The Tennis gods heeded my warning, couched in sarcasm, holding my own little glass of disquietude. Nadal finding Shanghai final form would be a huge surprise from my neck of the woods. It would have been wrong. Tsonga restored order, as he should, given where we are and who is involved.
Shanghai represented a very deep field. If Nadal had managed to avoid elimination until the final, we should all have been surprised. If he had made the final, anything could have happened. I had a little fun with what could have happened.
Of course, even if Nadal had overcome the Frenchman, Novak continues to look absolutely frightening as he continues to shape 2015 into an historical tennis exhibit, one for the ages.
Even as Nadal going down to Tsonga does restore order (it’s one thing to make the final of a lower-tier event like Beijing; playing the final in Shanghai would be ludicrous in the shape he’s in, right?), Yahoo Sports, among other “esteemed” sporting news sources, have this SF result described as Tsonga shocking Nadal. This is what I mean about the TSQ. It’s delirious; and that, in the end, is what I meant to continue to ride in my post last night, an hour before the SF. The Nadal narrative, both macro and tournament by tournament like the last month or so, is fairy-tale. I don’t buy it. Sure, I’m happy to recount some of his exploits to my son at bedtime, putting him into a nice little dreamy state-of-mind; but that’s about as far as I want to take Nadal.
But I have something else in mind with the title of my post, today: What Could Have Been.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Although 2007 appears to be his first really active year on the tour and in the majors (he made the 4R at Wimbledon in 2007, losing to Gasquet in straights), we all remember him really arriving in 2008. Ah, yes.
That’s what I revisited this morning. Last night, I managed to stay-up and watch the first set of the Tsonga/Nadal SF, which aired at about 2:00am here in California. I saw Tsonga break him pretty early in the first with a great backhand down the line, Nadal coming to net, the Frenchman fired-up. He held-on to the first and I fell asleep.
I was pleased to see the result this morning and watched some of the highlights. Tsonga playing well is a great tennis watch. Such a natural ball striker from both sides, powerful, deep and his serve and volley is a definite class act.
So I went and watched that 2008 Australian Open SF between Nadal and Tsonga. What an incredible display of confidence, clutch and skill. He beat Nadal 62 63 62. Nadal was sweating and glaring at his box by the fourth game of the first set. And Tsonga? He was strutting around the court like Cassius Clay (do you remember those comparisons?). Tsonga was almost a twin to the great heavy weight boxer. Tsonga’s game was heavy weight. Watching him push Nadal all over the court and come to net to punish him with such a deft touch on the ball was a great reminder of what could have been with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He was 22 years-old when he smashed Nadal in that SF. Sure Djokovic beat him in the final (that was the beginning of Novak’s tremendous run). But we had to expect to see much more of this kind of greatness from Tsonga. And we haven’t.
I naturally thought of the 2009 U.S. Open SF where Del-Potro destroyed Nadal 222. We had such high hopes for the 20 year-old Argentinian. Perhaps he can still make a return to the top of the tour. Perhaps.
There are other examples, of course, of this kind of young talent that doesn’t quite find its potential and develop a more consistent game. Consistency is the key, ladies and gentlemen. Happens in all sports; happens in life.
But what a great display of big-time tennis, full of youth and class. Watch the match. The difference in styles is remarkable and why Nadal’s game just does not appeal to me or, I think, many tennis fans. Tsonga’s full-court range, his ability to flatten shots DTL, cut the ball, come to net, devastate with that FH, just a great all-around game, not to mention his confidence that was just brimming at 22. What an athlete.
On the other hand, Nadal is playing his clay court game that consists of running everything down and using huge top-spin to keep the rallies going, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake, and succumb to the endurance and pressure. I will note that Nadal did develop a bit of a net game, which he used pretty effectively (this, no doubt, was part of Toni’s master plan. If you’re going to win Wimbledon, Rafa, you have to come to net – Rafa finally won Wimbledon that summer of 2008). But Rafa’s game was/is all back court, all spin, all fist-pumping scowls, etc. Tsonga was the real deal. Seeing that he’s back in a 1000 final is good news. What could have been.
In closing, I have to ask: why didn’t Tsonga find a consistent game? I am drawn to the discussion of player support. I’m not sure what Tsonga’s life is or was like in practice, at home, etc. I would suspect that his “management” hasn’t been the most structured, that his “handlers” haven’t been so “hands-on,” if you know what I mean. From coaching to other support, we know how important this can be to a player’s success.
Think of how Nadal has been managed. It’s tennis lore how Rafa has been marketed and managed to the extreme. Everything about Rafa is tight, from his tennis outfits to his tennis inner-circle. What other player has such an insular team experience? It’s La Familia. He’s an island. He’s from the island of Mallorca and his tennis management has been quite island like.
Even Novak hasn’t had this kind of protective insularity in his camp. But, still, his tennis speaks to the importance of finding good support. Becker has been a great fit; I think we’ll all agree on that. What if Tsonga had had better support? Would it have made a difference?
Anyways, good luck to Tsonga in his final against Novak. May he fare better than Murray.