(November 26, 2012) -- Some 12 months ago, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was Mr. Number Five on the ATP World Tour. In the age of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray, it was a good place to be sitting in men’s tennis: He had just finished the Barclays World Tour Finals winning three of five matches and (perhaps more importantly) had taken Mr. Federer to three sets in the final.
But what a difference a year makes. As 2012 came to a close, Mr. Number Five has seen his title reduced to Mr. Number Eight, and the tour’s closing pageant -- the parade through O2 Arena -- didn’t go so well for Jo Willy this year, the Frenchman unceremoniously losing three matches (winning just one set).
Seems as though the Tsonga train has suddenly stalled. What happened?
“I don't know. But nobody knows because is difficult to evaluate the level, you know, of every player,” Tsonga told the press after his third of three round-robin losses in London. “And me, maybe I was at the same level, maybe not, maybe better. But, you know, it's always difficult to say.”
Difficult to say the least.
The numbers for Tsonga perhaps don’t tell the tale: He went 55-25 in 2012, winning the same number of matches (55) as he did a year ago, but losing just one more than he did last year (24).
Or do they? A closer look at Tsonga’s performance against Top 10 opponents is more telling: he went 2-14 this year when taking on top players, getting a walkover against Federer in Doha and beating Juan Martin del Potro in Rome. Since then: he’s lost 11 straight, including three in a row to Tomas Berdych.
In fact, it’s Berdych and David Ferrer who have displaced Tsonga from his place as Mr. Number Five. In 2011, he went 12-13 against Top 10 players, but the ascension of these two men ahead of him in the rankings seems to have created some wiggle room in the space between Tsonga and the big four.
All of the tennis talent is there for Tsonga, who is no stranger to tennis fans as someone who can pound the ball off both wings, serve big and fight with a sort of athletic tennis that only exists within the top 20. The mental belief that he carried through his five-set stunner against Federer at Wimbledon just 18 months ago has faded (are Berdych and Ferrer to blame for it?) and something in the Tsonga camp has to change.
But, what is that?
“If I work a lot, if I improve, I will have a chance to beat them for the next season,” Tsonga summarized in London. “So, yeah, that's it.”
If only it was as easy done as it is said. Sure, Jo Willy has to make sure he’s taking care of his serve and that his fitness and strength are at a top level. Moreover, his team has to find a way to convince the 27 year old can bat .500 against the Top 10, not the .125 that he did in 2012.
Tsonga perhaps made the first step in such a shift by bringing on Roger Rasheed just this fall, the two cementing their relationship in October after the Australian-born Rasheed, a former Australian rules football pro and a Top 200 ATP player, had worked with Lleyton Hewitt (2003-2007) and Gael Monfils (2009-2011).
That sort of guidance (Tsonga was sans a coach for a long period prior) might be the exact thing the freewheeling Frenchman needs. And a lucky break of a win early in 2013? That might help his cause, too.
The Big Three has become the Big Four this year. Why not the Big Five? Or -- with Ferrer, Berdych and Del Potro -- we could have a legitimate Big Eight. Let’s make it happen, Mr. Number Five.
(Photo Credit: AFP/Patrick Kovarik)