While it's true that you can lose a round robin-match at the ATP World Tour Finals and live to fight another day, it's also a reality that you can be out of the picture in all but the strictest mathematical sense if you lose your first two matches. With both Mardy Fish and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the brink of virtual elimination after each man lost his first match, they went at each other today with an impressive display of big-man tennis.
You know big-man tennis. It all begins—and often ends—in the blink of an eye, with the serve. That's especially true in a match, like this one, that takes place indoors, on a fairly fast, low-bouncing hard court. Tsonga turned out to be the bigger of the two men today, as he served his way to survival in an entertaining display of often dazzling shotmaking, prevailing 7-6 (4), 6-1.
But let's add a caveat to Tsonga's serving demonstration: It was a nuanced, complex and artful strategy that he executed, not merely a display of raw power. He relied on the well-placed, 115 MPH spinner as much as he did on the rifle-shot 140 MPH smoker, and he figured out his opponent's return strengths and weaknesses.
It was a testament to Tsonga's skillful serving that the key stat of the match was not first-serve percentage (Tsonga was actually marginally worse, 56 to 59 percent) or number of aces. It was Tsonga's success rate on second serves. Tsonga won 60 percent of his second-serve points, while Fish managed just 40.
Fish's low conversion rate, however, was less a comment on his own serving efficiency—which at times was very good—than on Tsonga's superiority in the rally game, and with the passing shot. Tsonga converted seven passing shots into winners; Fish had none. Tsonga won the battle of winners, 33 to 18. And when Tsonga attacked, his success rate was better, albeit partly because he took far fewer chances than did Fish. Tsonga won 1o of his 13 net forays, Fish 12 of 25.
Still, for the entire first set and a good portion of the second, the outcome was by no means predictable. Fish fought off three break points in the first game, two with service winners, before Tsonga converted his next one with a gorgeous running forehand pass. Fish immediately struck back, taking advantage of Tsonga's unforced errors to earn a break point, which the American converted with a beautifully-orchestrated backhand volley winner.
Fish was broken in the next game as well, after which Tsonga managed a hold. He maintained his lead until he served for the set at 5-4, but at 15-30 (thanks to two forehand errors by Tsonga) Fish played his best game of the match. Showing off his exquisite skills, Fish drew Tsonga up to the net and then lofted a pretty topspin lob over the Frenchman's head for a winner. Tsonga cracked a 140 MPH ace to dismiss the first break point, but he made a backhand error in the ensuing rally to drop the game.
Soon they were in a tiebreaker. On serve at 1-2, Fish tried an old-school chip-and-charge ploy, but Tsonga passed him easily. As Tennis Channel's outstanding commentator Jimmy Arias said, "That was good in the 1970s and 80s, but it just doesn't work anymore." That mini-break was all the edge Tsonga needed. It was a well-played tiebreaker by both men, decided when Tsonga found the weak spot in Fish's return game (the forehand) and successfully worked it three or four times to serve out the breaker.
It was Tsonga's turn to serve first in the second set, and again it began with a exchange of breaks. But unlike Fish in the previous set, Tsonga managed to hold his second service game go up 2-1. In the next game, Tsonga built a 15-40 lead, and even though Fish recovered to deuce, a cross-court forehand service winner earned Tsonga another break point. He won it with a stone-cold backhand return winner, right down the line. It was never close again after that.
Tsonga is sure to present some problems for his next round-robin opponent, Rafael Nadal. But he won't be able to get away with as many loose points, or allow himself to fall behind 0-30 in his service games and expect to either blast or finesse his way out of trouble. Today, Tsonga was dazzling; next time he'll need to tighten it up as well as let it rip.