To the King Come the Errors

Friday, March 15, 2013 /by

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Today was, apparently, the first time that the owner of the BNP Paribas Open, Larry Ellison, had watched Novak Djokovic play live at his event this year. I wonder what he thinks of the world No. 1 now? He might suspect that he reached that ranking through magic, because Djokovic appeared to have put a serious hex on his opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, this afternoon.

It’s hard to know exactly which sportswriter’s term for a lopsided victory properly describes Djokovic’s 54-minute, 6-3, 6-1 win. Was this match, in which the Serb didn’t lose a point on his serve in the second set, a thrashing? Was it a drubbing? Was it a manhandling? Was it a poleaxing? Would Brad Gilbert be right to designate it an old-fashioned beatdown? The problem with all of those terms is that they make it sound like Djokovic was on fire and in unbeatable form. There’s no doubt he was good, but that wasn’t the key. The key was how godawful Jo was. The Frenchman started making errors early, and then he made more.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Tsonga said later, his voice pitched somewhere between bewilderment and despondency, “but it was a day for me without sensation. Everything I tried to do, I missed.” 

Is there anything else we can take away from this...royal dud? It’s hard to remember now, but Djokovic began by looking a little out of sorts. After the third game, when Tsonga held at love, Novak made an “I can’t see” gesture toward his box, and he shook his head as he walked along the baseline during that game. But Tsonga never made him pay for his mysterious struggles, and when Djokovic hit two nice backhand passes to break in the next game, the annoyances were soon left behind. By the middle of the second set, Djokovic was playing more freely than he has all tournament. He let his forehand rip, and every service game was a love hold. Adding insult to injury, he closed one of those games with a kick-serve ace into the ad court that left Tsonga flailing.

“Things went quite well from the start,” Djokovic said afterward, apparently forgotting those early shakes of his head. “I thought I did well. I was in balance. I returned well when I needed to...When it was important, I didn’t allow him to come back into the match.”

From Tsonga’s standpoint, the match was essentially over after his first service game of the second set. He double-faulted for 0-40, then won the next two points to reach 30-40. Would this be a great escape, maybe even a turnaround moment? Nope—Tsonga hit his ugliest forehand of the day into the bottom of the net to lose the game.

Since last fall, Tsonga has been working with Roger Rasheed, former coach of Lleyton Hewitt and Gael Monfils. The two got off to a promising start when Tsonga reached the quarterfinals in Australia and lost to Roger Federer in a minor classic. Jo said that he believed Rasheed could “move mountains,” and that the Aussie native insprired him to reach a new level of intensity in his practices. Tactically, Rasheed said he was trying to get the high-flying Tsonga to better identify “when high-risk is worthwhile and when high-risk is not.”

Maybe Jo was confused by those thoughts today, confused about when to pull the trigger and when to hold his fire. But there will be other days for the terminally up-and-down Tsonga, and he did mention that this was the first time his fast-court game had been good enough to reach the quarterfinals on the slow courts at Indian Wells. So all is not lost. By the end of this one, though, there wasn’t much Rasheed could say or do. He spent the last game, a love hold by Djokovic that lasted approximately 100 seconds, staring up at the sky.

Djokovic remains undefeated in 2013, and he's won his last 22 matches dating back to the fall. He’ll play the winner of the quarterfinal between Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro next. For the second time at this event, Djokovic began his on-court interview after the match by noting how many unforced errors his opponent had handed him. You might think this is blind luck, and it’s certainly not something Djokovic can count on. But it’s also a product of who he has become. He’s No. 1, and players will press and lose belief more easily against a No. 1. Tsonga has beaten Djokovic five times, but he’s 0-8 since Novak first took over the top spot in 2011. Today Jo started by pressing, and ended by losing belief completely. 

Maybe Larry Ellison didn't think that Djokovic put a hex on Tsonga after all. Maybe he recognized something else about him, the things that come to a player of his status. Ellison, like Djokovic this afternoon, knows that it’s good to be king.

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