Del Potro, Berdych, Tsonga: This trio, for what seems like an eternity, has been firmly entrenched in the tier below the ATP Big Four. They all have their moments; one is even a Grand Slam champion. But these big-hitters too often come up small against both the true elites and those looking up to them in the rankings.
We saw another example of this stark disparity today at Indian Wells. In the span of a day session, all three high seeds were eliminated before the third round of what is arguably the fifth-most important tournament of all. Del Potro pulled out with injury, then Berdych was beaten by fellow firebrand Roberto Bautista Agut. But Tsonga’s departure may have been the most disappointing of all. He fell to Julien Benneteau, 6-4, 6-4, showing none of the energy that's rooted in his often lethal game. Rather, in desultory fashion, Tsonga ceded the play to Benneteau, who was all too happy to put his fellow Frenchman out of his misery.
Benneteau did so by keeping rallies brief, setting the terms of engagement, and executing when he had to. There were smart net rushes, flat groundstrokes off both wings, and an underrated serve. Tsonga was never able to match or surpass Benneteau with some of his own gifted tactics, or measure up with an overall consistency that would have allowed his superior game to shine. He was impatient, trying to paint lines instead of setting up points, particularly when he seemed to make his move midway through the second set with a break. He was broken right back after playing perhaps his sloppiest game of the match.
The service break was a rare act of resistance from Tsonga, and he offered none more as the match wound down to its drama-less conclusion. Unlike Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, Tsonga couldn't muster a comeback from a set down, and he never gave the impression that it was possible, either.
Tsonga’s loss is, of course, Benneteau’s gain, and the 32-year-old has a rare opportunity in front of him: A legitimate shot at the quarterfinals of a Masters tournament. With his octet of the draw now devoid of seeded players, Benneateau can reach just his second elite eight in a Masters by beating teenager Dominic Thiem and the winner of Feliciano Lopez and Mikhail Kukushkin. In tennis, March Madness has already begun.