Mr. Spontaneity: Tsonga Flies Solo
by James Buddell
© Yohan Brandt
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is hopeful of a return to the Top 10, and believes that enjoying his time on court will allow him to play his best tennis.
Without a coach for the first time in seven years, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is hoping to build on the lessons he learned in 2008 in order to regain the spontaneity in his game.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the breath of fresh air that swept through men’s tennis in 2008, has sometimes found it difficult to adjust to a life in the media spotlight. “I think when I first came onto tour, I played well, but then with results there was lots more expectation and off-court interest as I rose up the rankings,” admitted Tsonga, at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
“It was difficult to categorise every part of my life. It was tough to be recognised, as outside of the court I am really quiet and private. Now I am trying to relax before matches. I think I just need to play without thinking and without pressure also.”
It is one of the reasons why in April this year he parted company with his French Tennis Federation coach of seven years, Eric Winogradsky, who had previously nurtured Richard Gasquet onto the ATP World Tour. “It was difficult to end my partnership with Eric,” says Tsonga, who rose to a career-high World No. 6 and picked up five ATP World Tour titles under Winogradsky’s guidance. “He took me on when I was 19 and influenced the first part of my career.
“I am not working anymore with a coach. I just play to have fun, play my best tennis, take pleasure from the fight [in a match] and that’s it. I want to be spontaneous and not have any outside influence. I just want to be me, so I don’t have any regrets.
“I am not asking anyone for advice. I want to figure tactics, everything out for myself. I want to mature more as a person and find the spontaneity that has been missing. Since I have been alone I have been playing better every week [smiling], so I will stay like this. Maybe I will need advice later, but for now I’m fine.”
Patrick Mouratoglou, who currently coaches Jeremy Chardy, is uncertain whether Tsonga can return to the Top 10 of the South African Airways 2011 ATP Rankings without a coach. “In my experience, it is not possible for anyone to reach the Top 10 without a coach,” says Mouratoglou. “All the players have someone, even Roger Federer had Severin Luthi when he was claiming he had no coach.”
But Mouratoglou appreciates Tsonga’s present need for independence. “I understand that Jo needs, for the moment, to feel freer and to play the way he feels it. In the short term, I believe it will help him get in touch with himself. It is like a love relationship, when it is very difficult to live another love story right after breaking up with someone.
“Jo needs time to get ready for a new professional relationship. He still can become much better than he has ever been. He has a lot of potential. He is one of the players that have the shots and the game to win a Grand Slam. For that purpose, he needs a new project for him and his game.”
Many purists will hope that Tsonga’s body will remain fit enough so he can recapture the kind of athletic and dynamic displays that once transfixed the imagination of galleries worldwide. He outmuscled the opposition from their stride, forcing them into hitting a succession of defensive shots in response to booming service deliveries that kick-started his acrobatic game, and produced blistering forehands that scrambled their minds.
“I haven’t changed my technique on different strokes, but the way I approach the sport has changed,” he says. “I try to be perfect in my preparation, working with the best people and make a serious investment in that. My fitness and work with my physio have become even more important. Now I feel good.”
So can Tsonga play without fear once again on court, despite all his setbacks, and put together a run of strong performances tournament after tournament? Marcos Baghdatis’s former mentor, Mouratoglou, thinks so.
“For each player there is a certain level of fear, confidence and motivation all the time,” believes Mouratoglou. “Fear is the enemy that confidence and motivation can fight with. All those three elements are constantly moving, and that explains why sometimes it is easier for a player to fight against his fear.
“In the exceptional case of Novak Djokovic right now – and Rafael Nadal last year – there will still be a lot of fear because his expectations rise and rise. But his level of confidence is so high that he can easily fight against it. All the players need this stress, because without it they cannot be efficient on the court.
“In Jo’s case, he has a very strong personality. He has never been afraid to show his ambitions. He needs adrenaline and challenges to be better. He knows it. That is why he often puts a lot of pressure on himself because his tennis needs it. He is a great fighter with a strong ego and this is what makes him so competitive. He brings a lot of confidence and power. Players feel strong being close to him in the same team.”
At 26 years of age, Tsonga's body may no longer be the supple and agile frame that took him to the Australian Open final and BNP Paribas Masters title three seasons ago. But by attempting to regain the spontaneity and fluidity of his vintage performances, Tsonga hopes he will be able to dish out more savage lessons on smothering his rivals.
“I still love the sport, even more than a year ago, when it was difficult for me,” he says. “I still love playing on the grand stages and I want to take a lot of pleasure on the court, so that I can play my best tennis. In the next few months I want to be back in the Top 10 and start winning titles again.”