by Pete Bodo
If the first week of 2012 is any indication, we might be in for a roller coaster ride through the rankings, weekend after weekend. The most noteworthy event of this new year took place in Doha, where petrodollars translated to appearance fees large enough to attract the likes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, yet neither of those luminaries lasted to the weekend final.
Top-seeded Nadal was upended by Gael Monfils, and Federer's back began acting up early in the tournament. By the semis, the No. 2 seed was able only to give the assembled crowd and dignitaries a nice speech about how much he hated to quit—instead of giving Jo-Wilfried Tsonga yet another licking to remind him that nobody beats Roger Federer in back-to-back matches without being made to pay, and dearly (since his back-to-back losses to Tsonga at Wimbledon and Montreal, Federer has pummeled the Frenchman four consecutive times).
By reflex, everyone anticipates Federer v. Nadal finals, at least they do when there's no Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray around to screw things up. Oddly, though, the reigning icons have met in just two Grand Slam finals since the beginning of 2009; that year's Australian Open, and last year's French Open. This was just a lowly ATP 250, but even so, they were unable to provide us with one of those much-hyped "clash of the tennis icons" in Doha. Instead, we got frogs in the fog.
Tsonga and Monfils played for the title, with Tsonga winning 7-5, 6-3 on a somewhat surreal evening when moisture from a dense, rolling fog caused two stoppages (including one for about 45 minutes) and numerous bouts of anxiety. Tsonga and Monfils, after all, are no strangers to injury. And neither man, particularly Monfils, is averse to trying to do something really exciting, cool, and profoundly stupid with his body on the court.
The most interesting aspect of the match was the way it illustrated just how far Tsonga has come as a competitor. Neither of these guys came amongst us an intellectual giant, not even in strict tennis terms. They were showmen, first and foremost. But while Monfils seems to have decided that he doesn't need much more out of his career than a good round of applause after he hits a spread-eagle overhead, Tsonga appears to have evolved. He actually plays well when he needs to, which is step one on the road to becoming really good.
Case in point: Tsonga was completely hosed by the officials early in the match, when they refused to halt play (due to slippery conditions) until his serve was broken. Biding his time when they continued, he allowed Monfils to build a 5-3 lead. At which point Tsonga reeled off four straight games to take the set. I won't embarrass Monfils even at this absurd remove by recounting the points of interest; let's just say that when Colonel Crunch Time asked for a volunteer to win the match, Tsonga took a big step forward—and Monfils took a big step back.
I'm tempted to say this is the same old story, and it is—as far as Monfils goes. But the way Tsonga stepped up his game and asserted himself was convincing. We all know he's been injury-plagued, but for a long time he was also determination-plagued. The book on Tsonga was that if you could stick with him, make him sweat and work, he would ultimately fade away.
Over the years, Tsonga's vulnerability to injury slowed his progress and also lulled many of us into thinking that he was destined to be one of those semi-realized talents who would forever nibble at the edges of superiority but never take a bite and swallow. It didn't help that one of Tsonga's countrymen, Richard Gasquet, had already conditioned us to think that way.
Now, though, I'm thinking: Remember the Australian Open final of 2008, when Tsonga played a high-quality match but came up short as Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title? Could we see. . . never mind.
Anyway, this tournament and Brisbane, where fellow Frenchie Gilles Simon made the semis (l. to Alexander Dolgopolov) raises the possibility that the French will come on strong in 2012. Do we have time to prepare all those hackneyed "French Revolution" headlines? Tsonga may have already figured it out; the man is a beast, and if he doesn't win a Grand Slam title at some point in his career it will be a crime against nature.
Monfils, while seemingly an idiot, still has time to accept that the idea in tennis is winning, not just looking hip. Simon is No. 12 and talented, albeit saddled with what might be called "lightweight syndrome." And No. 19 Gasquet has declared that he wants to crash the Top 10 again. "I did it some years ago and I'm not far this year too," he told reporters at the Hopman Cup. "I think I will be able to do it year in 2012."
Will this be the year when the French finally produce results commensurate with their talent?
I seriously doubt it. It's not the French way, after all. But one of these guys is going to cut through the fog and figure out that this game isn't about looking good, but being good. And that man is pat to be Tsonga—unless Marion Bartoli beats him to the punch.