Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Mardy Fish in their only previous matchup, needing five sets to win in the 4th round of the U.S. Open. (Zumapress)
LONDON -- It was never going to be an easy task for Mardy Fish on Tuesday. Already hobbled by a hamstring injury that had to work overtime on Sunday in a three-set grinder against Rafael Nadal, Fish faced the always unpredictable and always dangerous Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in an attempt to notch his first ATP World Tour Finals win.
Fish came out pushing his body as best he could. He won a key break as Tsonga was serving for the first set and eventually forced a tiebreak, only to see Tsonga serve magnificently to steal the set. He had a shot after breaking Tsonga in the first game of the second set. But then it all went wrong for Fish, as he grew tired and frustrated, dropped the next six games and eventually fell 7-6 (4), 6-1.
The things Tsonga can do when he's relaxed and, forgive the terminology, "brainless," are remarkable. At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, he's built like no other player on Tour. His barrel chest fills out his Adidas kit and lean, quick legs power him around the court. It may not always be graceful, but he (usually) knows how to use his dashing speed and agility favorably.
With such natural athletic gifts forming the bedrock of a powerful attacking style, it's a shame that we haven't seen more from Tsonga after his breakthrough 2008 Australian Open run, where he ran over Rafael Nadal in the semifinals only to lose to Novak Djokovic in the finals. Given his talents, it has been a career of disappointments interspersed with flashes of brilliance. He's an exciting player to watch when he's flying high, as was the case in a show of shotmaking in the second set as he rolled over a clearly gassed Fish.
"What happens when you have injuries is you lose a little bit of confidence," Fish said. "You lose a little bit of confidence in your shot selection, you lose confidence just because you can't practice as much or play as many matches and have that type of feeling that you normally do.
"I felt a lot different today than I did, say, at the U.S. Open when we played," said the 29-year-old American, who lost a five-setter to Tsonga in New York. "I mean, that was as good as I was going to feel physically and mentally and confidence‑wise. When you can't prepare the way you want to, it's hard."
So throw Fish in with the pile of players who simply haven't been able to bring their best here because of late-season injuries. It's disappointing for both the players and the fans, who have yet to be treated to a match that pitted two healthy, in-form players who brought their best. Perhaps that's too much to ask at this stage of the season.
"It's disappointing because this is such a great event," Fish said. "You work so hard to get here for 10½ months. I get all the way here and I couldn't do the things that I wanted to do before and prepare the way that I prepared basically for every tournament almost up to this one."
It gets no easier for Fish, who dropped to 0-2 in group play. He has 48 hours to recover before he takes on some guy named Roger Federer. Don't expect the world No. 8 to mail it in.
"You have to [have] a respect level for yourself to say, 'I care a lot about this,'" Fish responded when asked whether he'll take the court just to enjoy himself. "I care that I want to win, more than just saying, 'Yeah let's go out there and swing from the hip and see what happens.' I feel like I can win." Respect that.