Wimbledon 2011. Tsonga vs. Federer. Federer up one set to love, and cruising on serve in the second. 4-5, 15-0, and out of nowhere, a crazy point emerges (the one above). After several defense returns, Tsonga attempts to neutralize Federer by firing one back over, albeit straight at the Swiss. No luck. The next shot? A slice to the right. Federer unfazed. Inside out slice to the left. Even with an improvised one handed backhand, a lucky net cord, and a dive, Tsonga still can’t find a way to win the point.
It was a perfect metaphor for the way the match was going. Hold serve all you like, but on Federer’s serve, he plays by his rules, and come crunch time, he will crush you. Indeed, he did, going up 5-0 in the tiebreak and winning it 7-3, going up two sets to love.
The video above is a typical point against Federer. The opponent, pushed out of position, attempts to not only get back into the point, but get on top of the point by throwing the kitchen sink at their masterful opponent, only to be calmly undone in the end. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a great player in his own right, had thrown the kitchen sink, but was on his way out with a whimper.
Or had he?
Suddenly, Jo not only threw caution to the wind, he set it on fire. He played more aggressively, yes, but he began to hammer the ball. Absolutely crush it. Forehands mid-height were jumped and ripped into. Backhands were pummeled. And the forehand was sent to the corners with reckless abandon, both corners. When he knew he was on top, he come foreward appropriately and finish it.
While the highlights tend to show the longer points for interest, lost are the points where Tsonga was simply unplayable. He was raking in free points behind massive first serves and punishing inside out forehands. On the return, he was constantly looking to get forward. That doesn’t mean mindless net rushing, it means hitting a good ball, and following it up by punishing a short ball after. Sometimes it resulted in net play, other times it simply resulted in Jo hitting an outright winner.
Jo went on to win the match in five sets in what is the most impressive five set turn around I have ever seen. Tsonga did not play badly in the first two sets, and Federer did not play badly in the final three sets. Tsonga simply chose to destroy the ball and look to play aggressively. It gave Federer less time on the ball and forced him into a defensive position, and not even his great knack for incredible shots could save him.
Here is the great problem with Jo. At the time, he was without a coach. He attributed some of his success to this factor. His random one handed backhands (he normally uses two) would drive a coach crazy. But his sudden ability to say “meh, screw it” down two sets and begin to rip the cover off the ball could easily be attributed to this. There was no coach in the stands to yell at. No “why is this happening?!” responded to with blank stares. Jo was on his own, and his only response was to go out in a blaze of glory. Weirdly, he won.
Jo started 2012 as he left 2011; without a coach. Without going results heavy, the start of the season had mixed results. Motivation returned in Paris, where the Frenchman held multiple match points against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and should have won. How did he do it? Think Robin Soderling with movement. Jo was largely crushing the ball yet again. While clay is a slow service, big hitters can find success on the stuff if the ball is bouncing at a good height and they are persistent (Soderling, Del Potro, Stosur). A Wimbledon semifinal. Then downhill from here with a weak loss to Klizan at the US Open.
Tsonga looked a shadow of his big hitting self against a less than inspired Djokovic in London. Very recently, Tsonga has hired on Roger Rasheed, former Hewitt and Monfils coach, stating that he had become lonely on the tour, and that it was difficult to stay motivated. Fair point. It’s hard to run out on court and crush the ball if you kind of don’t care.
Coaches. Can’t win with ‘em. Can’t win without ‘em. There is definitely a case to be made that coaches in the past may have held Tsonga back, whether it is overloading him with information, breaking his confidence, we can only assume. While going without a coach is fine, it can only last so long for a player like Tsonga. Not even Federer could last without a coach.
The moral of the story? Rasheed does not need to fill Tsonga’s head with deep tactical analysis, or even deep analysis of his shots. There is nothing wrong with that. Rasheed needs to get Tsonga practicing more, get his energy and motivation levels up, which in turn will raise his game to a more aggressive state. And lastly? He needs to tell Jo to crush it.
Hit the damn ball, Jo. Hit the damn ball.