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Unseeded Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Thursday became the first player to reach his maiden ATP-level final in a Grand Slam since Gustavo Kuerten won Roland Garros in 1997.
Tsonga showed no signs of nerves in dismantling World No. 2 Rafael Nadal of Spain 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and 57 minutes under a closed roof on Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open.
"It is just amazing, unbelievable, nothing could stop me today," Tsonga said. "I tried to hit everything and everything went in, so what can I say? My family said it is like a dream for them, everybody in France is happy for me. I will try to do my best for the final."
The 22-year-old son of a Congolese international handball player is now guaranteed to break into the Top 20 of the South African Airways ATP Rankings (from No. 38) and become the No. 2 Frenchman at No. 18 (behind Gasquet).
If he wins the Australian Open crown against either World No. 1 and three-time champion Roger Federer or No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic, he will move into the Top 10 when the new rankings are announced on Monday.
Australian Open Photo Gallery | ATP High-Flyer: Who is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga?
Tsonga has defeated three Top 10 opponents en route to his first final – d. No. 9 Andy Murray (1st), No. 8 Richard Gasquet (4th) and No. 2 Rafael Nadal (SF). Marcos Baghdatis also defeated three Top 10 opponents en route to the final two years ago (l. to Federer).
In the opening game of the first set, Tsonga fell to 0-30 on serve but quickly conquered his nerves and regained control to produce an effortless display of power-hitting from the baseline and deft touch at the net to put the pressure firmly on Nadal’s shoulders. The Frenchman broke serve in the second and eighth games to seal the 32-minute opening set that included 16 winners to Nadal’s six.
Second seed Nadal had no answer to Tsonga’s serve in the second set and had to save two break points in the second game to remain in contention.
The Spaniard took the Tsonga serve to deuce for the first time in the third game, but despite attempts to psych himself up the Rod Laver Arena warmed to Tsonga’s exuberance. Tsonga set up a break point in the eighth game courtesy of a drop volley and he made no mistake on the next point with a smash winner for a 5-3 lead. A few minutes later the World No. 38 was two sets to love up.
Nadal, who had beaten Tsonga in straight sets at the US Open in September 2007, never looked able to recover after a break of serve in the third game of the third set. Tsonga went from strength to strength and broke once again for a 5-2 lead before closing out the match with his 17th ace – and 85th for the championships. He won 30 of 40 net approaches and won 42 of 49 points on first serve.
"We have to accept today he played unbelievable," said Nadal. "Playing the ball very hard every time, serving unbelievable. In the backhand he didn't miss not one. Forehand, every time he does the forehand was a winner, so congratulate him. That's it."
For the second straight match Tsonga did not drop serve, having fought off three break points. He's only lost serve once in the last three rounds (once vs. Gasquet in 4th RD). The last time Nadal didn't break serve in a Grand Slam was at last year's Australian Open QF (vs. Gonzalez). Nadal's seven games won was the fewest in a Grand Slam loss, tying his 2004 US Open loss to Andy Roddick (60 63 64).
Tsonga is the 13th player in the Open Era to reach a Grand Slam final in five appearances or less at the Australian Open on Thursday and at 22 years and 285 days he is the 19th youngest finalist at the Melbourne major in the Open Era. Only 15 men have reached the Australian Open final in two attempts or fewer since 1968, with five men winning the title in their debut year.
Nadal had been attempting to emulate Spanish compatriots Andres Gimeno in 1969 and Carlos Moya in 1997 by reaching the Australian Open final. Gimeno lost to Rod Laver during his Grand Slam year and Moya fell to 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras.
The 21-year-old Nadal warmed up for the first Grand Slam of the year by reaching the Chennai final (l. to Youzhny) and falls to 9-2 for the 2008 season.
Tsonga is only the third Frenchman to reach the Melbourne final, emulating 1928 champion Jean Borotra and 2001 runner-up Arnaud Clement, who reached this year’s doubles final with compatriot Michael Llodra on Thursday.
Five Frenchmen have advanced to Grand Slam finals in the Open Era with Yannick Noah at 1983 Roland Garros, the only one to go on to win the title. The others were: Patrick Proisy (1972 Roland Garros), Henri Leconte (1988 Roland Garros), Cedric Pioline (1993 US Open and 1997 Wimbledon) and Clement.
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Wednesday: Federer Locks No. 1 Ranking; Battles Past Blake
Wednesday: Djokovic Reaches Fourth Straight Slam Semifinal
Tuesday: Giant-Killer Tsonga Continues Dream Run
Tuesday: Nadal Stays Alive in Hunt for No. 1s
Monday: Djokovic Ends Hewitt's Dream; Meets Ferrer in QFs
Monday: Blake Sets Up Federer Showdown in Quarterfinals
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