Merci Jo: Roland Garros Fans Bid Adieu To Tsonga

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (photo: Roland Garros video)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

Sometimes, the final score doesn’t always tell the entire story. Take Jo-Wilfried Tsonga for instance. The 37-year-old standard bearer of a current-but-aging generation of French players that includes Gaël Monfils, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Benoit Paire, didn’t win his final Roland Garros match – the last one of his remarkable career – against World No. 8 Casper Ruud Tuesday afternoon on at Stade Roland Garros.

Tsonga lost to Ruud, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (0), but not for a lack of perseverance. After all, he needed a medical timeout just to be able to finish what he started against the eighth-seeded Norwegian. Tsonga received treatment on his sore right shoulder that barely allowed him to serve by the end of the match.

Yet, Tsonga, ailing in body but not in mind by the conclusion of his three-hour and 49-minute tussle with Ruud – lifted by numerous standing ovations from the mostly-French crowd and their rousing but heartfelt renditions of “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem – fought to the end. He left Court Philippe-Chatrier a winner in the hearts of Parisians and all of France – and tennis, too.

Always an inspiration to players and fans alike, Tsonga bid farewell to an 18-year pro career that produced 467 victories, rewarded him with 18 ATP Tour titles and earned him $22.5 million in prize money. He announced in April that this year’s Roland Garros, his 13th, would be his final tournament – his fond farewell – and his first-round match with Ruud was a memorable one.

“It was difficult because I came on the court in quite an emotional state,” Tsonga, who went 28-13 in Roland Garros appearances, said in press afterward. “I said to myself, ‘Wait, this is not the time to crack. You have to go for it. You have to play. You wanted to be here. You wanted to fight until the last ball.'”

Although Tsonga, born in Le Mans, France to a Congolese father and a French mother, never won a major title, he came close when he reached the 2008 Australian Open final. He lost to Novak Djokovic, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (2). It was the Serbian’s first major title, the first of a record nine Australian Open crowns, and the first of 20 major men’s singles titles overall.

Tsonga, the most successful French men’s player since Yannick Noah, was once ranked in the Top 10, peaking at No. 5 in 2012. He won two Masters 1000 titles and 14 ATP 250s, and reached the quarterfinals at all four Grand Slams. Tsonga was a Roland Garros semifinalist twice, in 2013 and 2015, but was never able to win the big one. Now, ranked 297th after a string of injuries plummeted his ranking and limited the number of Tour events he played since 2020 to 16, Tsonga received a wild card into the Roland Garros main draw for one last hurrah – and Tuesday afternoon, he owned Court Philippe-Chatrier.

For one set, the 6-foot-2-inch Tsonga looked like his old self. He served big and attacked well. Tsonga battled valiantly and pulled out a first-set tie-break over Ruud, who was three days removed from winning his eighth ATP Tour title and seventh on clay in Geneva over the weekend. The gentle Frenchman nearly won the second set, too. However, the younger – by 14 years – Ruud found his stride and his stroke and wore down Tsonga over the last three sets.

The final-set tie-break went quickly. After Tsonga fell behind 0-6, following one last changeover, he fought back tears as he stood at the baseline to serve one last time. After the final point was recorded, a sixth-shot forehand winner by Ruud, the two met at the net and shared a very warm and respectful hug as the crowd stood and applauded. Tsonga waved to the crowd and knelt down on the court, his forehead brushing the red clay. It was his way of saying thank you.

“There was drama. There was injury. There was a very tough opponent on the other side of the net, because that also has been part of my career,” Tsonga explained. “I think I have faced some incredible players all the way through.”

Soon, Ruud addressed the crowd while Tsonga stood on the sideline. “I don’t want to talk about the match, I want to talk about Jo. It’s tough for me and all the players that you’re stopping,” he said, tears welling in his eyes, as he spoke during his post-match interview near mid-court moments before a lengthy but moving retirement ceremony for Tsonga.

“You’ve been an inspiration to me and so many of the other players. So, thank you for the memories. [I have] so many good memories watching Jo on TV. He’s such a great guy [and] nice person on and off the court. He’s a good example of what a player should be.”

Then, during Tsonga’s retirement ceremony, he was joined on court by his parents, brother, wife Noura and their two young children, and other family members, as well as by coaches from throughout his career and many French “New Musketeers” players from his generation, including Monfils, Simon, Paire, Gasquet and Pierre-Hugues Herbert. There were also taped tributes from Djokovic, Andy MurrayRafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

“He’s one of the most charismatic players to play the game,” Djokovic said in a pre-recorded message. “He brought a lot of attention to the sport because of his charismatic game style. It’s a tremendous loss to men’s tennis, [but] he has made his mark on our sport.”

Recently, in an interview he did with the ATP Tour website, Tsonga expressed: “I always said one of my goals was to inspire kids, inspire other people. I hope I did that during my career. I have been inspired myself by other sportsmen and I know how you feel. I know how you feel when you are a fan of somebody or you admire somebody. It’s a nice feeling.”

By the end of the beautiful ceremony for Tsonga, the man of the moment looked fulfilled and proud. His earlier tears disappeared, morphed into smiles. Tsonga, a Frenchman of joy, gave it his all.

“I played [tennis] because I saw the Davis Cup in 1996,” Tsonga told Tennis Channel during a sit-down interview with Steve Weissman and Chanda Rubin a couple of hours after he left Court Philippe-Chatrier for the last time as an active player. “I saw the celebration of the French team after the match. I told my parents ‘I will do this. I will relive these emotions.’”

Looking back at Tuesday, Tsonga said: “It was special, for sure. It was difficult before, very emotional to go on court. … It was a great adventure during all these years. I feel really grateful. It was very special today.”