Today in Toronto, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played the kind of match that everyone knew he had in him, but which he’s rarely exploited when facing a top player. Like he's done to many lesser opponents, he overpowered world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, 6-2, 6-2, in the third round of this Masters tournament in a mere 63 minutes.
Some will object that Djokovic was off his game, perhaps unwilling to extend himself after the barnburner he won over Gael Monfils yesterday. Perhaps the recent Wimbledon champion and new husband felt no particular urgency to extend his unbeaten streak in sets over Tsonga to a staggering 19. Be that as it may, the bottom line is that Tsonga, currently 15th in the rankings, has been struggling lately, and this was just the kind of win he needed to demonstrate—perhaps even to himself—that he can’t be written off as a Grand Slam contender.
It all began to go wrong for Djokovic almost from the start. He was broken early, and in a flash Tsonga built a 4-2 lead. The next game was a portent. Djokovic started it with a double fault, won the next point, than made two lazy slice-backhand errors to go down break point. Tsonga cashed in when Djokovic attacked the net and drove a makeable backhand volley out.
Tsonga wasted no time capitalizing on that 5-2 lead. He never trailed in the next game and won the set with a ground-shaking inside-out forehand winner off a decent Djokovic backhand return.
Tsonga threatened in the very first game of the second set, forcing three deuces. He didn’t see a break point, though, until the final one. That he converted successfully with a point that personified Tsonga’s game at its best. After a brief, quality rally, he rambled toward the net, then punched out a crisp, down-the-line, backhand volley. Djokovic got his racquet on the ball and lofted back a lob. Tsonga backpedaled and buried the smash. 1-0, Tsonga.
Tsonga lost a 40-15 lead in the next game and found himself at deuce. He won the next point with a smash to avert break point and followed with an unreturned serve to Djokovic’s backhand. He then broke Djokovic again for the critical insurance break and served at 3-0.
By then, the pattern was abundantly clear. Tsonga was returning better than the best returner in the game. He was rallying more successfully than one of the two best ralliers in tennis (the other being Rafael Nadal). And Tsonga, despite having a vulnerable backhand to defend with, was winning the battle between his offense and Djokovic’s vaunted defense.
Tsonga put in a strong hold for 4-0, and Djokovic finally logged an easy game of his own. But the stats said at that point that Tsonga had won 25 rally points to Djokovic’s 15, and the meaning of that was reflected in the score. The men traded holds again to take the score to 5-2 in favor of Tsonga.
Djokovic finally saw a break point—his first of the match—in the eighth and final game, but Tsonga took care of that with an ace. He then crushed a serve that almost knocked the racquet out of Djokovic’s hands on the backhand side.
Tsonga had held match points against Djokovic before, and in a Grand Slam (the French Open) no less. And that didn’t work out so well. This time, however, he blasted another serve to Djokovic’s forehand, and the inside-out return flew just out.
On the day, Tsonga hit more than twice as many winners as Djokovic (23-11), and made just five more unforced errors (23). The most telling stat? Tsonga won rallies that lasted longer than nine shots six times to just two for Djokovic.
To borrow and twist that famous phrase uttered by Vitas Gerulaitis: Nobody takes 19 sets in a row off Jo-Wilfried Tsonga!