One of the perks of working as a cub reporter at a bi-weekly newspaper a few hours outside Melbourne was the ability to cover the main warm-up tournament to the junior Australian Open. I had the chance to see the world’s best tennis players three years before just about everyone else would.
In 2002, the final was between two French boys—Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. In the small Victorian town of Traralgon that hosted the event, they still talk about the match.
Tsonga started the better and won the first set, but Gasquet, who had been forced deep beyond the baseline, made better court position. In a thrilling contest he came back to win the match and the title in three sets.
The final was hailed by seasoned junior tennis watchers as the best they had ever seen and Gasquet, just 15 at the time, was immediately rated better at the same age than Lleyton Hewitt, then the number one player in the world.
Gasquet, although a top 10 player, has yet to really kick on in the manner one would expect of someone with that much ability. With all the attention and expectation on him and another young French star, Gael Monfils, Tsonga has been the less acclaimed of France’s young tennis stars.
But not anymore.
After giving world number two Rafael Nadal a frightful pounding in the semi-finals of the Australian Open, Tsonga has truly arrived. He may turn out to be even better than Gasquet or Monfils.
Like the junior final he played down the road six years ago, they will talk about this match for some time to come.
The 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 win—which propels world number 38 Tsonga into his first ever Grand Slam final—was of an extraordinarily high standard, the Frenchman pummeling Nadal with an all-court game that was brutal and artistic.
The loss equalled Nadal’s worst in a Grand Slam ever, his seven games matching the total he mustered against Andy Roddick at the 2004 US Open when he was barely a pup, not the dominant force he is today.
At 22, Tsonga more than resembles a young Muhammad Ali in the face, and even struts and plays to the crowd in a manner befitting the Champ. This one-sided match rekindled memories of Ali flattening Sonny Liston in 1965.
Those at Rod Laver Arena will struggle to recall anyone hitting a forehand harder than Tsonga did tonight, but it was his touch at the net that proved the real eye-opener. Nadal was routinely forced to gnash his teeth as his opponent pulled out miracle volley after miracle volley.
Poor Nadal must have thought he was in Paris—Tsonga was the fourth Frenchman he faced in this tournament, and one Frenchman too many as it turned out.
For Tsonga, he becomes the third unseeded player in as many years to make the final—following on from Marcos Baghdatis in 2006 and Fernando Gonzales in 2007—but of the trio he looks the most likely to go all the way.
Whoever wins the second semi-final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic tomorrow night will have only muted celebrations knowing who awaits them in the final.
Regardless of the final result, the fact is this: A star has arrived.
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