Ending 2012 further from contention than when it started, Tsonga squandered his momentum from late 2011 and stagnated in a cycle of futility against elite competition.
When his year began with a title in Doha and seven straight victories, Tsonga looked ready to capitalize on a stirring finish to 2012 highlighted by consecutive finals at the Paris Indoors and the year-end championships. Clearly the most viable contender to the top four, if not the top three, he eyed an Australian Open quarterfinal against Murray that would have offered him the opportunity to repeat his victory over the Scot at the same tournament four years ago. Then came a startlingly listless loss to Nishikori, a player whom Tsonga should have overpowered. That match sounded an ominous note for the rest of the season that proved all too accurate. Not until after the US Open would he reach another final, while most of his 2012 campaign featured him in the role of foil to the greatness of others.
Simmering rather than boiling over the next several months, the Frenchman would excel for several games or a set, only for his most explosive tennis to abandon him when the stakes stood highest. Among the examples of this trend was his three-set loss to Nadal at the end of a respectable tournament in Miami. Although that quarterfinal began as an unmitigated disaster, Tsonga turned the tide late in the second set and threatened to establish an early lead in the third, but poor shot selection and wayward focus separated him in the end from this elite opponent. Similarly, he appeared to outplay Djokovic for much of the first set when they met in Rome before failing to secure a few key points and surrendering meekly thereafter.
On the clay of Roland Garros, however, came the match that illustrated both the vastness of Tsonga’s talents and the heavy odds against his full exploitation of them. Contrary to many compatriots, he has played some of his most inspired tennis on French soil, so a quarterfinal appearance at his home major surprised only a little. Tsonga had started the second week of Roland Garros by defeating a player much more suited to the surface in Wawrinka, winning the type of rollercoaster five-setter that one might have thought likely to elude him. Perhaps invigorated by the momentum from that victory, he summoned all of his explosive athleticism for a longer span than he had all season against world #1 Djokovic, whose vulnerability had emerged a round before in a narrow escape from Seppi. Clearly outclassed in the first set, Tsonga did not fade in disappointment as he had in Rome, but eked out the second set, squeezed through the third, and held serve relentlessly in the fourth. As the Parisian crowd roared in anticipation of the upset, their favorite rollicked within a point of victory on his opponent’s serve—no fewer than four times. Each time, he could not convert. Once the tiebreak arrived and soon after slipped into the Serb’s ledger, every observer sensed the ghastly anticlimax that awaited.
Dejected from his failure to pounce on the opportunity for a statement triumph, Tsonga crumbled in the fifth set as he added to the history of French futility at Roland Garros. Although he rebounded somewhat to reach a Wimbledon semifinal, that result featured no victories over top-25 opponents other than the ailing Fish and ended with an unconvincing effort against Murray that illustrated a lack of confidence. Over the next several weeks, Tsonga’s season descended from drama to farce with curiosities such as a 48-game final set at the Olympics, a collision with a fire hydrant in Toronto, and a serving clinic lost to Isner in a final-set tiebreak. For those who followed this comedy of errors, a first-week exit at the US Open to world #52 Martin Klizan seemed like the logical conclusion to a season already lost. Nevertheless, the fall marked the return of the indoor hard courts suited to Tsonga’s relentless pace and where he had launched his surge the previous year.
Some hope remained, then, for this talent to mitigate his disappointments at the season’s more significant tournaments, a hope brightened by consecutive finals in Metz and Beijing. But Tsonga won just two matches apiece at each of the fall Masters 1000 tournaments in Shanghai and Paris, nearly losing his opener at the latter event despite his history of consistent success there. Between them lay yet another squandered opportunity in Stockhol, where he led Berdych by a set and a break before letting that lead slip away and ending the match in the most deflating fashion possible: with a double fault. Able to accumulate no more than sporadic momentum after the US Open, Tsonga lost all three of his round-robin matches at the year-end championships, becoming the second man in four years to go winless in that tournament one appearance after reaching the final. The showers of entertaining winners that flew from his racket could not mitigate the purposeless errors that sprayed from it as well. Sagging shoulders and a heavy tread replaced the joyful levitations that greeted each of his triumphs there in 2011, underscoring the distance that he had declined since then.
At 27, with a playing style that exacts a heavy toll on his body, Tsonga lacks much time to assert himself as the champion that he visibly can become. Although better than no coach at all, Roger Rasheed hardly seems calculated to spur his motivation any more than Rasheed could in the long term for his compatriot Monfils. The new hire thus did not signal renewed intent from Tsonga as clearly as one might have hoped at this stage, when Del Potro and Berdych have supplanted him in the position of most plausible challengers to the top four. More likely than not, he will end his career as an entertaining but frustrating underachiever.
Number to note:
0: Number of victories against the top eight this year. Tsonga won just one total match over a top-ten opponent, defeating Del Potro in Rome, and this season’s setbacks left him with a career winning record against exactly zero players in the top ten.
Breakdown of the Year (WTA)