Joe-Wilfried Tsonga- Darkest Horse Ever? (Australian Open)

Anyone who watched Tsonga utterly dismantle Nadal in the semi-finals probably knows what I’m talking about. Aside from a few unforced errors, Tsonga’s play was transcendant, the highlight being delicate drop volley after drop volley that drove the world number two way out of his comfort zone. Nadal wasn’t playing his best, but he was far from playing badly, having much of the same pace and accuracy he showed in the quarter-finals, where he pretty much schooled his opponent.

For Tsonga to beat him 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 seems unimaginable. He seemed to have every aspect of his game completely under control, and the guy has never even won an ATP tournament in his life! It’s one thing for a guy to come out of nowhere and beat the top players; but for him to utterly dominate the #2 like that in the semi-finals of a major must be unprecedented.

If he even comes close to this level of play in the finals, the Australian Open is his. If he stays healthy, could he be the next Federer?

Tsonga showed some serious promise in a match against Roddick in Australia last year, and he’s in the top 40 in the world, so young as he is, he’s not quite coming out of nowhere. I never would have expected him to beat Murray, let alone do all the rest of this, this soon. (Speaking of which, Murray is turning into a flop.)

As far as dark horses go, the Australian has had more than its share in recent years. In part that’s because it’s right at the beginning of the year and some of the players just don’t get into shape, I think. Maybe Agassi’s dominance at the beginning of this decade convinced more of them to do that.

Tsonga looks extremely good. I didn’t see him against Nadal, but he was beating the crap out of Youzhny, who is a solid player. And he’ll still be the underdog in the final, because Djokovic has more experience and is also looking great. But to answer the “darkest horse ever” question, I’ll drop a few names:

Petr Korda, 1998 champion (highly ranked at the time, but real WTF? winner)
Rainer Schuttler, 2003 finalist (ranked about 36)
Marcos Baghdatis, 2006 finalist (ranked about 52)

Didn’t Boris Becker win Wimbledon as an unranked 17-year old?

Ah yes, that may be the winner. But still, at age 22, Tsonga seems more unlikely, since it’s not just a new young talent bursting out on the scene, but an older no-namer suddenly getting game. I guess that Tsonga would have been more Becker-like if it hadn’t been for injuries, which delayed his bursting-out by a few years. He is effectively age 18-19, if you subtract his injury years.

I love his audacious net game and really, really hope he keeps going deep into the Grand Slams for years to come.

There are thousands of ranked players, but the top 32 in each Slam are seeds. Becker was unseeded, but according to the ATP Web site he was 20th in the World at the start of Wimbledon 1985. He’d also just won the Queen’s Club warmup. I think he might be comparable to Tsonga in some ways, but Tsonga is 22 and was a strong juniors player.

Good call. I’d forgotten about that one. If Tsonga wins, he’ll definitely be in the running for Darkest Horse ever, though (since Baghdatis was just a finalist, not a winner).

I should’ve added that they only seeded the top 16 players when Becker won, and expanded it to 32 about five years ago.

In part, that’ll be judged on how his career plays out. If he goes deep in other Slams and becomes a top player over the next few years, reaches finals and winning big events, it’ll be seen as a “coming out” more like Becker’s. If not, he’d be a surprise one-shot type like Johansson, who somehow beat Marat Safin in the 2002, or Korda, who was a top ten player at one point (and on steroids when he won the Aussie, I think), but never would have really been considered part of the top tier.