Joe-Wilfred Tsonga, one of the most talented contemporaries of the Big Three, hung his racquet at Roland Garros on Tuesday. He announced in April that it would be the final tournament of his long, always entertaining and sometimes white-hot career. The Frenchman, now ranked 297 in the world, took a wild card to play his home major and did not waste any fuel in his first round match against his 14-year-old junior elite player.
Against pick No. 8 Caspar Rudd, Tsonga miraculously surpassed his 37-year-old, multiple-injured, rare body visitor. Tsonga took the first set to tiebreak, lost the next two and served 6-5 in the fourth set before tweaking his right shoulder. Tears, meeting with a physiotherapist, and underarms were served; He was out in the last tiebreak. He hugged Rudd, knelt down and pressed his forehand into the ground, received a round of applause from the crowd in Paris within minutes, and was joined by his friends and family to pay their respects in court.
If you’ve been focusing on tennis for the past decade and a half, you may be tempted to include Tsonga in a team: as one of the talented but under-performing Frenchmen, say, with Richard Gasquet and Gayle Monfils. Or you could drop him to a higher class, with Thomas Berdych and David Ferrer as well as the most deserving players lacking major titles. But maybe he himself understood all that well.
The nickname “Ali” is apt for Tsonga, whose footsteps had a showman’s bounce, and a heavyweight play, all wound strength and faithful reflection. He pulped the heaviest forehand opponents of his era. He took pains to hide his backhand from them, but it was still good for occasional thrills, especially when he removed one hand for a round winner. At his physical peak, his net play was a surprise of diving stabbing and sweet feeling. During his unseeded trip to the final of the 2008 Australian Open, Tsonga defeated semifinal opponent Rafael Nadal. That drop volley clinic, run on a tennis ball with young Nadal-level action, looks like a doctor’s video:
After Nadal’s upset, Tsonga lost to Novak Djokovic in the only Slam final. He later described the loss as a major regret of his career, as he would beat pre-Prime Djokovic in the next five matches. Djokovic, of course, continues to get better, and his opponent did not. The Big Three has erased a generation’s title hopes and has probably not been as directly affected as any men’s trophy case song. Which is to say he didn’t get her. He is one of only three players to have beaten Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the slam. He is one of the three players who have beaten those three and each is at number one in the rankings. When he won the 2014 Masters title in Montreal, beating Djokovic, Andy Murray, Gregor Dimitrov and Federer, he said he was so tired that he urinated blood.
Joe-Wilfred Tsonga would probably have been better able to maintain his body to prevent injuries that hampered his late career. He could possibly refine his two-handed technique. Whatever. The tennis boomer jumped into me when I looked at the old tape again and realized that this former World No. 5 would have stuck most kids sulking in the baseline nowadays. Sometimes you can catch some rough timing and come out of the womb in the same timeline which is the three best to do it. You can still mingle with the best, hit some punitive blows, urinate red and have millions of fun.