Sunday, December 4, 2011

When Tsonga plays with urgency…

How would you complete that sentence? What are your observations about Tsonga’s game when the pressure is on and he starts playing with urgency? My personal observation is that quite often, that is when he plays his worst tennis. But interspersed between the bad shot selections are moments of breath-taking brilliance that make the crowd ooo and ahh as Tsonga once again pulls out a simply amazing shot.

It is those moments of brilliance that probably impelled Leif Shiras to observe, “When Tsonga plays with urgency you can see how awesome he is.” The occasion was the year-end championships in London. The match was Tsonga vs. Federer, one that I never doubted for a moment that Federer would win. Indeed I noted from the start that Federer was the favorite to win this entire tournament and I was not at all surprised when he did so.

But this entry is about Tsonga, and about what would propel Leif Shiras, an otherwise decent partner in commentary with Jimmy Arias, to make such a jaw-dropping comment.

In fact, if you want to analyze what is wrong with Tsonga’s game, all you have to do is look at those moments when he is playing with urgency. In those moments, your average tennis player does the sensible thing and goes for high-percentage shots. Not Jo Wilfred Tsonga. Caution be damned. Tsonga prefers to dazzle. He has drunk the Kool-Aid of comparison with Mohammed Ali and now seems to believe that he can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, all while dancing with amazing light-footedness for such a big guy.

And part of the problem is that the crowd eats it up. They go crazy when Tsonga pulls out one of his moments of brilliance out of his ass. Their reaction reinforces his risky behavior. You can see him tuning into and responding to their applause. (He must miss the fact that the tennis pros in the audience do not seem to be similarly thrilled).

And if I were his coach I would sit his ass down and tell him that that is not how you play winning tennis. Winners are not always brilliant. What they are is intelligent. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer can all have moments of sheer brilliance that would make your jaw drop. But more often they have a dedication to forcing their opponents into playing just the right shot that they can take advantage of and crush for a winner.

Tsonga’s game is not at all purposeful. He has no game plan that involves factoring in what his opponent is capable of doing. There is no real intelligence behind his ploys. Not that I am calling him an idiot because he is not. But he makes no adjustments, no changes to playing different opponents. Instead he goes on a high from having beaten or challenged that individual in a previous encounter, and then plays his brand of unnerving, daring, risky tennis to try to beat him again.

It is clear that Tsonga does not have a coach. It is also crystal clear that he needs one. His high-risk game has won him seven singles titles. It has propelled him once again to #6 in the singles rankings, a position he previously occupied in 2008, after which injury pushed him out of the game for a while. Now he is back, and he is healthy, and he is playing riskier tennis that ever. His style of tennis can best be described as high risk, high gain. When he pulls off one of his moments of brilliance, there is just nothing that his opponent can do. But that is not a formula for getting to the top tier.

So a part of me understands what Leif Shiras meant when he said, “When Tsonga plays with urgency you can see how awesome he is.” But I would trade all of those moments of awesomeness for a measure of consistency and reliability. I would trade all of those flashes of brilliance for a disciplined game in which he tackles his shots with proper form. I would give up every moment of the crowd gasping in shocked delight for a game in which Tsonga doesn’t simply alternate between crushing the ball and playing one of his high risk gambits. This type of risky tennis will not get him into the Top Four.

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