MELBOURNE, Australia – The last 10 minutes of his second-round match against Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said, were the reason he fought so hard for the first three hours and 20 minutes.
Down 0-3 in the fifth set, down a break point that, if converted, would have put him down 0-4 and two breaks, the 32-year-old Frenchman hung on and never lost faith.
He came all the way back in a 3-6, 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory that put him into the third round of the Australian Open.
There, Tsonga will meet Aussie Nick Kyrgios in a clash that has a fireworks alert already registered.
Shapovalov wasn’t just up 3-0. He also was up 5-2, and served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth set. He decided he was quickly going to turn the page and add it to the experience bank.
“As much as the loss hurts, you know, I don’t find it as a loss. I find it as an opportunity to learn. Yeah, I mean, I’m turning it into a positive. Hopefully next time I’m in this situation, I play things a little bit differently,” said Shapovalov, who defeated Tsonga in four sets in the second round of the US Open last September.
“I’m the type of guy when things don’t go my way, instead of sulking or getting mad, down on myself, I go back on the court and try to work twice as hard so next time when I’m in that position I can hit some good serves, you know, just close the match out,” he added.
Experience vs. youth
Shapovalov pointed to Tsonga’s experience as perhaps one factor. “I don’t have that much (experience), that could have been the difference. He picked up his game when he needed to,” he said.
Tsonga, older by 14 years, didn’t necessarily agree. “I think I just played well after that. What I didn’t do most of the match, I didn’t return that well. At the end I returned well. That’s it,” he said.
The veteran said that most of the time, you don’t think about how young the player across the net is. But in this case, Tsonga tried to use it to pump himself up and play a few Vulcan mind tricks with his brain.
“I said to myself that he’s young, you never know, at the end, when he’ll have to finish, maybe he’ll make a few wrong choices. That was mostly to help me hold on, but that was the only time I thought, he’s 18 years old,” Tsonga said.
The bigger difference-maker was the fact that the first time they met, on Arthur Ashe Stadium last summer, Tsonga had never played Shapovalov before.
“I knew he was able to do things, crazy things like he did today. I think, yeah, was something great to play him for the second time here,” Tsonga said.
Front tweener a highlight
One key moment came at 5-5 in the fifth set, at 30-all. Tsonga, whose calf had been barking at him (he also said he felt a few mini-cramps in both his forearms as he headed over from the players’ centre to his press conference) got his feet stuck on a ball he thought was going to be a backhand but ended up going to his forehand.
He couldn’t get over in time. And so he hit the ball between his legs. Shapovalov missed the next ball. Eventually, Tsonga broke in that game and served it out at love.
For Shapovalov, there was certainly hope that he could go further – at least to a clash with Kyrgios.
The Canadian and the Aussie bonded a little as part of “Team World” at the Laver Cup last September.
And the victory over an out-of-sorts Kyrgios at his hometown event in 2016, the Rogers Cup, put the Canadian teenager on the map for the first time.
But it won’t happen. Not this time.
“I thought I could have returned better. There (were) a couple games where I was getting a lot of looks on the second serve and just shanking a couple, not doing enough with the ball. With the second shot, he was stepping up. That’s definitely one area I still want to improve a lot. I think it’s gotten unbelievably better, but there’s always room to grow,” Shapovalov said.
“The other part I would say is my volleys. I think I’m volleying a lot better. Still sometimes I’m not setting on my feet, I’m going for too much. I think it’s just going to the net more, having these chances to play more volleys.”
The kid had his moments, though. Many of them.
Shapovalov is provisionally back in the ATP Tour’s top 50. But there are a lot of players still alive in the draw who could jump past him.
Next up is Davis Cup in Croatia, on an indoor clay court.
Another new experience.