It’s been almost a year since I wrote this French Open piece for The Changeover, about the sensational Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Among the 2000-plus words solely dedicated to the flamboyant Frenchman, you can find several points made that are just as relevant to today: How easily the tennis world forgets how delightful Jo is. How easily his smile summons one of your own – one that kills your cheeks in the most awesome way possible.
And how easily we can rule him out as a contender.
That initial point was renewed to it’s highest height when Jo walked out for his first match in Monte Carlo this week – just his second tournament back from injury. When Jo walks out on court, it’s like the sun has come out in full, shining force. And when he thumps down that first serve and blazes his first forehand, your heart swells with the mingled joy and warmth and excitement that only Jo brings.
“Man oh man!” I thought as I observed him play in Monte Carlo. “What we’ve all been missing!”
Injury sustained at the off-season’s IPTL spelled disaster for Tsonga’s opening months of 2015, and his frustration and disappointment at being sidelined was tangible. With him turning 30, this is widely considered a massive season for him, with a fresh urgency to produce some consistent brilliance.
But Jo has finally begun his comeback! Two wins and a loss in Monte Carlo, admittedly, may not look impressive. However, Jo’s 6-3 7-6 loss to Marin Cilic was a close one. Rust is expected, and things can only improve for the Frenchman – who has poured monumental effort into his fitness whilst set apart from tennis action.
Thirty doesn’t have to be the Beginning Of The End. Doubtless, it can be the Beginning Of Even Better.
So let’s make this day a celebration! As Jo-Wilfried Tsonga strikes the big 30, The Tennis Obsessed looks at 30 of the best things about Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
He’s warmed our hearts and put smiles on our faces. How can we not love him for it?
1. HIS SMILE: There are three big smile-pullers out there on the ATP tour. There’s Roger Federer for his gentlemanly gentlemanness. Rafael Nadal for his awkward endearingness. And Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, for his pure, utter infectiousness. If you can look at a smiling Jo-Willy and not smile, feel like smiling or sense some form of vibrant emotion, then I’m sorry to break it to you but I’m afraid something is seriously wrong there. Better get checked out.
2. HIS SERVE: It’s not simply the fact that it’s massive and dangerous – because as we all know, the Tsonga serve is not always firing. The truly great thing about the serve of Jo-Willy is the way it dutifully turns up to dig him out of trouble. Jo’s down two break points? No worries. An ace, an unreturnable serve, a couple more bombs thrown down and it’s all good, people, it’s all good!
3. HIS REACTIONS: The endearing factor strikes once again! Who doesn’t love the way Tsonga consoles both himself and yourself after a failed point, by either acting out what went wrong and muttering away to himself in French, or yelling out in his mother tongue… and then breaking into a grin?!
4. HIS ENGLISH: In the smooth French accent he has always possessed, tennis followers have had the joy of seeing Tsonga’s grin-tugging interviews grow from a range of seven second ‘Errrr’ intervals, to five second ‘Errr’ intervals, to the point where – present day – the Le Mans native is speaking English better and more fluently than ever before.
The language journey. It’s one that Jo has travelled alongside his biggest journey of all.
5. THE WAY HE DISCREETLY ENCOURAGES EVERYONE TO LEARN FRENCH: I get you, Jo.
Ever wondered why Tsonga doesn’t painstakingly double-tweet in different languages, as Rafa Nadal always does? Obviously it’s his smart way of making sure the general public have a firm desire to learn French. Because a lot of us are ignorant, lazy people with a one-language capability, you know?
Thanks, Jo! The moment I couldn’t find an English option anywhere on here, I knew.
6. THE DANCE!!!: Need I say more?
7. HIS CROWD MAGIC: With his kind, funny personality, his full game and his (((((smile))))), there’s not a place on the planet where Tsonga goes fanless. The British and the French are often pitted against each other in jokes and stories – and yet Jo happens to be one of Wimbledon’s favourite players! Tsonga commands the crowds to love him. And he does it in such a sweet, cool, innocent, undeliberate way that you can’t say no.
Unfortunately, it also means you have to endure a lot of heartbreak….
8. HIS OVATION AFTER THE DJOKOVIC LOSS: This match – contested in the 2012 French Open quarters – was one of the hardest ever to witness for every Tsonga fan out there. On absolute fire, and with the crowd on their feet, Tsonga had four match points in the fourth set against an in-form Novak Djokovic – with two in a row at one point. With a couple of errors and some gutsy play from Novak, it took only a few, heart-stopping moments for Tsonga to be lured away from victory. After the five set defeat, he sat down and buried his head beneath his towel in sorrow – as the crowd, arisen and unstoppable, applauded their champion, and chanted his name over and over again.
An emotional end to an emotionally exhausting match, that atmosphere was something else.
9. HIS 2011 WIMBLEDON WIN OVER ROGER FEDERER: Every cloud has a silver lining. While Jo will always be a player who can fall from the cusp of victory, he will also always be a player who can bolt from the blue on his own shooting star. On Wimbledon Centre Court, 2011, he accomplished the unthinkable – coming back from two sets down to defeat King of Grass and legend of the game Roger Federer, with some shot making and prowess that will go down in history, no questions asked.
10. HIS ABILITY TO LOOK COOL IN ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING: He’d make a bin liner look acceptable.
11. HIS QUESTIONABLE HAIRSTYLE THAT MANY GREW TO LOVE: And now it’s hard to get used to the fact that it’s gone.
One memorable commentary exchange over Tsonga from the 2012 French Open says it all:
“Does he ever wear a cap?”
“If your hair looked that cool would you want to wear a cap?”
12. HIS RUN TO THE 2008 AUSSIE OPEN FINAL: In the tournament in which he truly announced himself on the tennis tour, 22-year-old qualifier Tsonga was vintage and booming. He took down Murray and Nadal among others, and took a set off Novak before eventually losing the final battle. Not bad, eh?
13. HIS ABILITY TO HANG WITH THE BIG FOUR: These days, depending on the situation, it comes and it goes. But especially in 2011 and 2012, the Big Four was wins away from being invaded by a French star. The Big Four was The Big Four and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. And boy, was it awesome! Tennis loved that competition and variety.
14. HIS TORONTO VICTORY LAST YEAR: Such a recent, classic example of the Frenchman who has won the hearts of the globe! From seemingly nowhere, Tsonga found the consistency to not just fight, but blaze through his Toronto draw and win the Masters 1000 trophy.
Oh, and did we mention that he took down Murray, Djokovic, Dimitrov and Federer en route?
15. THIS INTERVIEW: Courtesy of the Australian Open’s Kia Open Drive. No one answers with such calm, genuine and unabashed honesty as Tsonga. He’s a big fan of his niece…
16. HIS MATCH VERSUS IVAN DODIG AT QUEEN’S CLUB: This was nothing particularly memorable in terms of the tennis played – in fact, it’s hard to find traces of this third round anywhere. And Jo actually lost the match. But the reason it stood out was the way Jo’s personality shone as he laughed in the face of despair. The crowds who hadn’t seen Tsonga’s best were consoled by the way they had seen his playful nature. When Jo fell down, he started doing press-ups. When he fell into the crowd, he had a laugh – and when he nearly did so again and the crowd braced themselves to catch him, he stopped himself and – grinning – gave them a knowing little shake of his forefinger.
Only you, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga!
17. HIS RANDOM ONE HANDED BACKHANDS: Once upon a time Jo used a one-handed backhand full time. Now, he just uses it on impulse. Whether or not it irks his coaches, it’s rather impressive that he can still use both so convincingly…
18. HIS FRIENDSHIP WITH MONFILS: These two have been buddies since they were young, and it’s a friendship that’s stood the test of time. They’re each unique and humorous – and when they compete against each other, there are no hard feelings. Nice to see.
19. WHEN HE WENT IT ALONE: It takes guts to compete on the ATP without a coach. The standard is higher and tougher than it’s ever been before. Yet Tsonga did just that for a year, relying on instinct and fighting battles all alone. This was during the most successful period of his career thus far: In 2011 and 2012. He was solidly in the top 10 and racking up big victories.
Maybe it’s no coincidence.
20. THAT TIME HE WON AN OLYMPIC SILVER MEDAL: He and Michael Llodra came second only to the Bryan brothers. From a guy who’s not even a doubles player, that’s pretty impressive stuff.
21. HOW HE DOES INJURY: With a smile and a song, a sympathy-stirring picture-tweet, some positive interviews and a lot of working out. If you’ve got to have it, that’s the way to do it. Tsonga-style!
22. JO-WILFRIED TSONGA + ROGER FEDERER + EXHIBITION MATCH = AMAZING: Watch – and laugh!
23. HIS GROUNDSTROKES: On his day, Jo is virtually unstoppable, and can beat anyone. This is majorly thanks to his groundstrokes. Want some adjectives? Booming. Clean. Powerful. Sheer. Want some non-adjectives? Devastatingly placed. Solidly struck. Down like a bomb, finished in a flash.
The backswings are rhythmic and clean. The shots themselves are gorgeous and fearsome. Tennis is privileged to have them.
24. HIS GENUINENESS: When Mardy Fish hit a lineswoman with a serve at Wimbledon in 2012, it was Jo who was quick as a flash at her side to make sure she was okay (or as it turned out, to summon help.) He’s hung out with ballkids on many occasions, taking time out for the fans. He’s a guy with a big heart, and it’s evident.
25. HIS INSPIRATION: You know Nick Kyrgios? The young guy with the amazing serve and ridiculous power who has already beaten Rafael Nadal at a Grand Slam, after saving 11 match points versus Richard Gasquet the round before?
Well, guess who he modelled his gamestyle on?
26. WHEN HE COULDN’T FORGET HOW MUCH FUN THE EXHIBITION MATCH WITH ROGER WAS: It’s really difficult to stay on your side of the court when your friend is on the other side of the net. Just ask Jo.
27. EVERY TIME HE PUTS THE REST OF YOUR LIFE ON HOLD – AND IT TURNS OUT TO BE WORTH IT: The Olympics is an all-too-memorable example…
28. THE WAY HE BEAT CARLOS MOYA IN HIS FIRST EVER MAIN DRAW ATP MATCH: A stat you don’t hear too often – and one that we can see pointed towards future success.
30. FINALLY, THE FACT THAT EVEN THOUGH HE’S JUST TURNED 30, AND EVEN THOUGH HE’S STILL SLAMLESS, JO-WILFRIED TSONGA IS STILL PLAYING AND STILL LOVING TENNIS.
And because of that, we have the privilege of watching him.
Happy Birthday, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga!
And thank you.
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