Tsonga starts singing again
WHILE Andy Murray makes headline news without even playing at Wimbledon,
Novak Djokovic wins new fans with every match he plays (especially those of
a female persuasion) and Richard Gasquet continues to amaze with his sublime
talents and frustrate with his lack of consistency, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is
the forgotten man of the new generation.
The tall 22-year-old Frenchman - who is the spitting image of a young
Muhammad Ali - arrived on the professional scene with a bang, making his
breakthrough alongside Gael Monfils at the Masters Series event in Paris in
2004. Given wild cards into the qualifying competition, both men earned
their place in the main draw and both won a round, Tsonga beating Mario
Ancic. With that win coming on the back of a victory over Carlos Moya at the
Beijing tournament a couple of moths before, it was no wonder that France
sat up and took notice - here were two young stars of the future.
But while Monfils built on that start and worked his way up the world
pecking order, breaking into the top 30 last year, no more was heard of
Tsonga. Pushed out of the spotlight in his home country by Monfils and
Gasquet and completely overtaken by Murray, Djokovic, Marcos Baghdatis and
Tomas Berdych, no one knew or cared where he was.
He was, in fact, at the doctors, asking for attention to a series of
injuries that robbed him of the first three years of his career. It all
began with a herniated disc in his back and was followed up with shoulder
and knee problems. When the medics finally cleared him to get back to work,
Tsonga was still restricted to playing just eight tournaments a year in 2005
and 2006. When he was able to play, he tended to win, but he was not able to
play enough to break out of the challenger circuit.
As it turned out, those two years were the making of Tsonga. As a junior, he
was regarded as a man of immense talent but very little brain. He had the
game to get to the top but appeared to have all the fighting spirit of a wet
lettuce. In 2003, he was one match away from finishing the year as the
junior world champion but when the day of the match came, he deflated like
an elderly balloon, was well beaten and could not bear to watch as Baghdatis
overtook him in the rankings and was lauded as the great hope of the future.
It was the sort of collapse Tsonga could not imagine happening now.
Focused, dedicated and determined, Tsonga knows that he has been given a
second chance and he refuses to waste it. He also knows that he is good -
and gradually the rest of the boys in the locker room are beginning to
realise it, too.
At the start of this year, he got a wild card in the Australian Open as part
of a reciprocal arrangement between the French and Australian tennis
federations. Although he did not win his opening match against Andy Roddick,
he gave the American a fright. Here was a man who could serve as hard as
Roddick, who could hit the ball as hard as Roddick and who believed that he
had as much right to be in the second round as Roddick. Suddenly the world
began to remember this Tsonga bloke.
Part of the maturing process is knowing your own limitations and where the
younger, more immature Tsonga would have jumped at the chance to play at his
home grand slam, Tsonga turned down the wild card offered to him this year
by the French Tennis Federation. He had just won four challenger titles in
five attempts and he was tired. After all his injury problems, he was not
sure that his body could withstand best of five set matches on clay at
Roland Garros, so he politely refused.
Instead, he came to Britain, won the Surbiton challenger while, at the same
time, qualifying for Queen's and now has arrived in a blaze of glory at
"I played my first match on the Saturday at the Queen's," he recalled.
"Afterwards I took the car to go to Surbiton. After my match at Surbiton, I
came back to Queen's to play my second round of qualification. The same
thing the day after. It was tough, but I made it.
"I'm confident because I made it three years ago. I beat (Carlos) Moya. He
was fourth in the world. I'm very confident because I know my game. I can
play against some guys like this."
Now he plays Gasquet for a place in the quarter finals. He may be facing the
world No.14, a man ranked 96 places above him, but he is not afraid. "I did
not come here to lose," he said. "I played him a lot in juniors and I didn't
win, but I am not scared of him."
In fact, Tsonga can barely wait for the match to start. After every win, he
points to an imaginary number on his back, as if he were wearing a football
shirt. It is to show the Murrays, the Djokovics, the Gasquets and the rest
that he is still part of the team, he is still part of the new generation of
potential world beaters. The rest of the world may have forgotten about
Tsonga, but he has every intention of jolting their memory.