Tsonga needs to be quick on the draw as young guns duel for Grand Slam glory
Saturday 26 January 2008
Ten months ago he was the world No 12, preparing to play against his friend, Andy Murray, the world No 13, in their first Masters Series semi-final. Tomorrow Novak Djokovic will be the favourite as he goes into his second successive Grand Slam final.
If Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Djokovic's opponent, has been the revelation of this year's Australian Open, it is the world No 3 who has been the game's most improved player over the last year. "Everything is going so fast for me," he admitted here last night after his semi-final victory over Roger Federer. "If you'd told me at the start of last year that I would play four consecutive semi-finals in Grand Slams and two finals I would have accepted that right away. I've been working very hard in the past year and a half, so it's paying off right now."
Hard work is one thing, but coping with the pressure of a big occasion is another. Djokovic has proved his mental strength by winning seven titles, including two Masters series events, while Tsonga has never even played in a final. For all the brilliance he has shown in beating Murray, Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny and Rafael Nadal over the last fortnight, the world No 38 has yet to prove that he can handle the mental challenge of a Grand Slam final.
Djokovic knows what a test such an occasion can be. Four months ago the 20-year-old Serb let slip seven set points in his first Grand Slam final, against Federer at the US Open, an experience that he hopes will stand him in good stead.
"You always learn something from matches against Federer or Nadal or whoever you play," Djokovic said. "From the start tonight I was trying to keep positive thoughts in my head all the time and not have so many ups and downs in my game, which I've had in our past matches. In important moments, especially at the US Open, I wasn't able to stay focused. I think I was more afraid of winning a set or a match and that cost me, even though I think I played really, really well.
"So I learned and I took out of that match a lot of things that I needed to change. I knew that I had to believe in myself. I knew I had to be positive on the court, not nervous, just to stay with him all the time, and be aggressive. I've played some impressive tennis throughout the last two weeks, but I'm especially happy with my performance tonight.
"I was able to deal with the pressure in the best way. I'm very happy that in crucial moments my serve helped me. That was probably the best element of my game in the important moments and it's a positive thing for the future.
"Tonight was quite difficult for me. It was understandable that the crowd was a little bit more for him, because he's the defending champion and the No 1 player in the world, but I hope it will be better in the next match. As a finalist and a pretty experienced player I've been through a lot of situations like this, but this is another big experience for me, playing in front of a full house. You can't always have a crowd behind you."
Considering Djokovic's achievements it is easy to forget his tender years. The youngest player in the Open era to reach four Grand Slam semi-finals, he is most at ease when he has his family around him. His parents, Srdjan and Dijana, travel to most tournaments and are staying with him here in a flat, along with his two brothers, 13-year-old Djordje and 16-year-old Marko, who played in the junior tournament here. His travelling party also includes Marian Vajda, his coach, Miljan Amanovic, his physical trainer, and Allon Khakshouri, his manager.
Djokovic and Tsonga have never played each other, but the Serb has been watching the 22-year-old Frenchman's performances closely. "He's just an amazing athlete. He's been playing some impressive tennis in the last two weeks, as I have. I haven't even lost a set here yet, which is amazing. It's going to be very interesting to see two young players playing against each other. Obviously, we will have nothing to lose. Looking at the rankings I will be the favourite, but anything can happen in a final."
Federer and Nadal, who both lost their semi-finals in straight sets, have won 13 of the last 14 Grand Slam events and Djokovic thinks it will be good for the sport to see new faces playing in the final. "The dominance of Federer and Nadal has been amazing over the last couple of years, but I think it's great to see something new," he said.
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