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Tsonga smiling despite the pain

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on serve in the semi-final.
by Kate Battersby
Friday 6 July 2012

There are times when tennis is so painful that you just know it’s not going to be your day. Maybe it’s when your opponent completely dismantles your game for two sets. Maybe it’s when your second serve is misfiring so badly that a whole set goes by without you scoring any points from it at all. Or maybe it’s when the match ball is introduced to your private parts at extreme velocity, courtesy of a perfectly legitimate volley from your opponent.

Andy Murray brought Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to his knees in more ways than one during their semi-final on Friday, and there was nothing that the Frenchman could do about it but wait until the pain – of defeat, you understand – has gone away.

As Tsonga crumpled to the turf, neither player seemed to hear the voice from the Centre Court crowd calling out: “New balls, please!” The British do love their little jokes. But in the post-match press conference, Tsonga smiled knowingly at the mention of that incident.

“No, that has never happened to me before,” he grinned, before adding amid general laughter: “But I will have revenge...”

Sometimes a single word or phrase can sum up a player’s style. For Federer, the word is elegant. With Nadal, it is swashbuckling. Tsonga plays with joie de vivre, visibly relishing every ounce of the gifts the tennis gods have bestowed upon him. It infects his every action on court. Even in the moment of defeat, when the two men were waiting at net for a HawkEye verdict, which would go against him, Tsonga was smiling broadly at the opponent who had just denied him the dream of all players – a Wimbledon final. Perhaps the words which best capture the essence of his play are from his own language: Tsonga plays with elan and panache. Maybe he should found a company in that name.

Perhaps this defeat will not have hurt him as much as his quarter-final loss to Novak Djokovic in last month’s French Open, when in front of his home crowd he held four match points before the Serb beat him. Much like Murray, Tsonga is drearily familiar with the endless reminders that no domestic player has won their home Grand Slam at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah in 1983. Given that Murray has at last snapped the hoodoo on a British man making the Wimbledon final, perhaps Tsonga will take ironic heart from it; or perhaps he will wonder if it will be as long before a Frenchman performs a similar feat on Gallic soil, in which case it literally may not happen within Tsonga’s life-time.

There is an old proverb which has it that a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. On Friday on the Centre Court, Murray’s play was so dazzling for two sets that it was as if he was halfway round the globe to victory before Tsonga had registered that the match was under way. Not good, when your opponent has beaten you on five of your previous six career meetings, including two on grass. The crux of Tsonga’s entire game, his serve, was functioning way short of what was required; and to compound the problem, Murray was returning beautifully. Even before this match had begun, Tsonga had said he does not like to play the Scot because of the way he returns. He must like it even less now.

In truth, Tsonga did not play a single match this Wimbledon in which he looked truly convincing. For five rounds he did enough, helped hugely by his serve and 85 aces. If he could have taken this semi-final into a fifth set the glory might have been his, because Murray looked desperately tired – not just physically done in, but mentally too – by the time HawkEye decided the Scot’s last crosscourt forehand was most definitely in. But every sport offers a life-time of potential bar-room discussion featuring the word “if”, when the plain fact is that the record books carry no asterisk next to the name of the winner, or any explanatory footnote about some extenuating circumstance. All that matters ultimately is what does happen, not what does not. Today Murray was way too good for two sets, and good enough in four.

Tsonga has said this Wimbledon that tennis teaches us lessons. After his match on Friday, he was silent for a long time when asked what the lesson was from this semi-final.

“I don’t know,” he said tiredly. “Maybe it’s too early to say. But anyway, for me it was a good moment. Even in defeat, I’m still proud of what I did. Even if I made mistakes and was not good every time, I fought. At the end of this match I can say, ‘Okay, I lost it, but I did my best’. Maybe next time I will have a chance and I will go through. It gives me energy to continue the fight, to improve my game and to try to win something like this.”

Just a month ago, that quarter-final defeat by Djokovic at Roland Garros was such a knife in Tsonga’s heart that he was clearly weeping in his chair at courtside afterwards. Today there were no tears. Instead this bear of a man smiled his great big Tsonga smile, and wished both his friends well in the final.

“I will try to – how do you say that – root..? Root for nobody,” he said. “I have a pretty good relationship with Andy, and also with Roger. I respect them both a lot. I mean, I respect everybody anyway, even the guys who don’t like me.”

You’re kidding. Such a person exists? Somebody doesn’t like him? Nah. That can’t be right. Not Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. After all, he’s founder and life-time president of the firm of Elan & Panache.

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