THE COLUMN: It’s Thiem to sing another Tsonga as the Rotterdam lights Dim(itrov)

jo-wilfried_tsonga_9052216751
An afro-less Jo-Wilfried Tsonga practising on the surface he may excel on.

It was a 500 event. Who cares? The ABN Amro World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam was everything it promised to be – and more. Here’s a late round-up on last week’s action in the Netherlands.

*

It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

One of the most memorable matches in Rotterdam came as early as round one. It involved Dominic Thiem, the second seed, upending Alexander Zverev in a quality duel. These two friends have now contested five clashes, and all have gone the distance. What is more all have showcased at least a few games of intense, all-court tennis – despite Thiem holding a significant numerical advantage in the rivalry already.

This fact only makes it all the more ironic that the 23-year-old was written out of this clash after losing the first few games. As Zverev gunned for a dominant 5-0 lead, the naysayers were already out in bulk, cackling about how Dominic Thiem ‘used’ to win things. Ultimately, it was a lesson in how one should not talk until a match is over. Thiem may be in dire need of an emptier schedule, decent rest, and perhaps some other aids we do not know of, but one thing he possesses at all times is a head for the elite game. That is what took him to world no. 7 during a year in which he won four titles, and that is what helped him turn things around during a highly physical 3-6 6-3 6-4 victory over Zverev – during which racquets were destroyed on both sides of the net.

Pierre-Hugues Herbert ended Dominic Thiem’s Rotterdam run in straight sets in the quarterfinals. For those who know little of the 25-year-old Frenchman, this was a deceptive result. Herbert is much more talented than his singles ranking lets on, and makes up half of the world’s best doubles team. Still, it was a further suggestion that Thiem – upbeat after a good couple of wins – needs to take a break. I’m now thinking that his reasons for playing so much could be to deal with issues away from the court, rather than complications on it.

Dimitrov Isn’t Supreme Yet – But He’s Looking Good

At the beginning of this season, I predicted Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov – once a prodigy destined for tennis’ pinnacle – to re-enter the top ten after a pretty dire season or two. His union with current coach Daniel Vallverdu a few months ago was already bearing fruit, and inwardly I suspected that Dimitrov – who had beaten the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in times past – could even break into the top five.

Despite an exit in the last eight for the world no. 13 in Rotterdam, I’m still predicting along those lines. What the Bulgarian did to open his season was nothing short of brilliant. Winning the first tournament he entered – the well-regarded Brisbane International – the 25-year-old went on to seize advantage of a disintegrated quarter of the Australian Open draw, taking an in-form Rafael Nadal the distance in an electric semifinal. Immediately sailing to glory at his home event, the Sofia Open, Dimitrov extended his streak to 16 wins in 17 matches in the Netherlands.

While he defeated Denis Istomin in straight sets in Rotterdam, Dimitrov’s opening victory over Mischa Zverev was, to me, more impressive. Zverev – known by many for beating Andy Murray at the Australian Open, but known by me for being simply all-around awesome – brought a serve-and-volley gamestyle to the table that was going to seriously jolt Dimitrov’s slick groundstroke rhythm, whether or not he was prepared for it. The elder Zverev’s serve is versatile and powerful, and the perfect instrument to prepare the way for his net game, while his return is not to be scoffed at. His opponent – prising open cracks in the wall and nailing passes to take the German the distance in the first set – was incredibly close to taking the opener set off an ice cool Zverev. After losing it, Dimitrov could easily have given way to frustration, as he has done in the not so distant past.

But not the Grigor Dimitrov of 2017. Pulling it back with brilliant aggression and utter consistency, the Bulgarian survived multiple breaks of serve in the decider – one in the opening game of the set – to come through yet another high-quality duel.

A 4-6 6-1 3-6 loss to David Goffin – whom he had beaten for the Sofia trophy – was a surprise, and one that shows Dimitrov is not invincible against top 20 opponents just yet. But he’s not cramming his competitive schedule, and there is no doubt – with his lethal power and touch off all cylinders – that Dimitrov will continue to be one of the tour’s biggest threats as important events loom.

Rotterdam Sings A New Tsonga

What Rotterdam might do for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for the rest of the season remains to be seen. The flamboyant Frenchman is, after all, one of the most unpredictable top players on tour, and this was his first tournament triumph in two years. But the sheer delight, the raw emotion – after deep runs at Slams and Masters events, and disappointments at minor tournaments – of winning his 13th ATP trophy suggests that there are big things to come for Tsonga.

With Rafael Nadal having withdrawn, the Rotterdam draw – while one of the most high quality all-round fields in recent history – lacked top ten names. All the same, Tsonga ditched top seed Marin Cilic 7-6(8) 7-6(5) in the quarterfinals, overturned a 3-8 head-to-head record to see off Tomas Berdych 6-3 6-4 in the last four, and won nine of the last ten games to dismiss world no. 11 David Goffin for the title. The elated 31-year-old has since taken possession of that ranking, one spot away from re-entering the realms of the game’s best. And with a career-high of no. 5 looking beatable, a power game that translates effectively to all surfaces, and three Grand Slams left this season, there will be no shortage of motivation for a man who has toughed it out on tour for many years – even when injury and form have tried to ward him off.

After all these years and all his achievements, Tsonga is still underrated. When they are not watching, people forget how great the serve is under pressure, how the backhand has become a real weapon, and how the forehand is a thing of beauty. People forget how this man is one of a tiny minority who has multiple victories over each one of the hallowed Big Four.

But if you have been inclined to forget Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, do not worry too much. Last week, and his joy in the aftermath, indicates one thing for certain:

That he’s still not done.

 

*

Thanks for reading! I’ll be even more thankful if you don’t ask about the title (I’ll save you time with I Really Don’t Know.) What did you think of ATP Rotterdam and the column above? And will David Goffin – a finalist twice in a row – hit a roadblock now? Let me know in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s