This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
It's hard to surprise a true fan of a sport. When you follow the characters year in, year out, you know the young hopefuls. You have a good sense of who has tremendous potential, even if they've suffered setbacks. That's a phrase that aptly describes a 22-year old French tennis player named Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A super-star junior, born in Le Mans of a French mother and a Congolese father, he was spotted by a tennis scout and invited to train in Paris at the Academy at Roland Garos. Tsonga's abilities impressed immediately. In 2003 he won the US Open Juniors and finished number two in the world as a Junior. Then he disappeared. Injuries compiled to sabotage what had promised to be a sparkling career. Back, shoulder, knee, even stomach problems, in addition to difficulties keeping his weight down, rotated without relief and relegated the French teenager to a long list of would-have, should-have been greats.
So when us devotees tuned into the Australian Open Down Under in Melbourne over these past two weeks, we were curious to see how the top players would shake down after their December break. Would Maria Sharapova find the winning form she seemed to have lost last year? It seems so. Would local hero Lleyton Hewitt give the hometown crowd a thrill and win on his twelfth try at the Australian Open? It seems not. But who could have predicted the eye-opening, dazzling play of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga? With five years gone since his flash as a junior, who could have believed he would finally reverse the ill fortune of his long-term injuries? But Tsonga, now a trim 6'2", 200 pounds, is virtually reborn. The nagging injuries are all gone. And this young man's talents are flowing forth like lava from an erupting volcano. I stayed up until 3am this morning, glued to the screen, in utter awe as Tsonga boomed his serve, powered his ground strokes, deftly swept into net for diving drop volleys, and soundly beat World Number Two Rafael Nadal. Call me crazy, but this guy is showing all the goods necessary to win the title Down Under and his first Grand Slam this weekend.
The US Figure Skating Championships are also taking place at the moment, in St. Paul, Minnesota, but few are tuning in to what used to be the glamour sport of winter.
If you live in an era when a sport is wildly popular, to the point of being part of the national culture, it's odd to see that sport fade from the public heart. Boxing was the king of American sports for most of the 20th Century. Horse racing sparked national buzz until fairly recently. And now figure skating is also but a shadow of its former self. The television ratings for skating have plummeted to an almost immeasurable number. On the other hand, the Winter X Games ignite the bowls and slopes of Aspen, starting today. New events, such as the Snowmobile Freestyle, make the sports of the X Games signature competitions of our time. It's an outdoor party in Aspen over the next four days, thousands bundled up day and night, as they light Buttermilk Mountain for nighttime action. The year. Goodbye, triple sow cows. Hello, dropping into the pipe.
One last mention for today. Francis Joyon has set a new world record by sailing around the world in only 57 days, clobbering the previous mark by an astounding two weeks. Joyon says what will stay with him is the memory of "precious moments when you can be in harmony with the planet, with the elements." Thirty years after retiring from my ocean swims, I can relate to Joyon. What he describes is precisely what has stayed with me after all this time. To feel the surge of the tides, the tug of the currents. To swim for days as part of the family of sea creatures. To experience the power and the majesty of the sea, that's what those expeditions were all about. Congratulations, Monsieur Joyon, and welcome back to dry land.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Photo: David Higgs