After all the excitement that was the Championships, allow me to cast your minds back, to almost 10 years ago – all the way back to the 2008 Australian Open. Perhaps you don’t think about this specific tournament much. But it was the first of Novak Djokovic’s 12 Grand Slam triumphs. For Djokovic, it was a relatively scary foreshadowing of the kind of career he’d carve out. At the time the world number 3, ‘The Djoker’ would drop just one set in the entire tournament, in the final – the match we are about to dwell on.
However, before we arrive at the big dance, let’s revisit the road travelled to get there.
Djokovic, whilst not yet a Slam champion, was certainly an out-and-out superstar of the tennis world. Djokovic entered the Aussie Open having made the semifinals at the French Open and Wimbledon the previous year, and the final at the US Open. His time was certainly arriving, and it was arriving fast. Djokovic, hungry for a first Grand Slam title, powered through the first week without dropping a set. He saw off a relatively challenging seven days, defeating Benjamin Becker, Simone Bolelli, Sam Querrey and Lleyton Hewitt.
However, the second week was where we first got a glimpse of a future champion, about to embark on the finest hour of his career to date. He ripped through David Ferrer in the quarterfinals and stunned defending champion and world number 1 Roger Federer in the semifinals, defeating both in straight sets. The 20-year-old was finally confronted with his second chance at tennis immortality in the final, and over the other side of the net was an equally as intriguing storyline.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 22 years old, was something of a tennis prodigy whose arrival at the highest level we’d been waiting for a while. Tsonga had enjoyed a far more illustrious junior career than Djokovic, winning the junior US Open and reaching the final of all three other Grand Slams. The best Djokovic had managed was defeat in the semifinals of the junior Australian Open. Whilst it would be unfair to call it a “long wait”, Tsonga had finally reached the top 50 the year prior. He ended the season as the world number 43. He went into this slam ranked 38.
Unseeded entering the Australian Open, he came up against world number 9 Andy Murray in the first round, shocking him in four sets. From there, he would beat Sam Warburg, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez and countryman Richard Gasquet to reach the second week, where he comfortably dispatched Mikhail Youzhny to set a semifinals date with Rafael Nadal.
Tsonga, the only unseeded man in the second week of the Slam, was not fancied against Youzhny and was certainly not so against Nadal, then a 3-time GS champion and world number 2. However, the Muhammad Ali-looking Frenchman floated and stung as his boxing lookalike had foretold of, serving 17 aces, winning 30 of 40 net approaches, and winning 42 of 49 points on his first service. It was a tour de force from the young man from Le Mans. An announcement that, on his day, his larger than life game could beat all comers, similar to the statement of intent made by the man he would be facing in the final. The match enshrined Tsonga as the first player to reach his first ever ATP final at a Grand Slam since Gustavo Kuerten won Roland-Garros in 1997, and he became the 13th to reach a Slam Final in five tries or less.
The tournament had marked an exciting time for tennis fans. Alongside Roger Federer (26) and Rafael Nadal (21), Novak Djokovic and Tsonga marked two more young talents that were taking the sport by the scruff of the neck. For the sixth year in a row, the Aussie Open was going to be won by someone 25 or under, and for the first hour of the match, that looked like Tsonga, as he became the first player to take a set off Djokovic for the tournament.
Perhaps Tsonga’s emotions and adrenaline had swept up his game and taken it to a new level, much like a balloon flying out of vision on the wind – much like one of Tsonga’s trademark “slam dunk” overhead shots. However, the balloon quickly came back to earth in the second set, where the younger man’s nerves of steel shone through, and Tsonga ran into the brick wall of Djokovic’s defence.
Djokovic’s calming techniques, such as his pre-match viewing of “funny videos” on his phone, and his now-emblematic significant amount of pre-service ball-bouncing, worked a treat for the young Serbian. It began to frustrate Tsonga, who went as far as complaining to the umpire about his opponent’s stalling tactics. Tsonga would certainly not be the last Djokovic opponent to do so.
After fighting ahead 2 sets to 1, Tsonga won another chance to will his way back into the match and force a decider, when he was presented with an opportunity to break with the game score 5-5. But the young Serbian came up trumps again, forcing Tsonga to play his way into a tiebreak. Djokovic would win that breaker 7-2, collapsing to the ground, kissing the newly installed Plexicushion, and rising to his feet a GS champion.
Despite the heavily pro-Tsonga crowd that night, tennis fans both inside Rod Laver Arena and watching at home on television knew that they’d just witnessed the birth of two new stars of the sport. On the night, Djokovic came away a winner. He was the one who’d managed to quell his nerves best and play the bigger points of the match a little better, as is often the feature of a Grand Slam champion.
No matter though – for France (who had been waiting since 1983 for a men’s Slam champion), and new Tsonga fans everywhere, there would be many more moments like this for their man. There would certainly be more Grand Slam Finals to come. There seemed no way this could be the one and only chance of his career, at just 22 years old. Indeed, later that year, Tsonga would go on to claim his first career title at the Thailand Open, beating Djokovic in a reverse of the AO Final.
He would also win his first Masters title in his home country at Paris, getting through Djokovic, Andy Roddick, James Blake and David Nalbandian to lift the trophy. However, knee surgery saw him absent from his home Slam and Wimbledon. Tommy Robredo bested him in the third round of the US Open.
For Djokovic, the story went a little differently. He claimed 3 Masters titles that year, at Indian Wells, Rome, and Shanghai. The Serb, however, failed to reach another Slam Final that year, going down in the semifinals to eventual champions Rafael Nadal in straight sets at Roland-Garros, and Roger Federer in 4 sets at the US. In fact, it would be another three years before Djokovic broke through again for Grand Slam number two, beating Andy Murray at the Australian Open in 2011.
It now seems inconceivable that there was ever a time in Djokovic’s career where he went three years and 11 Slams boasting only one final. Perhaps that’s because, starting with that 2011 Aussie Open triumph, Djokovic rattled off a stunning eleven wins from twenty-two Grand Slams. We knew that on that night in 2008, a star had been born, but one that burned this brightly, we could have never imagined.
What of Tsonga in the following years, though? The man we expected to bully tennis for the foreseeable future would manage just 5 more GS semi-finals to date. Not one of those semi-finals went to five sets, and two of them included game changing tiebreakers that swung the match in his opponents’ favour, just like that night in 2008.
Tsonga was not even ever in those breakers, going down 7-3 on both occasions at Roland Garros, to David Ferrer and Stan Wawrinka.
For all the immense talent and confidence that helped him win his way through to the Australian Open Final in 2008, he also has only 9 other quarterfinals appearances to show for it. It really makes one wonder just how big that night in 2008 was, not just for Tsonga, not just for Novak Djokovic, but also for tennis history perhaps? On that night, was a career-defining mental toughness born for one man, and broken for another?
Maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Djokovic is an all time great, and those do not come along every day, nor are they deterred by the result of one match, even if it is a Grand Slam Final.
To that point, could Tsonga have ever become a true great? Obviously, his talent leads to only one conclusion, but perhaps he’s just not wired that way. That’s not an indictment on the now-32-year-old world number 10. All time greats are that way for a reason – perhaps because, deep down, they were meant to be all time greats.
Maybe Tsonga was just born to be a really talented player. Whether my thoughts of tennis history ring true or not, why we were robbed of Tsonga’s greatness remains an important question. It certainly seems that the 2008 Australian Open Final stands for something big.
If nothing I’ve said about Tsonga you believe, then it was the night a boy from Belgrade, Serbia, begun to carve out his legacy of perhaps the most dominant tennis player ever born.
Perhaps it was also the night that an unmovable stain of self-doubt burrowed itself the 22-year-old Frenchman, and stayed there for a decade or longer, a scar that refused to heal, forever reminding Tsonga of his defeat.
On that night, one man won the first of an astonishing 12 Slams, bettered by only four other men in history. For France, still waiting for their first male Grand Slam champion since Yannick Noah in 1983, the man who was almost assured to end that wait is now entering the twilight of his career.
His country is still waiting.
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