A spot in the U.S. Open semifinals is up for grabs when Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga meet up for the 22nd time. The Serb holds a distinctive edge in the series with 16 wins and just five losses. Tsonga has beaten Djokovic just once in the past 13 meetings.
(1) Novak Djokovic vs (9) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
It was back to business for Djokovic in round four after he played just a handful of games over the last two rounds. Thanks for a withdraw from Jiri Vesely and an injury during the match from Mikhail Youzhny, no one was quite sure what to expect from Djokovic on Sunday night. The top seed laid that to rest quickly as he wore down Kyle Edmund in straight sets 6-1, 6-2, 6-4. Djokovic looked sharp with his trademark superior defense leading the charge as he broke the Brit eight times on 15 chances. He absolutely destroyed Edmund’s second serve, taking 21 of the 31 points played off of it. Djokovic had 24 winners and 25 unforced errors in the match. He had a few faulty service games as he was broken twice and racked up seven double faults, but for the most part, he looked every bit the tournament favorite.
Tsonga took down 26th seed Jack Sock in round four by a final tally of 6-3, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-2. Outside of a hiccup in the third set, the 9th seeded Frenchman was in control for the match. Tsonga walloped 54 winners against 32 unforced errors. Tsonga controlled the action a lot with his first serve that won 60 of 72 points. He was forced to go to his second serve quite often (47% of the time) and won just 44 percent of the points. One of his best attributes again was fighting off break points. The 9th seed saved three of four against Sock and now has saved 14 of 18 break opportunities against his serve this tournament. Sock was inconsistent with too many unforced errors in key moments (39) to just 42 winners. The American’s first serve did not match the intensity from Tsonga as Sock won just 68 percent of the first serve points.
This will be the second meeting between Djokovic and Tsonga this season. It was the Serb edging the Frenchman 7-6 (2), 7-6 (2) in Indian Wells. Tsonga was plagued by not landing his first serve often at just 47 percent. Djokovic would win 60 percent of the points played off Tsonga’s second serve. That led to Djokovic breaking twice on eight chances, but he was broken twice on his own serve. That was the closest Tsonga had played Djokovic since the shock win in Montreal in 2014. Djokovic has not just won 12 of the last 13 between these two, he’s done it with just two sets dropped in those wins. Both came at Roland Garros in their five set classic in the 2012 French Open quarterfinals where the Serb rallied from down 2-1 to win going away 6-1 in the final set.
Having played so many times during their careers, there is little left to the imagination when these two meet. Tsonga wants to try and dominate with that first serve, while Djokovic wants to get his racquet on as many serves as possible to put the ball into rallies. The top seed will feel that any time he gets Tsonga into an extended rally, it is going to favor him more times than not. Djokovic showed exactly what those extended rallies do against a player in the clash with Edmund on Sunday. The Serb flashed ridiculous defense to get shots back that Edmund was used to having tallied as winners in previous rounds. That led the Brit to have to fire another shot or two and most times, it ended with Djokovic winning the points. That is exactly how Djokovic would like to play Tsonga.
Tsonga of course will know this and will have to manage between aggressive strokes when the winner is there and patience in playing long rallies when they are not. The number one thing that kills players against Djokovic is impatience. If you can’t be patient in rallies against him, you’re dead meat. You will wind up going for winners that aren’t high percentage shots and unless you have that lightning-in-a-bottle thing working for five sets, it likely won’t yield good results for you.
When they engage in these rallies, Tsonga seems unafraid of hitting any shot or going after any wing of his opponent. I was a bit surprised in the Sock match that he didn’t go after the American’s weaker backhand more, but it worked. Sock was spraying errors from the forehand plenty and Tsonga just went with what was comfortable. Unfortunately for the 9th seed, when Djokovic is on his game, there are few things that seem comfortable in the ground stroke battle. The Serb will likely send plenty of shots to the backhand side of Tsonga, the less dangerous of his two groundies, but he won’t worry much either about specifically going at that wing over and over.
Djokovic’s confidence in his ground game and defense is that angles and court positioning will lead him to get points that no one else can get. For Tsonga to consistently battle through, he’s got to have his forehand working and do enough with the backhand to stay in points. On his own serve, it all starts with that first serve. When Tsonga puts that into play, he’s going to be in position to win points. If he’s struggling to land 50 percent of his first serves and Djokovic sees plenty of second serves, Tsonga’s chances to push the top seed are going to be minimal.
The positives Tsonga can take from the pair of matches that Djokovic has played is that his serve is not in a 100 percent groove, so Tsonga is likely to see some chances to break. Whether it has been good returning from Tsonga or off serving from his opponents, the Frenchman has seen a ridiculous number of break chances this tournament. Ridiculous like 66 in four matches ridiculous. He crafted 16 breaks off those chances, not a great conversion rate at under 25 percent.
Still, if you told him he would get as many as ten chances to break Djokovic, he would take it. The problem though has been that Djokovic has given Tsonga precious few chances over the course of their last most recent meetings. Outside of the 2014 Rogers Cup win for Tsonga, he’s been lucky to get as many as two break chances in a lot of their matches. That won’t do if he wants the upset on Tuesday.
As with most upsets, quick starts are normally a precursor to success. At 31 and with some fitness issues at times during recent years, the last thing Tsonga wants is an early deficit against Djokovic. I don’t think he necessarily needs to win the opening set, but he certainly cannot go down 0-2. I think it is important for Tsonga to compete in the first set whether he wins it or loses it. Confidence helps greatly and can keep the pressure on Djokovic as well. This is going to be Djokovic’s toughest test so far, so Tsonga needs to make him earn everything he gets.
If Djokovic is playing near the level he showed against Edmund, Tsonga won’t win. Tsonga may be a bit better equipped to combat Djokovic and has the experience that can help, but the play from the Serb was phenomenal for the most part. Tsonga will need a few hiccups from Djokovic and that can still happen, this we know. Still, over five sets, it will be awfully difficult for Tsonga to consistently beat Djokovic. I see Tsonga pushing Djokovic to play at a high level, but I see Djokovic doing that and coming away with the win.
Djokovic wins in four sets