Thanks to the “Watch” feature on the BBC’s website, I’ve been catching some of the Australian Open tennis, which concludes this weekend. So far, it’s been an unusually engrossing tournament, because in both the men’s and women’s events, there have been strong signs that the current order is in the process of toppling. Over the last few years, both the men’s and the women’s games have been characterised by the dominance of an individual: in the men’s, Roger Federer, and in the women’s, Justine Henin. Federer’s dominance has been more total than Henin’s, of course, but people tend to forget just how much of a grip Henin has had on the women’s game: in the second half of last year, for example, she didn’t lose a single match. Below Federer and Henin have been a small group of other players—Nadal and Djokovic, Sharapova and the Williams sisters—who have looked capable of challenging their dominance, but only occasionally.
With this tournament, though, things are suddenly looking very different. Henin has already gone out—she was beaten in the quarter-finals by Sharapova. This is not all that remarkable in itself, but the manner of the defeat was—because Henin was absolutely thrashed, losing the second set to love (something that hasn’t happened to her for several years). The men’s event is shaping up even more interestingly. Federer is still in it (he plays Djokovic tomorrow in the semis) but he has looked far, far more vulnerable than he has looked in a grand slam event for years. He very nearly lost to the world’s no 49 Janko Tipsarevic in the third round, winning 10-8 in the fifth: this is something that doesn’t happen to Federer in the early rounds of grand slams. And in other games he has looked well below his best.
But the biggest story of all is the emergence of an entirely new star—Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France. Tsonga, you may remember, beat Andy Murray in the first round. Since then, he has progressed remorselessly, and just this morning beat Rafael Nadal, the number two seed, in straight sets in the first semi-final. I caught some of it, and it was quite simply one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen. Rafael wasn’t playing badly, but Tsonga overpowered him, serving ace after ace, swatting winners from the back of the court, getting back some extraordinary reactive volleys, and generally…