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Underdog Tsonga one match away from stardom

Even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga says the extraordinary level of tennis he played to wipe out world number two Rafael Nadal was ridiculous.

sports Updated: Jan 25, 2008 13:48 IST

Even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga says the extraordinary level of tennis he played to wipe out world number two Rafael Nadal was ridiculous.

Now the 22-year-old finds himself with a chance to become the first French winner in Australia since Jean Borotra in 1928 and the last men's Grand Slam champion from France since Yannick Noah in 1983.

The Le Mans-native has been propelled into the spotlight with an unbelievable spell in Melbourne that has seen him claim the scalps of four top seeds.

And he is now just one match away from joining an elite club of champions.

He stunned the triple French Open champion and the tennis world with a rare performance he would want to bottle forever as he rocketed into the final in just his fifth Grand Slam tournament.

Nadal, who been second only to the great Roger Federer in the rankings over the last three years, could only shake his head in disbelief at the astonishing level produced by the 38th-ranked Tsonga.

All Tsonga could do after his 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 annihilation was puff his cheeks in bewilderment at what he had achieved.

Nicknamed Muhammad Ali for his resemblance to the boxing legend, Tsonga did as he pleased against Nadal, blasting 49 winners, 17 aces and breaking Nadal's serve five times. He won 31 more points than the non-plussed Spaniard.

"Everything was in, my backhand, my serve, my forehand, my volley, my dropshot, everything," Tsonga said.

"I was moving on the court like like never before, so everything was perfect."

"It's ridiculous, for sure, because I think it's the first time I have played at this level, and it's here in the semi-final of Australian Open. It may be my best moment in tennis.

"I just took it as it came. The ball came, I say, 'Okay, I hit here.'

"That's it. I have no more questions to ask."

France's new sporting hero cannot explain how his two hours of faultless tennis came about, saying he had no inkling it was about to materialise.

"I don't know. Maybe before it was different because I never practised like this during the (northern) winter. I've never practised like this. It just worked, that's all," he said.

Tsonga has become an instant tennis celebrity as he prepares for the biggest match of his life against either 12-time Grand Slam champion Federer or another meteoric tennis star Novak Djokovic on Sunday.

Asked at his post-match conference if he could repeat his red-hot form in the final, Tsonga said: "I will do my best on the court, so I know it's going to be difficult to beat me."

Nadal is not so sure.

"It's very different to play in the final. I think he's going to feel the pressure of playing in his first Grand Slam final," the Spaniard said.

"If he plays like he did against me he will have his chance, but I think he's going to feel the pressure."

Tsonga's tennis career has been beset by injuries with back, shoulder and abdominal problems, drastically curtailing his 2005 and 2006 seasons.

But he said he is now able to realise his full potential with an extended run of matches.

"I'm happy with what I'm doing. It's a passion for me and it's given me pleasure rather than motivation," Tsonga said.

"I always knew I could play unbelievable tennis, but my body was not ready for that before. Now it's ready, so I do it."

It has been an euphoric time for Tsonga at the season-opening major.

He claimed his first win over a top-five player and followed his elimination of seeds, Andy Murray (9), Richard Gasquet (8) and Mikhail Youzhny (14) in the early rounds.

Tsonga becomes the eighth unseeded player to reach the Australian Open final since the ATP rankings began in 1973, and is projected to climb from his current 38 to 27 when the new rankings come out next week.