By Abigail Johnson
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has kicked off his Roland Garros campaign with an emphatic 7-6, 7-5, 6-2 win on Court Philippe Chatrier. Edouard Roger-Vasselin was his first victim, and, if history has anything to say about it, Tsonga could be on his way to mowing down a fair few more hopefuls…
As Jo-Willy’s home Slam gets underway for yet another year, it seems a fitting time to bring back to mind the real home hope, the tennis superstar, that the audience are starting to overlook. To neglect.
To maybe even forget.
For the tennis world, this means just one thing: It’s time for the first Grand Slam of the year, and for the Big Three of the men’s game – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – to continue their legendary dominance of the ATP tour.
And suddenly, out of the blue, there is a twist in the tale that will unknowingly reverberate into the future of our beloved sport.
A 22-year-old Frenchman, a virtual unknown amongst casual fans, is up against 9th seed Andy Murray in round one of the Australian Open. Having had a promising junior career, this Frenchman has since been plagued by injury, and has only in the past year racked up a few notable victories. It has slipped him just inside the top 40 of the world rankings at 38.
What should be a straight forward triumph for Andy Murray, who will soon turn the Big Three into the Big Four, is actually just the beginning of an incredible roller-coaster ride that is still in progress today. Before the surprised eyes of sport followers worldwide, the Frenchman pulls off a monster four set victory over the future Slam champion. And not content with simply basking in this glory, the lively player makes full use of his booming groundstrokes to complete an impressive run to his first Grand Slam semi-final.
As the murmurings surrounding him become steadily louder, the effervescent Frenchman is determined to raise the volume to shouts and gasps. In a mind-blowing performance, with winners flying from his racquet, the underdog bowls over none other than world number two Rafael Nadal for the loss of just seven games: 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. Rarely, hardly ever, is Rafa dominated so.
World number three Novak Djokovic awaits in the final. He has yet to drop a set all tournament. Can the underdog clear the final hurdle?
Despite taking the first set, with two magical points to round it out, the new fan favourite falls in four. This time, it is not to be.
But there is no shame in this loss. Now risen to a career high ranking of number twelve, this talent is the real deal.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has arrived.
Paris, France. It’s May, 2014.
So, do you remember that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga? The spirited Frenchman with the devastating power shots? The entertaining crowd-pleaser, who would literally throw himself down to reach balls, and who leaps and bounds through his trademark dance after every victory?
Who comically chides himself in his mother tongue after a failed point, and acts out to the world how it all went wrong?
Who has the most infectious grin.
Perhaps the events of 2011 and 2012 are distant in our memories. Yes, the Big Four were dominating. But they had a new name: the Big Four and Tsonga. Remember that 2011 Wimbledon quarter final, in which Tsonga came from two sets down to defeat Federer? What phenomenal tennis that was! Man, how I was screaming! Never in my life could I cheer against Roger again, let alone like that. That’s how compelling Jo is.
He has that combined talent and likability factor that commands you to support him.
Shall we list a few of the many feats of Jo? A career high ranking of number five. Runner-up status at both a Grand Slam and the World Tour Finals. Nineteen ATP singles finals. Ten ATP singles titles. A silver medal at the London Olympics. Twenty-nine top ten wins.
Besides all this, he is the only player on tour to have beaten each member of the Big Four at a Grand Slam event.
So with an appealing character and so many great accomplishments, in a day and age when quite frankly you barely need a thousand points to crack the top 30, why is Tsonga ranked down at number 14, almost a full ten spots off his career record?
Why is he virtually ignored heading onto home soil?
Many people probably don’t recall that Jo charged blazing into 2014, by exhibition standards, anyway. He beat Murray in straight sets at the Abu Dhabi event. For the second year running, he won every one of his singles matches at the Hopman Cup tournament, and therefore became the event champion alongside Alize Cornet.
As tennis expert Darren Cahill reviewed the first week of competition, he stated that the player outside the Big Four who had played the best tennis was – not third seed David Ferrer, not eventual champion Stanislas Wawrinka – but Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Tsonga was dominating. However, so was in-form Roger Federer. It was dismally unfortunate, but the two were forced replay their five-set quarter-final of 2013 in the fourth round.
Three tight sets went the way of the 17-time Slam champion.
That loss was truly a case of Jo played well, but Roger was almost perfect. Which makes it seem surprising that things should start to go downhill from here.
Or does it?
Stan Wawrinka played a fantastic tournament – there’s absolutely no doubt about it. His five set defeat of Novak Djokovic was stunning, and he overcame abysmal head-to-head records against both Novak and Rafa (versus whom he was 0-24 in sets.) However, it’s also a fact that of the tournament champion’s seven rounds, one match was a walkover, another a win via retirement, and yet another a victory over an injury-hampered opponent.
No credit is to be taken away from him – Stan came through what he was given, and he earned that Australian Open title. But surely Tsonga, whose mighty shots had been constantly finding their mark, was one top player to wonder, “Why couldn’t that have been me?”
Confidence is a key component in tennis. Observe Rafael Nadal’s recent struggles for proof. Pros and experts have stated that the game is as much mental as it is physical. So, as many a person has started to doubt and disregard Jo in wake of Stan’s shocker triumph, would it be any wonder if his confidence has been sliding fast down a slippery slope?
It started slowly. After a surprise second round loss to Cilic in Rotterdam, his bid to defend his Marseille crown ended in the final as he played runner-up to Ernests Gulbis. But then he went straight on to lose second round again, this time to Julien Bennetau, at the ‘Fifth Slam’ in Indian Wells. Although he was affected by jetlag, a defeat to a lower-ranked countryman wasn’t exactly going to aid his 2014 campaign.
Fourth round in Miami. Quarter-finals in Monte-Carlo. Second round in Madrid. Third round in Rome. Average to poor results to kick off the clay season have shut Tsonga firmly out of the limelight.
Your mindset, your frustrations and the flippant comments about you can take their toll. Therefore, with a Not Quite Terrible but Far From Fantastic 2014 record, Jo has been consistently thrown in with ‘The French Men’ under Must Improve lists across the globe. No one has really bothered to spare the time to look into his case.
Yes, it can be infuriating. And right now, it seems pretty unfair. Because these next two weeks, ladies and gentleman, tennis nerds, could be the turning point.
Back in the French Open quarterfinals in 2012, Jo-Willy was back in BOOM mode before a wild audience on a packed Court Phillipe Chatrier. The player on the receiving end of these inspired shots? Novak Djokovic, world number one, just wins away from holding all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously.
The Parisian crowd was utterly and completely frenzied as Jo earned no more, no less than four match points in set four.
One of them was extremely winnable. Novak had virtually packed it in as Jo was seconds away from making a volley into the open court.
To injured gasps, he netted it.
Djokovic proceeded to up the ante. It came down to a few points, but it was enough for Novak to sneak out the fourth set. Eventually he rounded out the match in five.
It was the most heart-breaking, emotional moment as an overcome Tsonga drowned himself in his towel, while his home crowd proudly, incessantly chanted his name. They were paying their respects to a brave, incredible performance.
The defeated left the court to rousing cheers.
A year on, in 2013, Jo once again produced a master class performance in the quarters to oust Roger Federer in straight sets, making a mockery of the pressure he faced. On song, he would surely beat David Ferrer in the next round.
But walking out for his semi-final match-up, Jo was thrown by the sight of a half-empty stadium. Many of his countrymen and women had not bothered to stay and support their own talent in the aftermath of the exhilarating Nadal-Djokovic clash.
It was a harsh blow.
The hurt hindered him throughout a troublesome match. Tsonga searched in vain for his lost form, was visibly frustrated, argued over line calls and, despite conjuring up set point in the second set, was ultimately overcome in three by Ferrer. Prior to this, he had been the last man standing yet to concede a set.
Despite a big missed opportunity, it had been a fine tournament for Jo.
The defeated left the court to cruel boos.
In the past, the Roland Garros crowd has earned a reputation for being pretty difficult. Sometimes downright nasty. Serena Williams and Martina Hingis could tell you a tale or two about that. They have also shown extreme fickleness, and you need look no further than poor Tsonga for evidence.
The audience understandably heap on the pressure as they wait impatiently for a first home-grown male champion since Yannick Noah, 31 years ago. This heavy atmosphere is difficult to soldier.
But if you look at recent results, none has borne the burden better than Jo.
Here we find a player hyped to play for his country – hence his disappointment at the poor turnout to his last 2013 French Open match. If you look beyond his ATP battles this year, you’ll discover his better displays have been at tournaments in which he represented his country. Besides Hopman Cup, he has led France to victory in two Davis Cup ties.
Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon, Jeremy Chardy, Julien Bennetau… They all learned to play tennis. But have they yet learned to cope with the immense expectation that lies moulded into the clay courts of Roland Garros?
It’s fair to say that Tsonga has.
Jo is one player for whom the experience of simply playing on tour is no longer enough – he’s had that for years. He wants to achieve the biggest accomplishments tennis has to offer. This can only give him more motivation. More desire to execute his full, dangerous game.
A determination to win.
His last top 10 victory was here in Paris one year ago. A statistic that may seem terrible… but doesn’t it speak volumes about his ability at this tournament in particular?
It’s time for Roland Garros, 2014.
Nation of France, here is your hope.
Tennis world, never cross him off.
Never underestimate the force that is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
Abigail is a massive tennis fan who loves watching it, playing it, reading about it, and hopes to write more about it! You can find her on twitter @abigailtennis.