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Despite never winning the big one, all-court threat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga illuminated and elevated tennis during his time on tour
The beloved and powerful Frenchman said goodbye after a valiant four-set effort against No. 8 seed Casper Ruud.
Published May 24, 2022
INTERVIEW: After his last match, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stopped by the Tennis Channel desk at Roland Garros
I am a French player, a Swiss player, a Congolese player, a black player, a white player, a decorated player and a father. With those words, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said farewell to tennis before a riveted, sell-out crowd and scores of fellow players and dignitaries assembled in Court Philippe Chatrier following his four-set, first-round loss to Casper Ruud at Roland Garros.
A striking physical resemblance and an explosive game earned young Jo-Wilfried Tsonga the sobriquet, “the Muhammad Ali of tennis,” but over time it became clear that those qualities were the least of it. Tsonga may not have lasted for many rounds in the ring with his doppelganger (although with that forehand, who knows?) but he had comparable charisma and, in his own domain, popularity.
Tsonga leaves the sport he illuminated—and elevated—during a professional career spanning 17 years as one of the most beloved players ever to swing a racquet. If you paid close attention in the moments right after his 6-7 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (0) loss to Ruud on Tuesday, you can understand why. After a few gracious remarks, the winner considerately got out of the way and went to his bag to collect his things. Tsonga rose from his own chair, passed in front of the umpire, shook hands with Ruud for a second time, then embraced the 23-year old Norwegian.
As gestures go, it may not have been right up there Tsonga’s trademark celebration following a big win—a leaping, twirling dance performed with both arms aloft, as if he were doing a bench press, with hands forming a thumbs-up sign. But it was more telling of the essential man—the guy who said, after losing to Novak Djokovic in the final of the 2008 Australian Open (a breakthrough tournament for both men), “I'm very proud of myself. I'm happy for Novak, because he played unbelievable today. I don't know if I have to be sad or happy of this final, but I feel great.”
As it turned out, that final would be the first of Djokovic’s 20 major tournament wins while Tsonga never played another. But he contested five major semifinals and 15 quarterfinals (going 6-9). Tsonga’s Grand Slam resume is littered with brawls against Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and other greats. Tsonga won two Masters 1000 titles—most notably in Toronto in 2014, when he beat Djokovic, Murray and Federer—and peaked in the rankings at No. 5.
But Tsonga also is a part of a generation that, thanks to the Big Three, fought—often canceling out each other—to get off the ignominious list of “best players never to win a major.” One unfortunate factor that kept Tsonga relegated there were injuries that plagued him from the very start of his career.
Tsonga made a scintillating debut in the fall of 2004 in Beijing, defeating sixth-ranked Carlos Moya, 6-3, 6-3. Late that year, still hovering around the Top 200, he herniated a disc that kept out until March of the following year. Two shoulder injuries, along with back and abdominal problems, limited his play significantly until 2007, the year he’d crack the Top 100 for the first time despite his obvious talent.
The pattern was established. Tsonga would miss many Grand Slam events over the course of his career—only seven times did he play all four in the same season—but the rangy 6’2” power-server never complained publicly about missing tournaments, or about playing in pain. It was a burden well hidden by the flair he brought to the game, his bold, powerful shotmaking, and the relish with which he flung himself about the court.
But even at times of relative good health, Tsonga was hampered by inconsistency. Like many players in whom the showmanship gene is in direct competition with the competitive gene, Tsonga’s fortunes fluctuated. His willingness to grind out matches, a la David Ferrer, was limited. Although he was no stranger to the unforced error, in the right frame of mind Tsonga could grind with the best of them.
Tsonga’s career highlight match is a good example. He trailed Roger Federer by two-sets to none in the 2011 Wimbledon quarterfinals (Federer had not lost from that large a lead in 179 matches at the majors). But Tsonga, producing clean and powerful tennis, methodically served his way back into the match and, with help from his precisely calibrated forehand, overwhelmed Federer.
“Congratulations for an enormous career,” Federer said in a video message on Tuesday. “I took great pleasure to play against you, even to lose against you.”
Born in Le Mans, France, to a French mother (Evelyne) and Congolese father (Didier), Tsonga over time came to represent his increasingly multicultural sport. Most anyone can relate to Tsonga, either because of his background, his personality, his game, or his genial nature.
Shortly after his epic win over Federer in 2011, Tsonga defaulted (due to an elbow injury) to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in Canada. He was lavishly booed on court by the upset fans. But when asked how he felt about that by a reporter, he replied: “No, I think it's a good thing because the crowd just said they like the show. That's it. So, yeah, they was disappointed because they want to see more. So for me it was a good thing.”
There’s another familiar element in that comment: Tsonga’s wry sense of humor. On another occasion, when asked if he found the media and its endless demands troublesome, Tsonga said: “No, no, I don't think about it. It's normal. You have to write on me, and I know my life, so I don't have to read it in the paper.”
Tsonga suffered the most painful loss of his career in front of his French fans at Roland Garros in 2012, when he failed to convert four match points during an epic five-set quarterfinal struggle with Djokovic.
Reviewing the loss, Tsonga said, “There was fatigue, frustration, disappointment. You go a bit through all the feelings. You want to break all your racquets. You want to shout. You want to cry. You want to laugh, saying, ‘This has to be a joke, how did I manage to lose this match?’ You want to wake up.”
Tsonga won’t have to grapple with those kinds of highs and lows any longer. He’s leaving that to all the others who soldier on. But the younger among them can take a few cues from the big man. As Ruud said following the final: “He is the perfect example of what tennis players should be like, and how to behave. And he also always brought a good show to the court. It’s been an honor to watch him.”