Tsonga: Finding his mojo
Originally published on: 28/09/11 17:51
IN EARLY APRIL, news came from the French tennis federation that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and coach Eric Winogradsky had split. After seven years together, since they first teamed up back in 2004, one of the longer coach-player relationships on the ATP World Tour was over. The charismatic Frenchman’s explanation was matter of fact, that he wanted to take greater responsibility for his tennis, for his career and the direction he was heading. “I have plenty of other people around me,” he insisted during the Monte Carlo Masters later that month. “My family, my friends, my physio. Everything is good. You look to be a little more independent. First you go to school, later, you stop living with your parents… It’s for me, today, to manage my career as I want.”
Four months on and the 26-year-old’s decision is beginning to look like a master stroke. OK, perhaps his results during the European clay court season were less than spectacular, but the muscular right-hander would be the first to admit the ‘dirt’ is the surface on which he is least likely to succeed. Once he had the much slicker British grass under his adidas sneakers, however, he produced the kind of tennis fans had fallen in love with during his breakthrough Grand Slam when he bullied his way to the Australian Open final back in 2008.
First it was Rafael Nadal who was given a taste of Tsonga’s breathtaking brand of tennis when the man from Le Mans took down the world No.1 in three sets in the last eight at Queen’s in mid-June, but Tsonga’s piece de resistance was still to come.
Trailing Roger Federer by two sets to love in the Wimbledon quarter-finals two weeks later, Tsonga produced the performance of his life to shock the Swiss master in five sets. Despite falling to Novak Djokovic in another enthralling contest in the semi-finals two days later, Tsonga’s tennis during the British grass court season had justified that difficult decision three months earlier.
The talent has been there since the early days, of course. Tsonga, who has a Congolese father and French mother, ended his junior days in 2003 as the second best 18-and-under tennis player in the world. He reached the semi-finals of the boys’ singles at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon before winning the junior event at the US Open by beating an equally talented young man by the name of Marcos Baghdatis.
His formative years on tour were dogged by back, abdominal and shoulder problems – particularly during 2005 and 2006 – before he began to realise some of his early promise by becoming the ATP Newcomer of the Year in 2007.
It was during the following season when Tsonga first entered the big time, however – and in some style. His physical, acrobatic tennis was a breath of fresh air when the Australian Open burst into life in early 2008. Tsonga first thumped a stunned Andy Murray in round one and then – shock, horror! – Nadal in the semi-finals to feature in his first Grand Slam title decider against Novak Djokovic.
The Serb proved the more experienced on finals day but Tsonga’s form in Melbourne was a sign of things to come. He won his first ATP World Tour title – one of five he holds today – by gaining revenge over Djokovic in the Bangkok final that autumn and thrilled his French fans by claiming his first ATP Masters 1000 trophy on home soil indoors in Paris at the tail-end of the year. His run in Bercy included three victories over top ten players – Djokovic once more, Andy Roddick and in the final David Nalbandian – which guaranteed his place among the world’s top eight men at the season-ending champion-ships in Shanghai where he would beat Djokovic once more to end the season at what is still his highest ever singles ranking of No.6. To think he achieved all this despite missing three months of that season with a knee injury is nothing short of phenomenal.
After being named the 2008 ATP’s Most Improved Player of Year, his next 12 months on tour were almost as successful. Three more titles followed – in Johannesburg, Marseille and Tokyo – and for the second season in succession he entered the off-season among the world’s top ten.
After more strong performances Down Under at the beginning of 2010 when he reached the second Grand Slam semi-final of his career in Melbourne, and his best Wimbledon to date six months later by reaching the last eight in SW19, Tsonga’s season took a more familiar turn, however. The body once more let him down – this time his left knee – which would result in three months on the sidelines and him missing the entire US summer hard court swing.
Playing just 15 tournaments during 2010 was always going to hurt his ranking and Tsonga dropped out of the top 20 briefly during May of this year. Thankfully for his army of fans the world over, however, it is beginning to look as if the top ten beckons once more.
Most top players will tell you it is nigh on impossible maintaining a position at the top of the rankings without playing a full season and, so far during 2011, Tsonga has at least ticked that box. The Frenchman believes his biggest improvement hasn’t come in the gym, however – it has been between the ears.
“I think I improve a lot mentally,” he insists. “I’m stronger because I change lot of things, you know, in my tennis, and now I try to stay focused all the time and just breathe and stay quiet. I just need to be quiet between the points. But during the points, I can do everything, you know. I have to be aggressive. I have to be spontaneous. But between points I just try to stay focused and breathe and stay quiet, and this is the way I play well.”
That new-found equilibrium was there for all to see during his Wimbledon adventure, the Frenchman winning over legions of new fans with his acrobatic displays. “This is the only surface you can really dive because on the others if you dive you go directly to the hospital!” he jokes. “I don’t have any problem with all the crowds, so it’s every time the same thing. If you give to them, they give to you. I try to give everything in my match. I try to fight, and then they support me.”
What will surely have pleased Tsonga more than anything during his stay in London, however – and will give him renewed optimism that one day he can get his hands on a first Grand Slam trophy – will be the tennis he was able to produce under pressure. His five-set victory over Federer made him the first person in 179 matches to hit back from a two-set deficit at one of the four majors against the Swiss, completing an unlikely victory largely thanks to a ruthless serving display and some nerveless tennis when it mattered most.
“I feel good with this,” Tsonga says of performing on the world’s show courts. “I think I’m the kind of player who likes, you know, these big moments. So I hope I will have some more. You feel like you’re, I don’t know, one of the best, even if you are not. So you try to play like the best player in the world.”
And if he can reproduce that same kind of tennis across the continents and across the four major surfaces employed on the ATP World Tour, then what does he believe is possible?
“[Wimbledon] is the first tournament I play like this,” he admits. “I hope I will play the same level or better in the future. I will continue in this way and just try to play my best tennis on the court. I played three years not far from the top 10, or in the top 10, and now I want more. I want more!”