarkably enough, Panamanian pugilist Roberto Duran was known as “Manos de piedra,” meaning “hands of stone.”
Duran was the classic “face fighter,” a man who believed that his best defense was a devastating offense. Few men in his weight classifications ever punched as hard as Duran did. He put extreme pressure on his opponents, even if it caused him to absorb punches.
That pretty well describes Gonzalez to a “T.”
Ali was the most versatile heavyweight fighter of his (or any other) era. He was blindingly quick, could fight from long-distance or up close, and had one-punch knockout ability when he needed it. He was a thinking man’s fighter, more artist than brawler.
Doesn’t that sound like Tsonga?
Could the sweet science of boxing teach us anything about this potentially scintillating tennis matchup? I think it can.
Tale of the Tape
Tsonga and Gonzalez are two rising stars on the ATP Tour. Tsonga sits currently at No. 7 in the world; Gonzalez is No. 11, threatening to climb back into the top 10 with good enough results at the USO. Advantage: Tsonga
Ali (Tsonga) is 36-14 on the year, a .720 winning percentage; Gonzo has won 29-of-39, for a .744 clip. Advantage: Hand of stone
LeMome (“The Kid”), as Tsonga is often called in his homeland, has won two tour events this year (Marseille, a Tour 250 event, upsetting Novak Djokovic in the semis; and Johannesburg, also a Tour 250 event, without dropping a set.) He has amassed $863,359 in earnings thus far on the season.
Gonzo has only won a single tournament (the first clay court event of the year, the Tour 250 event at Viña del Mar, in his native Chile) but has won $1,006,516 in fewer events. Advantage: Gonzalez (very slight)
Gonzalez Will Win If. . .
He can dictate the pace of play against the athletic Tsonga.
This is a difficult match-up for Gonzo. Ali does just about everything that Mano de Piedra does, he just does it better.
However, Gonzalez, to make up for his average (at best) court coverage, plays an ultra-aggressive, attacking game. He goes for big shots, and if that fails him, goes for a bigger shot the next chance he gets.
No one consistently hits shots with such depth and pace more often than Gonzo does; the problem is, it’s all or nothing with him.
When his game is on and his big booming forehands are winning points, he’ll make even the best players feel uncomfortable and play on their heels. Tsonga in particular needs to dictate points with his aggression; should he cede this edge to Gonzo, he is in trouble.
Additionally, absolutely no one in the men’s game—not even Roger Federer himself—is capable of applying the type of pressure to his opponent’s serve that Stone Hand does. Just like on his ground strokes, Gonzo goes all out, all the time...until he decides to go for more.
Gonzalez must impose his will on the points, and out-hit Ali. Though both have powerful groundies, if Gonzo gets in the zone, it will be a long afternoon for The Kid.
Gonzalez Will Lose If. . .
He just tries to trade ground strokes with Tsonga, and lets Ali dance.
Gonzo wants to engage in rallies, but short ones. He wants to position Tsonga for the kill and punch him out quickly with a huge forehand.
If Tsonga lulls Gonzalez into longer rallies, the Chilean’s audacious nature could get the better of him, and leave him flailing away from unfavorable court position into tiny spaces.
Tsonga will want to get to net, as well. With the depth on Gonzo’s shot, that might be difficult for The Kid. If he makes it work, the pay-off could be quite handsome.
Most of all, Ali simply must keep the pressure on Stone Hand, because his game is more complete than the Chilean’s. He’s got to display his all-court game and frustrate Gonzo’s attempts to impose his will on the proceedings.
As an all-or-nothing type, Gonzalez simply must get comfortable right off the bat. He cannot stand a long “feeling out period,” allowing Tsonga to warm up his all-court game.
Like a slower boxer pinning his opponent against the ropes, Stone Hand must pin the Frenchman on the baseline from the word go, and find openings from which he can end a point quickly with his huge forehand.
Gonzalez must draw on his years of experience to find a way to rattle the younger Ali.
Shots to Look For
Tsonga’s splendid volleying and Gonzo’s inside-out forehand. Tsonga can win any point on a well-placed serve or approach followed by his athletic volleys. Gonzo can win points by running around a backhand and pummeling his devastating inside-out forehand.
Fernando Gonzalez triumphs in a fifth-set tiebreaker, the best match of the USO so far.
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