Expect the unexpected
January 19, 2009
JO-WILFRIED Tsonga is the big man sitting unobtrusively in the far corner of the hotel foyer reading a newspaper.
He is the uninhibited power athlete, the bolter who last year at Melbourne Park stormed through six rounds and the first set of his debut senior final, yet speaks in a soft, gentle voice so at odds with his loud, loud game.
"It was fantastic," is how Tsonga, 23, recalls his thrilling Australian Open experience, having ignited the tournament by beating four top-10 players, including Andy Murray in the first round and Rafael Nadal in the semis, when ranked just 38th. "I played great tennis there so I hope this year I can play the same."
Was he surprised by what he achieved? "No, no, because I played good, and I know I can do that."
In the end, only Novak Djokovic could stop the charismatic son of two schoolteachers a French mother, Evelyne, and Congolese father, Didier from claiming his first grand slam title, as just the sixth unseeded men's finalist in the event's history.
He returns this year as the world No. 6, but having had to withdraw from the Sydney quarter-finals with a back injury, and still with twin personalities. "I'm very different on the court than outside," he admits.
His coach, Eric Winogradsky, compatriot Amelie Mauresmo and others sum Tsonga up similarly. There is Jo the player/entertainer, the natural shot-maker with the electric, exuberant game. And there is Jo the person, the young man from Le Mans who prefers fishing to clubbing and speaks barely above a whisper.
"His personality's very different on and off the court," said Mauresmo. "He's very calm and very quiet and you can see that he is really thinking things through, and then when you see him on the court he's kind of all over the place and playing with instinct and no fear, so it's kind of two personalities there.
"He's definitely very entertaining. What he does is unexpected and you really never know what's going to happen, and what shot he's going to come up with, but he showed some great nerve, not only at the Australian Open last year but in Paris at the end of the season. Physically impressive, very very powerful, and then the game can go really everywhere. So it's really fun to watch, definitely."
Indeed, it is fortunate that Tsonga's game speaks more expansively than his words because this interview was, well, succinct. Perhaps it was the language barrier, for he is apparently more forthcoming in French, but as French journalist Philippe Bouin of L'Equipe says: "Monosyllabic? It is a good sign. He is not here to fool around."
Question: There is a lot of talk about the Big Four players. How far behind them do you think you are?
Answer: "Not very far."
Q: Do you believe you can reach No.1?
A: "Yeah I can. I have to stay healthy and that's it."
Q: Can Federer return to No. 1?
A: "Of course."
Q: Who is the best player in men's tennis at the moment?
A: "I can't say."
Q: You visited the Congo this year to meet your paternal grandfather and other family members? Why now?
A: "The opportunity."
Yikes. Mon dieu. Etc. Winogradsky, fortunately, provides more of an insight, filling the gaps left by Tsonga's brief admission that the month or two after his Baghdatis-like coming-of-age at the Australian Open were "a bit difficult"; that his life had changed to the point that he could not walk down the street without being approached for autographs or photographs.
"When we came back in France it was crazy, totally crazy, and so many people waiting for him everywhere, wanting to see him, touch him, and of course it took him maybe a few weeks to understand this, to measure how happy people were to see him playing on the court," Winogradsky recalls.
"And actually in France it's a good feeling because as important as it is to be a good player, to win matches, it's important for him to show that he's a good person, that he has a good charisma in France. It could be worse in other countries, like England, but the press can be so rude sometimes, so when you have a nice charisma sometimes it can help. Pat Rafter, yes, is the best example, and (Tsonga) likes Pat Rafter because of that."
The entertainer within comes out naturally, according to Tsonga. "I have origin from Africa, and from France, so I think it's in my personality, I can show my sentiment and everything, and I can take everything for me."
Sometimes, he will pause to look at the big screen replay of what he has just done. "Sometimes I'm excited because I want to see what I did, but not every time."
His first visit to the Congo was hugely emotional. Didier had left at the age of 23, and when he returned it was with a famous son who met President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and played tennis over a net erected on the airport tarmac. "They are proud of my family, of my father, and of me," says Tsonga of his extended family.
Are you a big name in the Congo? "Who?" You? "Yeah." How does that make you feel? "Proud."
The man who regards Roger Federer as his toughest opponent is also naturally self-assured. Six months after he first started working with Winogradsky, Tsonga declared his ambition to perform on the big courts, his readiness to play in the most prestigious tournaments. The problem, back then, was that his ranking was far closer to 400 than 40.
"He always had high expectations, even when he was really bad ranked, when you only plan to play some Futures tournaments and maybe, at the best, Challenger tournaments," Winogradsky says.
"So when the guy talks about playing the grand slams you go: 'OK, I hope for you, but at the moment you still have to play the other ones'. I tell you this to show that Jo was already convinced that he could go that far."
By then, Winogradsky, too, was a believer. So when Tsonga asked his coach to help procure some wildcards through the French federation, a few were delivered. But just a few. Despite the plethora of tournaments in France, Tsonga could not expect what his more advanced contemporaries Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils were receiving. And, besides, Winogradsky believed in the benefits that qualifying experiences and match play would bring.
Tsonga disagreed and so was constantly, insistently, pleading his case. His breakthrough came, as Winogradsky recalls it, in September, 2004, in Beijing. Still ranked 209th, honed by his many months in the small-time events, he qualified and upset then world No. 6 Carlos Moya. By November, he had made his Masters-level debut, beating Mario Ancic at home in France. After that, as has been well documented, only injuries would hold him back.
To some extent they still do and Winogradsky must nurse Tsonga through training to try to avoid any more of the physical issues that have waylaid him, to ensure he adheres to the painstaking, time-consuming routines and exercises his body requires that others, more fortunate, do not.
Last year it was his right knee that faltered, necessitating surgery that cost him three months, including Wimbledon; last week, again, his troublesome back, although there is no suggestion the fifth seed will not be fit to contest today's opening round against Juan Monaco.
Winogradsky says he just needs Tsonga to be fit, for the confidence is inherent, and the coach insists he does not see the hot-and-cold aspects of his protege's game as frustrating so much, but as part of the challenge, an important aspect of his job.
"Some times he can give much more than I expected, and sometime he is giving a little bit more than I expected, but if I have to make the average then it's much more than I expect. Anyway, it's good," he says.
Much was taken from last year's finals debut at Melbourne Park and that is by three rounds Tsonga's best grand slam outcome.
Yet Winogradsky believes it was also "too quick" for his charge to know how to win a major title and since then he has claimed two of varying sizes: in Bangkok and Paris Bercy. If only, the coach muses, those experiences had come before the Australian, last year's four-set finals result might have been different.
"He won in Bangkok and Bercy because the Melbourne final gave him the experience to do it," Winogradsky says. "He knows how to do it. He's not afraid or scared and when he came on the court for the final at Bercy I knew that more than 50 per cent of the job was done just going on the court.
"Of course, you have to beat the guy just in front of you, but when you just arrive on the court and you don't know what's going to happen, you have more chance to lose than to win. If he is able to reach the (Australian Open) final one more time, yes, I think he will know what to do in the key points."
And so, today, having remembered what Tsonga showed he could do last summer, it all begins again. We know he is now ranked sixth in the world. We have heard, oh so quietly, that he is "not very far" behind the top four. What is left to be seen is what he needs to do to catch-up.
"In my game, nothing," Tsonga murmurs, so quietly. "I think I just have to be healthy, because I beat Andy (Murray), I beat Novak and I beat Rafael. I know I can play like them, and that's it."