"If a man loves the labor of his trade,
apart from any question of success or fame, the gods have called him. − Robert Louis Stevenson
Ever since Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the junior title at the 2003 U.S. Open, he had a name, a game and a face that was easy for fans to remember. But during 2004-2006 the memories started fading. He was sidelined by a series of injuries so serious that doctors told him he might never hit a tennis ball again. Tsonga overcame that adversity with determination, hard work and his trademark smile.
The Muhammad Ali look-alike belatedly but dynamically broke through at the 2008 Australian Open. Playing what he called “unbelievable tennis,” he knocked out four top-15-ranked foes, including world No. 2 Rafael Nadal in a stunning 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 rout, before bowing to Novak Djokovic in a thrilling four-set final.
Fans around the world loved his spectacular shotmaking, especially his diving volleys reminiscent of Boris Becker, and his charismatic personality. Much like 1983 French Open champion Yannick Noah, also the son of an African father and a French mother, the 23-year-old Tsonga embraces his fervent fans. When they gave him a 10-minute standing ovation before a match at a Marseille tournament, Tsonga noted, “Without the, how you say, crowd, I won’t play. I try to share with them.”
Tsonga, who could join the reigning triumvirate of Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, talks about his past challenges, recent stardom and future aspirations in this candid interview.
After you beat Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open, you revealed, “As soon as I arrived in Australia this year I thought something special might happen.” Why did you think that?
I felt great in early December when I started my conditioning training with my coach. Even before hitting any balls, I was confident in my health and felt great.
After hitting for only a week in Europe, I felt ‘tennistically’ great. All these factors combined made me feel like that I could do something special Down Under.
You described the way you played at Melbourne as “unbelievable tennis.” In what ways was it unbelievable? And can you play even better than that?
I was in what we often hear as being “in the zone.” I was hitting well, moving like a cat and felt that I could last for a while. As far as playing better, we all practice to improve, and I still feel that I can play better.
You had a big cheering section during the Australian Open. Some of your supporters painted their faces, and others raised huge letters spelling out your last name. Would you please tell me about these enthusiastic fans.
Australia is always a special place because many fans adopt a player at the beginning of the tournament. We’ve seen this with Mr. Marcos Baghdatis two years ago, and I guess the crowd took me under its wings. As far as the painted face, they were a group of young French students in Australia for a semester. I am thankful for everyone’s support down there.
After losing the close and exciting Australian Open final, you were overcome with emotion and confided, “I had to grit my teeth to keep from crying.” What exactly were you feeling after the final?
A lot of emotions flew in, seeing my parents in the stands was a very special moment for me. They were my number one supporters growing up, and with everything they’ve been through, I was glad they could have witnessed that moment. On the spur of the moment, the emotions, stress and fatigue of two weeks worth of the tournament fell down, and you finally realize what you’ve achieved.
Your father, Didier, called you “a showman.” What is your attitude about performing in front of large crowds?
I honestly cannot recall that my dad said that. But every time I step on the court, it is a whole entertainment experience. When I hear 15,000 people cheer and encourage me, I get some energy from them and work with them.
You have been compared with Muhammad Ali. What do you like most about him? And how do you think you are similar to him?
I see the resemblance and appreciate the comparison to this great champion, but I remain myself. I don’t have any poetic sayings, but my dad told me the stories about Ali and the fight in Kinshasa [the famous 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman] that he witnessed.
When you were a boy, who were your sports and your tennis heroes? And what did you like and admire about them?
I liked [Patrick] Rafter, [Younes] El Aynaoui and [Pete] Sampras. I liked their professionalism and style of play. I had a few other sports heroes, but mainly soccer players in France.
From late 2004 to the end of 2006, you were plagued by a herniated disc, two right shoulder injuries, back and abdominal ailments and the re-injuring of an abdominal injury. During that period you played only eight tournaments. What kept your spirits up during that difficult time? And did you ever consider giving up your pro tennis career?
The mix of my injuries were probably my biggest challenges to date, and having had to deal with this only gives more strength now while on the court. The toughest part was facing the doctors’ assessment of my injuries and hearing that I may never again hit a tennis ball. I used this to reflect upon my ‘short’ career and decided not to let go. I’ve work hard to come back and stay injury free with the help of my strength and conditioning coach [Cyril Brechbul] as well as my trainer
You played and trained with Gael Monfils for several years. Would you please tell me about your friendship and your rivalry with him.
Gael is a special person for me. He is probably my best friend on tour. There is no rivalry between us, we practice together while playing the same tournament and we share some of the same interests so we get along great. I only wish for him to return to his best form as he is one of the best players in the world.
You are listed at 6’2” (1.88m) and 200 pounds (90 kg). Is that too much weight to carry in a sport that requires so much speed, agility, leaping ability and stamina?
This is my build. I am working with it and make it an advantage rather than something negative. As far as speed and agility, I think I perform quite well, and I have worked hard in the past couple of years to build on the stamina that I need to stay focused and on the courts for hours.
In terms of pure athletic ability, how do you rate on the pro tour? Are you equal to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic? Or even better than them?
I cannot make a parallel with them, but all I can say is that I work hard toward the one goal of being the best player I can be, both from a physical and mental standpoint. The players you’ve mentioned are among the greatest and also work hard to retain their edge.
San Antonio Spur star Tony Parker, who shares a French agent with you, couldn’t sleep near the end of the Australian Open because he was charged up with excitement while you crushed heavily favored Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Do you know Tony? What is your reaction to that?
I have yet to meet Tony in person. We’ve talked on the phone on numerous occasions. It is great for me to have someone with his experience to share his insights. Even if we do not play the same sport, at the end of the day it comes down to preparation and experience, and I can probably learn a thing or two about his role in San Antonio’s winning three NBA titles.
Your brother plays at the national basketball training academy in Paris (that produced Parker and Boris Diaw of the Phoenix Suns). Would you please tell me about him and his basketball progress?
My brother Enzo is 18 years old and enjoying his last year of high school while training for basketball. He is now back in our hometown of Le Mans, training with the local pro team. He just finished his stint at INSEP, the training academy in Paris, and I can only wish that he follows in the footsteps of some of the best
players who attended, including Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf.
What qualities and traits have you inherited from you mother and your father?
From my mother I’ve inherited my coolness and my serenity. From my father I’ve inherited respect for the rules and respect for the people around me. I also thank him for the physical qualities that I’ve inherited from him.
Are you a religious person? If so, please explain about your faith.
I cannot say I was brought up religious.
What is your favorite kind of music? Who are your favorite musicians?
I am very eclectic when it comes to music. I can go from rap to classical, French pop. I don’t have one favorite, maybe Michael Jackson, Eminem, Pascal Obispo.
You’ve said that the confidence you have in yourself is one of your strengths. Why you are so confident?
Having been through with my injuries at such a young age only made me stronger. This is what makes me believe in myself and never doubt what I do. I am neither afraid nor feel any pressure to perform.
In Melbourne, you said, “I feel that I was made to play in big matches on the biggest stages.” Why do you feel that way?
I am made for the big stage because this is where I take my strength. The more the people cheering for or against me, the better and stronger I feel. This is what I felt while playing [former No. 1 Lleyton] Hewitt in Adelaide and throughout my run at the Australian Open.
After the Australian Open, you were photographed waving a large French flag. How would you describe your feelings about your country?
This is something very important for me. To be able to represent my country is one of the highest honors I could receive. I was born and raised in France, and waving its colors always brings me joy. I was so disappointed not being able to play the Davis Cup tie in April against the U.S. [which France lost].
In your Davis Cup debut against Romania in February, you helped France win by beating Andrei Pavel, a smart veteran, in four sets. What was that experience like?
This is one of my greatest experiences as a player. Tennis is an individual sport, and thus the Davis Cup is about the only competition where you play for a whole country and you feel it. I am eagerly waiting to play a tie in France to feel the crowd supporting me. During a Davis Cup tie, players are transcendent and this is just what happened with [Andrei] Pavel. He is a great player with a great career and playing in front of his fellow Romanians, I had to throw everything I have in my arsenal in the battle to beat him.
Some argue tennis should not be in the Olympics because the Olympics do not represent the pinnacle of achievement nor offer the ultimate title in tennis − Grand Slam tournaments do. The Olympics, they add, merely muck up an already crowded summer calendar. Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price asserted, “Tennis doesn’t need the Olympics. The reverse is true, too.” Do you agree?
The Olympics are the biggest sporting stage in the face of the Earth, all sports combined. Tennis is relatively different from most other sports, let’s say track and field, as we have a yearly tour that puts us in the spotlight for quite some time each year. Having said this, we can say that we benefit from this exposure. In sharp contrast, a track and field athlete can only rely on the World Championships or the
Olympic Games to bring his career to the spotlight. For me tennis is a sport and the Olympics are Sport. In 2008 the Olympic Games are one of my main goals, not only to participate but to play well there.
What car do you drive? And why did you pick this car?
I actually do not own a car. I often borrow my mother’s car. I have sent my agent [Morgan Menahem] to find me a good ride but nothing out of the ordinary.
Which endorsement contracts do you have? And do they have any big bonuses if you win a major title or rank in the top 10?
I currently represent Adidas, Wilson, and outside of tennis I am one of the French ambassadors for Ferrero, the makers of Nutella. To me it is extremely important to be true to yourself and not chase the dollars, or rather the euros, now! I will most likely get a couple more endorsements deals, but right now my focus is on playing.
Are you involved in any charities or social or political causes?
I am currently looking at various options. This is something you should take seriously. I think I will reach out to Africa to help out my dad in his quest to improve some facilities for kids in Congo and will look closely at what I can do in France.
You have never played Roger Federer, who has ruled tennis for the past four years. How do you think your game, physique, talent and mentality measure up against him?
I have never played against Mr. Federer, whether in a match or at practice. I am a fan like many others. I cannot say much [critically] about him as he has ruled the world of tennis for so many years and will likely continue to do so. As I said before, I believe in my game and my abilities. When this is in sync, I think I can measure up to anyone!
Your fitness trainer is Cyril Brechbul. What specifically do you work on most?
A combination of different drills and schedule allows us to work all the areas that are needed, such as speed, agility, flexibility, stamina and injury prevention.
Cyril keeps a good record of what we do, and depending on whether it is a week off, a tournament week or some recovery times, I have many exercises to do.
Your ability to serve and volley is one big reason why you are very exciting to watch. What do you enjoy most about serving and volleying? Do you plan to serve and volley a lot at Wimbledon where you reached the fourth round last year?
My serve is a good weapon, and I’d be a fool not to use it to my advantage. As far as serve and volley, I can say that I take up a lot of space. More seriously, I am a pretty good volleyer, and my game sometimes calls for me to move toward the net. Regarding Wimbledon, wait and see. I am not about to reveal my tactics just yet!
You and Gael Monfils used to imitate Andy Roddick’s unique serving motion. Today your serve is more conventional, though. In 2004 you hit the third-fastest serve on the ATP Tour that year, 144 mph (232 kilometers an hour). Do you think you can break Roddick’s speed record of 155 mph?
I think that Roddick has a pretty good shoulder, probably comparable to a Major League Baseball pitcher. Speed is important, but for me ball placement is also something that should not be overlooked. If I can serve a few miles slower that the 155 mph and put the ball where I want to, then fine by me. I am not thinking about breaking Andy’s record, but if it happens, it happens.
Have you ever witnessed or experienced personally any racism or racial discrimination in the tennis world? If so, please explain exactly what happened.
I cannot say I have. However, I have seen it on many occasions, especially in soccer expressions of racism. At the end of the day, stupidity cannot be controlled.
You can only hope to contain it.
In 2000, Nicolas Ayeboua, then executive director of the Confederation of African Tennis and ITF development officer for Africa, told me: “If Africans have a third of what Europeans or Americans have, they will dominate tennis for sure.” Is Africa a goldmine of athletic talent just waiting to be discovered and developed by tennis administrators and coaches?
Africa is indeed a gold mine but is lacking the basics to entertain having, in a near future, a great champion. It comes down to people realizing the potential for athletic abilities and skills in certain regions of the world. Look at soccer and the number of African-born players being stars in Europe’s biggest clubs. It will take a bit of time, but we need to help them unearth tennis in certain parts of the world. If I can use my notoriety to help them out it, I will with great pride. This is one of the reasons I wish to get involved in promoting sports in general in Congo.
Arthur Ashe said: “Champions are people who want to leave their sport better off than when they started.” How would you like to leave tennis better off than when you started?
I want to walk away from the court without any remorse and with the feeling that the crowds had always enjoyed seeing me on the court and more importantly with the respects of fellow competitors.
“An athlete leaves only statistics and memories,” wrote Al Laney, a distinguished tennis writer for the New York Herald Tribune, from his 1968 memoir, Covering the Court: A Fifty-Year Love Affair with the Game of Tennis. What statistics and memories would you like to leave?
A couple of things spring to mind. First, I want to be able to say to myself that while playing I have reached my full potential and have no regrets about thinking that I could done things differently to achieve a different result. Second, it is a wish, not a ‘want,’ to leave good and fun-filled memories to the thousands or maybe millions of people that would have seen me play live or on TV. Records are statistics and are meant to be broken.
What else should the tennis world know about you?
Come out and watch me play. I’m sure I can give you an entertaining experience.
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