Some day, a toy manufacturer is going to cut a deal with the representatives of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and produce the Jo-Willy jack-in-the-box. You turn the handle, pleasantly mesmerized by the catchy tune, and all of a sudden—you never quite know when—the lid explodes and a likeness of Tsonga pops up, arms aloft, thumbs pointing to his temples.
That’s about what it’s like following Tsonga’s mercurial, ever-absorbing career. The best example, of course, was his quarterfinal meeting with Roger Federer two years ago at Wimbledon. The Swiss was calmly turning the handle and listening to the tune of a two-sets-to-love lead when—Bang! Boiiing!—up popped Tsonga to snatch the match away by improbably winning the next three sets.
It was almost like that today in Monte Carlo, but this time the player turning the crank was Rafael Nadal—the No. 3 seed who’s won eight consecutive titles and hasn’t lost a match there since before Federer won the first of his 17 Grand Slam titles. Nadal was cranking away, perhaps even lulled by the sometimes ghastly errors committed by Tsonga, to the tune of a 6-3, 5-1 lead.
Tsonga popped to life and ended up pulling even with Nadal. To add insult to injury, Tsonga faced four match points, yet 20 minutes later was still blasting forehands and feathering drop volleys through a tight, artfully played tiebreaker by both men.
Nadal ended up winning the match, 6-3, 7-6 (3), but not without some stressful moments and shanked, uncertain shots. Who could have foreseen how it would all play out?
In the first set Tsonga won just 16 percent of the second serves he hit. With an angry wind swirling around the stadium, the 6’2” Frenchman was hard-pressed to find the timing and precision he needed to avoid having to play the match on the terms of the ultimate grinder across the net. He even looked discouraged and unconfident.
The fourth and fifth games seemed to tell us a lot: In the fourth, Tsonga had a chance to take an early lead when he had three break points with a somewhat hesitant Nadal serving at 1-2. But Nadal escaped. Worse yet, he did so when Tsonga appeared to give up on the final point, ending a rally with a lame drop shot attempt that seemed the equivalent of a white flag.
That emboldened Nadal. In the very next game he pressed and converted his second break point when Tsonga ended a rally with a wild forehand that flew into the seats. The games rolled by quickly and, seemingly in the blink of an eye, Nadal wrapped up the first set with another break in the ninth game.
Nadal continued to roll through the second set, building an enormous lead. But with Tsonga down 1-5, the lid blew off the Jo-Willy box again. He broke Nadal, but it seemed only to extend the inevitable—especially when Tsonga promptly fell behind love-40, triple match point. Four straight winners later, Tsonga had an ad-point, and he went on to take the game after three deuces. 3-5, Nadal to serve.
Tsonga quickly jumped to a 15-40 edge in that next game, thanks mainly to a pair of perfectly executed drop volleys. But Nadal dispelled both break points with aces—his first two of the match. The Spaniard was rattled, though, and produced a forehand error and a shanked forehand to drop serve. It was dead even, and the crowd was on its feet, chanting, “Tsonga, Tsonga!”
By the end of the Tsonga hold that yielded 5-all, Tsonga had 18 winners in the set—and there were more to come. By the time he served again, 14 of the previous 20 points that Tsonga won were earned with stone-cold winners. A rare unforced error by Tsonga provided Nadal another match point, but he squandered it with a mishit backhand. Tsonga went on to hold, summoning the tiebreaker.
The first six points went on serve until Nadal converted an exquisite forehand down-the-line pass off a Tsonga first volley to secure a 4-3 lead. Nadal won the next two points on serve to reach match point again, but. . . alas. . . this time the music faded and the lid remained closed. Rafa finally ended the match with an inside-out forehand winner.
Stat of the match: Tsonga attacked the net 35 times and won 22 of those points, once again suggesting that the road to a win over Nadal on clay leads through the net.