January 24, 2008: Tsonga crushes Nadal at Australian Open with awesome display of power tennis
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga became a crowd favourite and the third straight surprise men’s finalist at the Australian Open 13 years ago. His semifinal performance against Rafael Nadal was outstanding, as he hit 49 winners in three sets.
On this day, January 24, 2008, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, world No 38, destroyed Rafael Nadal, world No 2, in the Australian Open semi-finals (6-2, 6-3, 6-2). The Frenchman, who had only been successful on the main tour for half a season, played flawless tennis, accumulating aces and winners to annihilate the then three-time Roland-Garros champion.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, born in 1985, had been a very successful and promising junior player, claiming the boys’ title at the 2003 US Open. Unfortunately, his early career was compromised by a severe back injury, and it was not before 2007 that he broke into the top 100.
That year, his great performance at the Queen’s Club Championships, where, making his way out of the qualifying, he defeated Lleyton Hewitt, earned him a wild card at Wimbledon. He reached the fourth round (defeated by fellow Frenchman Richard Gasquet, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4) and finished his first full season on the Tour as world No 43.
Rafael Nadal, born in 1986, was only 21, but his achievements had already secured him a spot in tennis history. In 2005, he claimed his first Masters 1000 tournament, in Monte-Carlo, defeating former Roland-Garros runner-up Guillermo Coria (6-3, 6-1, 0-6, 7-6). The following week, he remained undefeated in Barcelona, beating Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final round (6-1, 7-6, 6-3) and entered the top 10 for the first time in his career.
In Rome, bursting with confidence, he continued his winning streak, edging Coria in the longest ATP final ever played (6-4, 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6). These unbelievable results made him the favourite for his first appearance at Roland-Garros. This new pressure did not disturb Nadal, who won the tournament at his first attempt, beating Roger Federer (6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3) in the semi-finals and Mariano Puerta in the final (6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 7-5). World No 2 since the summer of 2005, he had already claimed 23 titles, including three Roland-Garros crowns.
Not only was he considered almost unbeatable on clay, having lost only two matches since his defeat against Igor Andreev in Valencia in April 2005, but he had now made his game more aggressive in order to triumph on fast surfaces. As early as 2006, he had already reached the final at Wimbledon, defeated by Federer (6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3).
A year later, in 2007, he was edged by the Swiss in the final round again, this time after pushing him into a fifth set (7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 2-6, 6-2). The Spaniard was now on a quest for a major crown outside of Paris.
Unlike the other Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open (first known as the Australasian Championships and, later, the Australian Championships) had moved throughout the years. In fact, the event switched cities every year before it settled in Melbourne in 1972, and no less than five Australian cities had hosted the event at least three times: Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.
The event was held on grass at the Kooyong Stadium, in a posh eastern suburb of Melbourne. Its timing had changed several times as well, between early December and January, going from being the first Grand Slam of the year to the last. Until 1982, many of the best players skipped the Australian Open, mainly because of the remoteness and low prize money, but then, with the triumph of Mats Wilander, the dynamic changed.
Tsonga turned into the main attraction at the 2008 Australian Open. Almost unknown to the general public ranked 38th, he had started the tournament by defeating world No 9 Andy Murray in the first round (7-5, 6-4, 0-6, 7-6). It was the first time that he celebrated a win with what would become his trademark “thumb dance.”
In the following rounds, beating notably his countryman Gasquet in the fourth round, Tsonga, thanks to his fighting spirit and flair, became the crowd favourite. He cruised into the semi-finals against Nadal.
Although the Spaniard, world No 2, had not been as successful on hard courts as he had been on clay, the general opinion was that Tsonga didn’t stand a chance. He had never played at such a level of competition, and Nadal had beaten him in straight sets in their only encounter, at the 2007 US Open (7-6, 6-2, 6-1).
However, from the start, the Frenchman seemed to come from another planet. Relying on a massive serve (17 aces in total), he played an extremely aggressive game, hitting winner after winner and 49 in total. After he took the first set, many thought he was going to cool down, but he didn’t.
When he served for the second set at 5-3, one could think that he was going to choke, but he fired three aces in a row to start the game. He destroyed Nadal, delivering one of the most outstanding performances in tennis history, hitting 49 winners.
“For most of the match, I truly felt like I couldn’t miss,” said Tsonga, according to The New York Times. “The thing that’s the most incredible is to play a match of this quality at this kind of moment. I didn’t expect it. I thought it would be a really tough match against a player who gets everything back and who grinds you down with his style of play. It’s hard to beat him, because it’s hard to get it past him. But I felt today I had the potential to do it on almost every shot.”
Even Nadal admitted in his press conference that he couldn’t believe what he had just witnessed.
“I wasn’t expecting this kind of level, even from Federer,” he said. “I couldn’t get in the match. He wasn’t giving me time. It was all bing, bang, boom…he’s playing with zero pressure, everything is going good for him. When you are playing like this, every ball is going to the line. Is not the real level, I think. Sure he can play like this, but not every week. It’s impossible, no?”
Tsonga became the third surprise finalist in a row in Melbourne, after Marcos Baghdatis and Fernando Gonzalez, who thumped Nadal in the 2007 quarter-finals with a performance similar to Tsonga’s.
In the final, Tsonga would be defeated by Novak Djokovic, despite winning the first set (4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6). So it was Djokovic who won his maiden major, not Tsonga. It would remain Tsonga’s only appearance in a Grand Slam final. The Frenchman would reach world No 5 in 2012 and five more Grand Slam semi-finals: at the Australian Open (2010), Wimbledon (2011, 2012) and Roland-Garros (2013, 2015).
In 2014, he would achieve a very rare feat, defeating Djokovic, Murray and Federer to triumph at the Canadian Masters 1000. Yannick Noah remains the last French man to win a singles major, in 1983. Tsonga, now 35, continues to play but will miss the upcoming Australian Open with a back injury.
Nadal wouldn’t have to wait very long to triumph on fast surfaces. In 2008, he would destroy Federer (6-1, 6-3, 6-0) to claim a fourth Roland-Garros crown, and he would then edge the Swiss in an absorbing Wimbledon final (6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7) before reaching world No 1 a few weeks later. In 2009, he would defeat his rival again in five sets to win the Australian Open, and in 2010, would triumph at the US Open to seal a career Grand Slam.
Nadal and Federer share the men’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles after the Spaniard’s crown in Paris in October. And as for Djokovic, he has tallied an incredible 17 majors and tries for 18 next month in Melbourne.