He will almost certainly have to beat Rafael Nadal tomorrow in order to qualify for the semi-finals, but Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will go into his concluding round-robin match at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals with his confidence high. The 26-year-old Muhammad Ali lookalike gave himself a fighting chance of reaching the latter stages by beating Mardy Fish 7-6, 6-1 in convincing fashion in his second group match yesterday. Two players from each four-man section go through to Saturday's semi-finals.
Tsonga was having to wait until last night's meeting between Nadal and Roger Federer before knowing exactly what the possible permutations in his group would be, but he has good reason to fancy his chances of beating the 25-year-old Spaniard. Nadal has not looked his best since losing the US Open final to Novak Djokovic two months ago and has not won a title for five months, while the indoor hard court will be very much to Tsonga's advantage.
Although Nadal has won six of their eight meetings, Tsonga enjoyed one of the finest wins of his career when he beat the world No 2 for the loss of only seven games in an Australian Open semi-final three years ago. The Frenchman also won their only previous meeting in London at Queen's Club this year.
Fish, who pushed Nadal hard in his first match here, made a fight of the first set against Tsonga but has paid the price this week for his lack of preparation after suffering a hamstring injury that forced him to retire mid-match in his previous two tournaments. It has been desperately bad luck for the 29-year-old American, who realised a lifetime's ambition when he qualified for the year-ending finale for the first time.
"I played well today and felt really good on the court," Tsonga said afterwards. "It's really good to win for the first time here. Of course it's good for my confidence too because in the next round maybe I will play a match to qualify for the semis."
Tsonga, who lost to Federer in his opening group match, looked unlikely to make the elite eight-man field for London when he stood at No 19 in the world rankings in June, but his run to the semi-finals at Wimbledon helped to reboot his season. He has won two titles since the US Open and reached the final of the Paris Masters, where he lost to Federer.
The world No 6 has turned his season around without the aid of a coach. Tsonga decided to go it alone in April, when he ended his long-term partnership with Eric Winogradsky, and has not looked back since. "Without a coach, you have more responsibility," he said. "You have to be really professional. This is maybe the difference."