Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, one of the most talented contemporaries of the Big Three, hung up his racket on Tuesday at Roland-Garros. He had announced in April that it would be the last tournament of his long and always entertaining and sometimes white-hot career. Now world No. 297, the Frenchman took a wild card to play his major at home, and in his first-round match against an elite clay-court player 14 years his junior, he left no fuel unused.
Against No. 8 seed Casper Ruud, Tsonga miraculously outperformed his 37-year-old body, who was repeatedly injured and rarely on tour. Tsonga took the first set in a tiebreak, lost the next two and served for the set at 6-5 in the fourth before pinching his right shoulder. Tears, a physiotherapist visit and an armpit service ensued; he was sent off in the final tie-break. He hugged Ruud, knelt down and pressed his forehand into the clay, received a few minutes of applause from the crowd in Paris and was joined by friends and family for an on-court tribute.
If you’ve paid attention to tennis over the past decade and a half, you might be tempted to lump Tsonga into a group: as one of a cohort of gifted but underachieving Frenchmen, say, flanked by Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils. Or you could drop him in a higher class, the most deserving players to miss major titles, alongside Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer. But maybe he understands better on his own.
The moniker “Ali” suited Tsonga, who had the bounce of a showman in his step, and the game of a heavyweight, all in deadly power and faithful reflexes. He gave his opponents one of the heaviest forehands of his era. He was careful to hide his backhand from them, but it was still good for the occasional thrill, especially when he pulled out a hand for a cheeky winner. At his physical peak, his net game was a marvel of diving shots and smooth feel. In his unranked trip to the 2008 Australian Open final, Tsonga defeated semi-final opponent Rafael Nadal. This drop volleyball clinic, conducted on tennis balls with youthful action at Nadal’s level, looks like a doctored video:
After Nadal’s upset, Tsonga lost to Novak Djokovic in the only Slam final he has ever played. He would later cite this loss as one of the biggest regrets of his career, given that he would go on to beat a pre-prime Djokovic for the next five consecutive clashes. Djokovic, of course, kept getting better, unlike his opponent. The Big Three dashed the title hopes of a generation, and perhaps no man’s trophy case has been so directly affected as Tsonga’s. Which doesn’t mean he hasn’t had his, on occasion. He is one of three players to have beaten Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the Grand Slam. He is also one of three players to have beaten those three when each held the No. 1 ranking. When he won the 2014 Masters title in Montreal, beating Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Federer d in a row, he said he was so tired he peed blood.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could probably have maintained his body better to ward off the injuries that hampered his end of career. He probably could have refined the technique of his two-handed game. Whatever. The tennis baby boomer in me jumps when I revisit the old tape and realize that this former World No. 5 would have stuck with most sulky kids on the baseline these days. Sometimes you just catch a rough timing and exit the womb on the same timeline as the top three to do so. You can still tangle with the best, deliver punishing blows, piss red, and delight millions.