By Bill Simons
On a spring evening in Paris in 1983, a Frenchman dashed across an orange court and embraced his father.
The touching man-hug between the freshly minted French Open champion, Yannick Noah, and his dad, from the Cameroons, was the most magical moment in modern Roland Garros history.
Ever since, France has yearned to recapture the magic.
But there was only occasional promise, that is until 2008, when Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a then-22-year old Frenchman with a big smile, a big serve and a Congolese father, beat Andy Murray and Rafa Nadal en route to the Australian Open final. The boy who looked like Mohammad Ali became the man who resembled the young Nelson Mandela, and when he closed his eyes to reflect during changeovers, brought to mind meditative images of Arthur Ashe.
His big forehand prompted images of victory. When he reached his first Grand Slam final, the 2008 Australian Open, it was just the fifth major he’d played. It took Roger Federer nineteen to get to his first Slam final.
Soon headlines blared: ‘Typhoon Tsonga,’ ‘Super Tsonga,’ and ‘Tsonga Stronga.’
His free spirit inspired hearts. “The court is where I can express something I have,” he said. “I was made to play in big matches on the biggest stages.”
His poetic soul inspired less-than-sublime rhymes: “I love this bloke, so I thought I’d write a songa; so everybody cheer for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; he’s the unseeded fella who can do no wronga; allez, allez, Tsonga.”
But for all his promise, poetry and athleticism, there were problems. It was not just some mini-controversies. Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol lost her BBC job when she used a British racial epithet to refer to Tsonga. Jo-Willy himself didn’t draw any favor when, after a defeat in Shanghai, he said he’d “lost a bit of energy because the ballboys didn’t bring me the towel.”
More to the point, Tsonga suffered a string of debilitating injuries, had a variety of coaches or no coach at all, and never managed to fix his long-vulnerable backhand. Yes, he twice reached the Wimbledon semis, made it to the French Open semis in 2013, and last summer he defeated No. 1 Djokovic, No. 3 Federer, No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov and No. 9 Murray to streak to a stunning win in Toronto. But generally, he struggled against top-ranked players, endured mental walkabouts, and fell out of the top 10, never again reaching a Slam final.
True, he had the best celebration ritual in all of tennis. But recently there wasn’t as much to celebrate—until this year’s Roland Garros, where he dismissed the No. 4 seed Tomas Berdych and hung on to beat the No. 5 seed Kei Nishikori in a five-set battle that brought him to today’s semifinal meeting with former Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka.
Barrel-chested and powerful, Wawrinka, the No. 8 seed, had led Switzerland to the Davis Cup title last fall, and he’d just beaten Federer in the quarters. He would be confident.
So would Jo-Willy. He knew he had beaten Stan in half of their previous six encounters, and that he’d be playing in front of a partisan crowd hoping to propel the run of a Frenchman who, just maybe, would become the first man to win Roland Garros for his country in 32 years.
But Wawrinka came out on fire. Ignoring the claims of fashionistas that his outfit “looked like a stolen bathroom curtain,” he scored all sorts of backhand winners, powered forehands, convincingly held serve and raced to a 6-3, 4-2 lead. “Never mind ‘Stan the Man,'” quipped commentator Chris Bowers. “This is ‘Stan the Bull.'”
But then the bull took a siesta. Wawrinka double faulted, faltered on his forehand and saw Tsonga bring to an end his string of 48-straight service holds.
Throughout the match, Jo-Willy had changed everything from hats and wristbands to rackets. Now he changed tactics. More aggressive and serving and volleying on occasion, he won the second set, had numerous break points and fought deep into the third.
But Tsonga has long endured mental walkabouts. He once said, “My game is very good when I have nothing in my head, when I just play my game.”
At 3-3 in the third-set tiebreak, maybe something came into his head. He went off the boil, as Stan won four straight points to take the set.
In an odd way, the match mirrored both Tsonga’s career and the Open-era history of French men’s tennis. There was much promise and plenty of opportunities. But as for the ultimate triumph, it was illusive.
Tsonga—who failed to consistently attack Wawrinka’s second serve and at times seemed seemed lethargic—had 17 break points, but incredibly, converted just one as he fell 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. A Swiss man would now be in the French final for the sixth time in nine years, and French fans, reflecting on 32 years of futility, would be left to compose silly ditties:
“I don’t really want to be a fear ‘monga’
Our player, he should have been ‘stronga’
Our French wishes to win here, they will have to last ‘longa’
To win, perhaps we will just have to sing quite a different Tsonga.”