At French Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stages a brave, brilliant farewell

At French Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga stages a brave, brilliant farewell

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PARIS — Trumpets blared. Cheers rang out. And rousing strains of “La Marseillaise” reverberated through Roland Garros on Tuesday as French tennis fans, united in joyful solidarity, did all they could to help Jo-Wilfried Tsonga extend his career one more day.

Tsonga, the mightiest and most genial among the last great generation of French players, had previously announced that this year’s French Open would be his last. At 37, he was ready to retire, ranked No. 297 and eager to devote his attention to his wife and their two young children.

After he drew eighth-seeded Casper Ruud as his first-round opponent, Tsonga’s final Grand Slam tournament was expected to end with a straight-sets defeat before an adoring audience at Court Philippe-Chatrier.

Instead, Tsonga produced a thriller — a nearly four-hour heart-stopper that encapsulated a career’s worth of highs and lows, effort and heart, cloaked in love and respect.

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Blasting forehands with abandon, Tsonga claimed the opening set against Norway’s 23-year-old clay-court prodigy in a tiebreaker. The second set was just as much a tussle, with Ruud eking out a tiebreaker to level the proceedings.

Tsonga’s fierce groundstrokes lost their bearings in the third set, but he battled on. Drawing strength from the crowd, he poured the full fury of his game into attempting to force a fifth set.

He was one service game from doing just that, leading 6-5, when something seemed to pop in his shoulder during the changeover that followed.

It wasn’t until Tsonga was about to serve, he explained afterward, that he realized he couldn’t raise his arm. He called for the trainer, and the crowd fell silent.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to stay on the court and finish off this match,’ ” Tsonga later said. “That’s how I wanted to finish — on the court, giving my best tennis.”

The trainer kneaded his shoulder, but it did no good.

Tsonga couldn’t mount a credible effort in the fourth-set tiebreaker. At one point, he switched the racket from his right hand to his left — mid-rally — just to keep the ball in play.

And when he stepped up for what proved to be his final serve, amid certain defeat, the crowd stood. The ovation moved him to tears he tried wiping away with his wristbands. But the tears kept falling, and his face contorted with emotion.

After sharing an embrace with Ruud at the net following the 6-7 (8-6), 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 7-6 (7-0) outcome, Tsonga fell to his knees and rested his forehead on the red clay as the cheering continued.

In the trophy presentation that followed, Ruud said he didn’t want to speak about himself. He wanted to pay tribute to Tsonga, and he recalled how upset he was, as a 9-year-old, watching on TV as Tsonga beat his idol, Rafael Nadal, at the 2008 Australian Open.

“I was a sad boy,” Ruud recalled. “But after, I learned he is such a great, nice person on and off the court.”

Turning to Tsonga, with a tear in his eye, Ruud said, “You are the perfect example of what tennis players should be like and behave like.”

A formal ceremony followed in which Tsonga’s achievements were recounted in a video spotlighting his 2012 Olympic doubles silver medal, his 18 ATP tournament titles, his role in helping France win the 2017 Davis Cup and his rare status in having beaten Roger Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic in Grand Slams, when each was in his prime.

It was a testament to Tsonga the man, more so than the tennis player, that when the French tennis federation invited his former coaches to attend, seemingly everyone did. Nearly a dozen coaches and trainers from childhood to adulthood strode onto the court, one after another, each wearing a T-shirt that read, “Merci Jo,” to extend their thanks in person in every conceivable way — a pat on his barrel chest, a rub of his head, a cradle of his face, a kiss on both cheeks and hugs that nearly swallowed the 6-2, 205-pounder whole.

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French players strode out in tribute, as well — Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Benoit Paire among them — while Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray delivered videotaped congratulations that evoked a happier era for French tennis.

This year, there isn’t a single French player, man or woman, among the French Open’s 64 seeds. And a Frenchman hasn’t won the tournament since 1983, when Yannick Noah did so.

Tsonga, who reached a career-high No. 5 ranking in 2012, was regarded as the country’s best hope of snapping that drought, reaching the semifinals in 2013 and 2015. But like his compatriot Monfils, a 2008 French Open semifinalist, Tsonga had the misfortune of peaking in the same era as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who have 61 Grand Slam singles titles among them.

In paying tribute to Tsonga, Murray hailed him as “a great ambassador for the sport.” Nadal called him “one of the most charismatic players ever to play the game.” And Federer, speaking in French, said: “Ciao, Willi! It was a pleasure to play against you and even to lose against you!”

Tsonga’s parents looked on from the court, alongside his sister, brother, wife and children, as he stepped up to thank each person.

“I’ve had fabulous days and some that have not been so good,” Tsonga said, speaking in French, as interpreted by Eurosport. “I’m a French player. I’m a Swiss player. I’m a Congolese player. I’m a Black player, I’m a White player. I am a father.

“… I am now standing in front of you without my racket, with my best friends of 30 years. Thank you, Noura, for being alongside me. My family are now my priority. Thank you, tennis. I love you.”

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