So I happened to be up early enough this morning to catch much of the Australian Open semifinal match between Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Rafael Nadal. After watching this match, I'm firmly convinced that if he continues to play like he has throughout this tournament, Tsonga will win. Yes, I'm predicting that Tsonga will win regardless of whether his opponent is world number three Novak Djokovic or the opponent is world number one Roger Federer.
Admittedly, I'm a bit of a Rafael Nadal fan. However, after I saw how Tsonga dismantled Mikhail Youzhny in the quarterfinals, I knew that Nadal was going to have his hands full. But describing the situation as "having his hands full" does not do justice to what Tsonga did to Nadal in his 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 victory. Destroyed, annihilated, massacred, if these words are ever appropriate to use in describing a sports competition, this would be the right time.
But defeating Nadal handily (while factoring in Tsonga's success in earlier matches in the tournament) and making the jump to suggest that Tsonga will defeat whomever wins the other men's semifinal might seem by some to be a bit of a stretch, especially considering that Tsonga's potential opponents are probably considered by many to be the two best players in the world on hardcourts. I make this jump because Nadal has been number two in the world for two and a half years, he appeared to be playing near the best on hardcourts that he has ever played, he is healthy, and unlike many other big tournaments, Nadal was fresh, having not lost a set entering the match against Tsonga.
And it was not as if Nadal's game all of a sudden fell apart. By all objective viewings of this match, Nadal played well. He did not make a lot of errors relative to winners (at least he did not until it became painfully obvious in the third set that prayer would be his only chance at defeating Tsonga), and so it is impossible to make the claim that Nadal beat himself. A look at the match statistics is very revealing. During the match, Tsonga had 49 winners (including service) and 27 unforced errors, versus Nadal's 13 winners (including service) and 12 unforced errors. Let's also look at Tsonga's 17 aces versus Nadal's 2 aces. Tsonga had the edge in total points, 89-57. In looking at the winners, errors, and aces of each as a portion of total points, it becomes clear that this match was completely controlled by Tsonga. Tsonga's winners, errors, and aces combine to 93 of the 146 total points. In essence, this is saying that 63.7% of the points were decided almost irrespective of what Nadal was doing on the court. Adding the aces and winners, 66, shows that in 45% of the points, Tsonga put the ball in places where Nadal essentially could not credibly get his racket on the ball. And Nadal is generally regarded as one of the best returners and best defensive players in the world. No one does this to Nadal. Now, just for fun, consider the fact that 27 of Nadal's 57 (47.4%) points came on Tsonga unforced errors. This is not to say that Tsonga would have won all of these points if not making the errors, but it highlights that Nadal was truly playing at Tsonga's mercy during this match. It got to a point late in the match where former world class tennis players Darren Cahill and Patrick McEnroe said that if they were coaching Nadal, there was literally nothing they could say to help him in this match.
But how does all of this translate to Tsonga beating Djokovic or Federer? It's simple, Tsonga was able to attack Nadal strengths like I have never seen before. Nadal's heavy topspin forehand, which creates high bounces (admittedly, the bounces are higher on clay), reducing the ability of players to attack Nadal with sufficient pace on returns, seemed to be no problem for Tsonga. Routinely, after Nadal hit the ball to either Tsonga's forehand or backhand side, Tsonga replied with such devastating pace that Nadal really could only stand and watch as the shot went by. Nadal was never able to make Tsonga off-balanced. Tsonga always seemed to be in perfect position to hit a quality shot back at Nadal, and as I stated already, in a good many of these situations there was very little Nadal could do. Let me put it this way, I have never seen Nadal play better than what I've seen from Tsonga in the last couple of matches. Never. And though recent events often bias memory, I cannot recall ever seeing Roger Federer play better than Tsonga is playing right now. Never. And I have said before, Roger Federer is the best player that I have ever seen play.
The last time Roger Federer lost at the Australian Open was in the semifinals in 2005 to Marat Safin. There seems to me to be some similarities between Tsonga and Safin in terms of size and striking power. Tsonga seems to me right now to be a version of Safin with a bit more footspeed, and a lot less of the mental craziness. Some people may suggest that Tsonga cannot possibly keep playing at this level. He has done so for six matches, why shouldn't he be able to do it for a seventh? Federer (and Djokovic) beware.