I’m not turning my blog into a Jo-Wilfried Tsonga fanzine on purpose, but the Frenchman just won’t stop impressing me with his game and spirit. This latest piece from Neil Harman of the Times U.K. talks about Tsonga’s favorite moment on court, his first-ever visit to Africa last year, and a certain “g” word incident that he won’t dignify with a response.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beats insult and injury
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga asked for a translation of énervé. “I think that I am annoyed in the moment when other players aren’t annoyed and I am happy when other players aren’t happy,” he said. If you thought he was discussing the subject that has convulsed leader pages and opinion pieces in the 12 days since Carol Thatcher dropped the G-word, you could not be more mistaken. Tsonga is more of a man than that.
The 23-year-old Frenchman insists that he will not dignify the remarks said to have been made by the former Prime Minister’s daughter with a response. His nature, one that has lit up every tennis court he has ever stepped upon, is to smile in the face of life, gratuitous insults especially. “We simply wish to let this die slowly and move on to bigger and better things,” Morgan Menahem, his manager, said.
Bigger and better as in his victory in the SA Open in Johannesburg on Sunday, a celebration of the ATP Tour’s return to South Africa after 13 years that was cheered to the rafters. Tsonga visited Soweto, the infamous township, where they chaired him in their hundreds; he was the only player to need transport to the interview room because the throng was so enormous. He loved “being home”.
This time last year, after reaching the final of the Australian Open, in which he lost to Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, he made his first visit to his 82-year-old grandfather in Congo-Brazzaville. “I got off the plane and the temperature was perfect; the smell, it was just so special,” Tsonga recalled yesterday. “Yes, I felt more comfortable there than anywhere else in the world. It was very important for me to know where I come from.”
Even 12 months on, his emotions bubble just under the surface. “It was my origin, my family,” he said. Asked in what kind of home his grandfather lived, Tsonga said: “Not so much a house, more like a case. I can buy him a house, give him a house, but he didn’t want [that]. When you see that, you understand what it is that I am, how I am as a person.”
Few players let you know what they are thinking more vividly than Tsonga, whose trademark salute is to dance across the court jabbing his thumbs behind his back, as if pointing at an invisible name on his shirt. It says, “This is me” – in this case, the me is a devoted elder son of Didier and Evelyne, both teachers, who scrimped and saved so that he could travel the world. “They gave up everything for me, everything,” he said.
Tsonga built on the raw talent that first came to the attention in the boys’ singles at the 2003 French Open, when he defeated David Brewer, from Scotland, of whom little has been seen since, and reached the semi-finals.
Even then, crowds lived his performances. “Maybe it is because I show all my sentiments on the court and the people know they are true,” he said. “Others players are not always like that.” When he triumphed in the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris Bercy in November to qualify for his first Masters Cup, he remembers having told those closest to him that he would be “ready for this tournament – not before, not after, just for this”. So what will happen next? “Oh, I don’t know that,” he said with a smile.
Perhaps a year without an injury will allow the world No 13 to deliver on the entirety of his talents. He could not walk when last year’s Wimbledon final was being played after an operation to remove half the meniscus from his right knee, and that came on top of shoulder, back and abdominal problems that have hindered his progress. “But they have given me more experience of life,” Tsonga said, “and that is what tennis is: a school of life.
“It teaches you to have respect for the rules, respect for your opponent, respect for the crowd, respect for the traditions of the sport. It is why I love Wimbledon so much, you walk around it and you feel the history. I feel very content there. And the same is true of Paris. I know it used to be that French players worried about playing in front of the French people, but that has changed. Not just in my case but [Gaël] Monfils and [Gilles] Simon, they feel the same.”
Asked about his happiest moment on a tennis court, he said: “My first year at Bercy, I served so hard that it knocked the racket right out of the hands of Mario Ancic. He still held on to the grip but the rest of the racket was gone.” And the saddest? “I sincerely cannot remember ever being sad on a tennis court,” he said. Which is something that really ought to be said about him.
See what I mean? He’s unbelievable.
Tsonga’s looking to follow up his success last week at the SA Open with a good run in Rotterdam, where he’s in Nadal’s half of the draw and could meet Murray in the final. ALLEZ TSONGA!
Photo: ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images