WINS STILL MATTER: Tsonga was ecstatic when he posted his first victory of 2021 in Marseille.

Advertising

What could possibly be a more arduous ask on the ATP Tour than defeating Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros? Here’s one: Not liking Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Certain individuals have a presence impossible to ignore. Throughout his career, Tsonga has unpretentiously commanded attention in stadiums around the world. While the Frenchman’s athleticism has played its part in keeping eyes on him—facilitated by heavy serving, dynamic forehands and exquisite touch—joy is the crux of Tsonga’s allure. When he gets high off competing, Tsonga’s jubilant display is a magnetic drug audiences can’t help but consume. When he celebrates a match win, his untamed euphoria is instantly transmitted to those watching.

“He’s special. Has a big charisma on the court,” good friend Richard Gasquet shares. “He’s one of the best players of the last decade, winning many tournaments. Everybody knows him in France.”

Tsonga defeated three Top 10 seeds, including No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, at the 2008 Australian Open.

Tsonga defeated three Top 10 seeds, including No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, at the 2008 Australian Open.

In 2008, a nine-year-old Ugo Humbert was glued to his television screen when Tsonga, then 22, let his inner child loose in an extraordinary run to the Australian Open final. Like his countryman, Humbert, who turns 23 in late June, owns persuasive serving and forehand strikes, and a comfort at net that has blossomed thanks to an improved mental approach. He’s endearing in his own humble manner; if Humbert’s smile could be bottled, it’s something we all could use right about now.

He also shares the same gratitude for taking the court as Tsonga, and similarly to his childhood idol, had consideration imparted by his mother growing up.

“Sometimes I’m really negative, but I try to always smile, always be happy. I think it’s my mom,” Humbert explains during a conversation from Marseille. “She’s very positive and she tried to educate me like this. It’s not very easy. You can lose every week. So, when you win a tournament, you appreciate it even more.”

In 2020, Humbert stepped into the ATP winner’s circle for the first time, triumphing in Auckland and winning a second trophy nine months later in Antwerp. The lefty also picked up his first Top 10 victory over Daniil Medvedev in Hamburg, but it was his performance against sixth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Paris Masters that left a lasting impression on a challenging year—one where Humbert sensed his rising star had not gone unnoticed by the opposition.

“I think about that last tournament in Bercy, when I played Tsitsipas. I remember it was a very good level. That’s why I finished the year in the Top 30, and I’m very proud of it,” Humbert says. “At the beginning, when I was Top 100, players didn’t know me very well. So it was surprise when they played me, but now, the way they look at me is different.”

Advertising

While Humbert was busy soaking up new milestones and achievements, Tsonga was back at square one. The Le Mans native appeared on tour just twice in 2020, the second showing ending in retirement at the Australian Open as his back gave out. The pain was brutal, pre-venting Tsonga from simple pleasures such as running, swimming and biking.

“It was difficult because I had to stop sports for so many months. I was not able to do anything,” Tsonga recalls from Marseille. “So I lost a lot of muscles. When I came back, what was difficult is I had to rebuild all these muscles. For me, the stretching is really important. I did some yoga.

“I hope I will be able to give some good days again.”

Tsonga is the first to articulate that life is always a balance. And so, while the 18-time ATP tournament winner rehabbed, someone else was spreading joy: his son. Now 4, Shugar is every bit as captivating as dad Jo. He can be intensely quiet; he can forcefully change direction; he can passionately roar. And he can effortlessly warm hearts.

“It’s a great experience. Every day I learn from him. It’s always good for my maturity,” Tsonga says.

“What I can say? It’s beautiful. It’s of course emotion I never lived before.” (In March, Tsonga announced on Instagram that another baby is on the way.)

(Ugo's) a heck of a player. I don’t think he’s getting enough credit for the year he had last year, and he’s only going to get better. I don’t call too many people good players when I play them.—Nick Kyrgios

Advertising

Tsonga feeds off emotion as much as he conveys it, and the same can be said of Humbert. Growing up in Metz, Humbert’s hands embraced more than just a racquet, as music held an equally special place in his heart. He can jam out on electric guitar, but the piano is his devoted domain.

Much like a tennis court, sitting behind the keys is a place where Humbert can confidently communicate he language of his soul.

“Whether it’s piano or tennis, I’m playing with instinct, with a lot of feeling,” he says. “When I’m really focused, I can express myself much better. I feel free doing what I want to do.”

Though Humbert “hates” to be compared with other players, pointing out that everyone has their own unique identity, he is honored to be mentioned in the same breath as Tsonga. The former world No. 5 is convinced Humbert’s stock will only continue to rise, crediting his compatriot’s work ethic, desire to give his best and willingness to learn. Tsonga has readily made himself available as a resource, believing it’s important to mentor upcoming talent by relaying his own experiences.

“I’ve been very proud because on the tour, most of the young guys told me that they saw me on TV, they wake up in the night to watch tennis. I’m proud to leave something,” Tsonga says. “And to speak with the young French guys, it’s always good to give them some tips to help them a little bit to go faster at the best level.”

Through March, Humbert has split a pair of matches with Tsonga, circumstances he confesses are tough propositions. He’s also enjoyed the privilege of partnering his seasoned compatriot in doubles. The first came at his hometown event in 2018, and the two linked up again earlier this year in Montpellier.

“I love to share moments with him because he’s always there for you. He would like to help you all the time,” says Humbert. “So, it’s a good feeling to be with him. He is very open. With all different players, and with me as well.”

Advertising

Tsonga holds a career 28-11 mark at Roland Garros.

Tsonga holds a career 28-11 mark at Roland Garros.

When the two descend on Roland Garros at distinctive junctures of their tennis journeys, each will hope to simply let go. Humbert will seek his first French Open win in his third main draw, conceding the pressure of playing at home has not been easy to mitigate. As for two-time semifinalist Tsonga, he’s appeared just once in the past three years. Though health remains a constant question mark, the 36-year-old will give every ounce to once again unearth his contagious joy that’s been profoundly missed.

“Tennis has been part of my life so many years now. I’m just really happy to fight again and be on court, see all the people around,” Tsonga says. “I’m just happy to be with all these guys.

“It’s exciting also to play against new players. I expect to play a little bit more and continue to get some good emotion.”