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Tsonga Shaping Up As France's Greatest Hope

Roland Garros 2008

Jo-Wilfried TsongaGetty ImagesJo-Wilfried Tsonga burst onto the world stage with his run to the Australian Open finals.

France had more Top 100 players last year than any other country, yet on the 25th anniversary of Yannick Noah's celebrated Roland Garros victory in 1983, the nation still awaits its next Grand Slam champion. Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has emerged from the shadows of countrymen Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils to become France's great new hope.

It was 6 a.m. on a January morning. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's plane began its descent towards the runway at Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, at last concluding its 10,400-mile journey from Melbourne, Australia. There had been many such flights in Tsonga's life, but none could quite prepare him for what was to come this morning.

As Tsonga exited the plane, more than 100 people lined the corridors of the airport to greet him. Immediately, Tsonga was driven to the center of the French tennis universe - Roland Garros - for a press conference, where he charmed dozens of print and broadcast journalists.

In conversation, the 6' 2", 200-pound Tsonga is a gentle man, at times almost pensive, at others even cheeky, his small brown eyes kindly taking in what's around him, a sensitive quality that's a pleasing contrast with the equally charismatic and physical firepower of his game. His subdued speaking voice is the sign of reflection, an activity he engages in often when enjoying one of his favorite off-court passions, fishing.

Tsonga kicked off 2008 in grand style. In only the fifth Grand Slam of his career, he had splashed himself into history by reaching the finals of the Australian Open. Moreover, Tsonga had done it in an arresting manner, playing brilliant attacking tennis in beating such rough customers as Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny and Rafael Nadal before losing a tight four-setter to Novak Djokovic. Over the span of a fortnight, Tsonga earned more prize money than he had in his entire career. "I was impressed with the way he plays," said Djokovic in Australia. "He's just living the dream. For him it's a great achievement."

From a media standpoint, a star was born. But of course, in tennis there is no such thing as an overnight success. Like all tennis players, Tsonga's ascent was years in the making, a rise also marked by exceptional setbacks - a painful set of injuries that threatened to derail his entire career and continue to require extensive maintenance and careful attention to scheduling. A herniated disc kept him off the tour from November 2004 to March 2005. Later that year he suffered a serious shoulder injury. Plummeting out of the top 300, laboring through Future and Challenger events all over the world, Tsonga played but one ATP match in 2005 and 2006.

"When you start back from an injury, you start from the beginning," says Tsonga's coach, former pro Eric Winogradsky. "He did so much. He played futures and challenges. Every time he'd go up and come back, he played well quickly. In a way it's now brand new just to be able to be a tennis player every week."

Tsonga takes it all in stride. There is a youthful gentleness to Tsonga's face, an open-minded lack of pretense that surfaces in the candid way he describes his journey. Sitting in the players' lounge at the Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, he says, "It's all in my mind. I have this confidence from having put in all this work. In Australia I wasn't surprised. It was just good to do my job."

The son of a French mother, Evelyne, and a Congolese father, Didier, Tsonga was born and raised in the French town of Le Mans. Didier had moved to France in the '70s to play handball. At 27, he picked up tennis, and by age four, young Jo-Wilfried also started hitting tennis balls. "Tennis is like life," says Tsonga. "It's difficult but sometimes it's easy when you want." As a boy, Tsonga liked playing sports far more than school, an emphasis that did not please his parents, both of whom were schoolteachers. Says Tsonga, "It was hard for me to stay in my chair."

Tsonga's favorite players growing up were expressive shotmakers - Pete Sampras, Younes El Aynaoui and the last French man to win Roland Garros, Hall of Famer Yannick Noah. These were fitting influences in a nation that encourages stylistic diversity and creative, expressive tennis. Consider the wide range of skills exhibited not just by Tsonga but by such other Frenchman as Sebastien Grosjean, Arnaud Clement, Fabrice Santoro, Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet.

All through his teens, though, Tsonga took a back seat to the precocious Gasquet, a player of such promise he was featured on the cover of a French tennis magazine at the age of nine. But Tsonga was no pushover, and by 2003 he'd become the world's second-best junior, ranked only behind another future Australian Open finalist, flashy Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis (who'd also honed his game in France). But that same year, Gasquet - the world's number one junior the year before - had already cracked the Top 100 by age 17.

That background made Tsonga's taut 6-2, 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 win versus Gasquet in Australia particularly sweet. While Tsonga and Gasquet are good friends, that means little inside the lines. "It's good for me," Tsonga said after their three-hour, 15-minute match, "because it's lot of confidence to beat a player like that. He's very good. And for me, it was a test, you know. When you beat somebody like this, you know you can beat a lot of guys."

Winogradsky concedes that while he didn't see Tsonga play much in the juniors, "I knew he had big potential. I always thought he could be an aggressive player. He could come to net, he was confident, he was ready." And then, holding his hands to his head, Winogradsky says, "and then he wasn't ready" - a reference to the injuries.

His looks and size have earned Tsonga comparisons to the great boxer, Muhammad Ali. Added to this is Didier's attendance at the infamous Ali "Rumble in the Jungle" fight versus George Foreman that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974.

But the comparison ends once Tsonga walks on the court. While Ali's rope-a-dope, float and attack fighting style has more in common with such finesse players as John McEnroe or the disruptive Santoro, Tsonga's game is exceptionally physical. At his best, he can smother opponents with strong serves, forehands to all corners and superb court coverage - maybe even more of a tennis version of Ali's opponent, Foreman, combined with another formidable boxer, the ever-forceful Joe Frazier.

Says Nadal, impressed by the Frenchman's ability to land repeated body punches, "Tsonga is tough, because if he serves well, it's very difficult to try play aggressive. His second serve is tough, because the bounce is very strange and difficult to attack." Added to this is a willingness to move forward and, as seen in Australia, remarkable touch. "With that size and agility, he should get into the net even more," says Hall of Famer Pancho Segura, former coach of Jimmy Connors.

Coming into the thick part of the year at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, though, it's not been a good time for Tsonga. Since Australia, he compiled a mere 4-5 match record before reaching the semifinals at Casablanca in the week before Roland Garros. Indeed, just as Tsonga reached a career-high ranking of number 12 in the world this past March, he suffered a lateral meniscus injury to his right knee that kept him out of France's Davis Cup quarterfinal versus the U.S. and a good deal of the spring European clay court season. His troublesome right knee also forced Tsonga to hand a walkover to countryman Gilles Simon in the Casablanca semifinals.

Then the news got worse. Tsonga, who had played just one career match at Roland Garros (a first-round loss as a wild card to Andy Roddick in 2005), would miss the French Open for a third consecutive year. He announced at a press conference the day before Roland Garros began that he would undergo surgery on his right knee.

Tsonga said that his knee injury, suffered before the early April Davis Cup tie against the U.S, had never fully healed. "Since then it was a test to see whether it would hold up. I reached the critical time when I needed an operation before it's too late. It's enormously frustrating. To play very well in any Grand Slam is super, but to play very well at Roland Garros would have been magic."

If in some ways Tsonga is still a young 23, the cascading flow of injuries is something that can make him old beyond his years. It's not easy to have the build of a heavyweight boxer and sustain an ATP career. Consider, for example, the injuries that relentlessly plagued such strapping shotmakers as Australian Mark Philippoussis and American Taylor Dent. In Philippoussis' case, his knees betrayed him. For Dent, back pains repeatedly cropped up. Though Philippoussis reached two Grand Slam singles finals and Dent made it as high as 21 in the world, it's likely each feels he left some of his best tennis more in the trainer's room than on the court.

While Tsonga in many ways has a more flexible, versatile playing style and can dart around the court much better than Philippoussis or Dent, it was certainly vexing to see him sidelined so soon after his finest fortnight.

With both his own history and the challenges of other big men in mind, Tsonga must be exceptionally vigilant about the proper mix of fitness, flexibility, strength, stretching, scheduling and all the other factors that comprise the life of a professional tennis player who's already had his share of pain.

"And believe me," says 6' 5" Justin Gimelstob, a recently-retired pro who over the course of his career endured more than a dozen cortisone shots to quell his own back pains, "it's worth every nickel to travel comfortably too. You don't want to do stupid things like fly coach, show up at a tournament and barely be able to walk."

All these cautionary fables and sobering times away from the tour surely add a world-weary flavor to Tsonga's sensibility. Reflecting on his woes, Tsonga says, "When you are injured, you do what you have to do." Then he pauses and recalls what he's been through over the last few years. "One thing I knew during that time was this," he says, "I will come back." 

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