2016 ATP Cincinnati: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs Steve Johnson

JOSTEVE

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Steve Johnson meet for the 2nd time with a spot in the Western & Southern Open quarterfinals at-stake. Johnson won their lone meeting last year, a three set thriller at the Winston-Salem Open 6-3, 4-6, 7-6.

(7) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs Steve Johnson
Tsonga squeaked past serve machine Reilly Opelka in his Cincinnati opener on Tuesday to secure his spot in this match. Tsonga faced just one break point in the 7-6 (5), 7-6 (3) victory. He powered through behind a stiff first serve that won 91 percent of the points played. Tsonga will want to improve his break conversion rate to beat Johnson. Against Opelka, he had seven chances to break, but could not make the key conversion as the American saved all seven break points. Fortunately for Tsonga, he came up big enough in the tiebreaks to get through to the third round. Considering the Frenchman had lost his first match in Cincy the last two seasons, he has to be fairly pleased with the win to open the week.

For Johnson, he has continued his recent strong play with two wins already this week in Cincinnati. That follows up his quarterfinal run at the Rio Olympics that ended with a tough third set tiebreak loss to eventual Gold medalist Andy Murray. This week, Johnson edged Federico Delbonis in straight sets to open and then rallied on Wednesday to beat Julien Benneteau 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (5). After Stevie K started slowly, winning just 14 of 27 points on serve in the opening set, he really amped things up. The American would win 43 of 55 points on serve in the second and third sets without facing a break point. The win equals Johnson’s best showing in Cincinatti back in 2014 where he lost to Milos Raonic in the third round in three sets.

Last year’s first-ever meeting between Tsonga and Johnson was a good one. Johnson was strong to finish in the tiebreak. Following a Tsonga double fault that out him down 2-1, the American ran off four straight points and closed out the breaker 7-4. Both men controlled the action with their first serves. Johnson won 82 percent of his first serve points, while Tsonga won 84 percent. Johnson was slightly better on second serve, winning 52 percent to Tsonga’s 50. Both were broken just once with Johnson saving six of seven break points and the Frenchman saving three of four. All-in-all, it was a very even match until the end.

Tsonga has had another decent season on hard courts, but has fallen off his pace from earlier in the season. He opened with a fourth round run at the Australian Open and a quarterfinal showing at Indian Wells. Since then, Tsonga has gone just 3-2 on outdoor hard courts. Johnson meanwhile is surging after a slow start on hard courts. He went just 5-7 through the Miami Open in March. Since then, he is 8-3 on outdoor hard courts with quarterfinal finishes in Washington, D.C. and Rio.

There won’t be a ton of mystery in this one with what both players want to do. Both want to use their big first serves effectively to get easy points. Off the ground, forehand to forehand exchanges will likely be seen plenty as the preferred weapon of choice for both. The one difference this year versus last year for Johnson of course is his use of a slice backhand. He did not employ that in 2015, but it has not become a routine part of his game plan. The slice enables Johnson to push the ball back over and set up for his forehand if he hits everything properly.

Tsonga will need to find different ways to try and shake up Johnson’s 1-2 punch. When Johnson is using his slice effectively, he has become a very difficult player to break down in ground exchanges. Tsonga can hit the slice as well, but does not use it nearly as much as Johnson. Perhaps that is one of the tactics he might try on Thursday to see if he can throw the American off his game.

This figures to be a bigger challenge for Tsonga than he saw against Opelka. That was one of those matches where he needed to stand up to the huge serve and wait for his spot to snag a key point or two. Against Johnson, Tsonga will have to show more off the ground and will get a slightly better returner on the other side of the net. Johnson has been on the rise this summer and these are the matches he needs to step up and win.

Unfortunately for Johnson, victories against the Top 10 have been very rare, like 1-15 rare. Tsonga comes into this one just inside the Top 10 at #10 and the American’s lone Top 10 victory came against Richard Gasquet earlier this season when the Frenchman was also ranked #10. This seems a good spot for the surge of Johnson to continue. Doublemint French twins? You betcha.

Prediction
Johnson wins in three sets

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