Charismatic Tsonga reaches the end of the line

A loss to Casper Ruud could not dampen the spirit of those who came to celebrate the Frenchman's magical career

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hommage©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT
 - Chris Oddo

Intermittent roars of applause started bleeding into the media room, located in the bowels of Stade Phillipe-Chatrier, the moment Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took the court on Tuesday.

There was hope that the legendary Frenchman would prolong his storied career, but his adversary, No.8 seed Casper Ruud of Norway, had other ideas.

Ruud rallied from a set down, handling the best that the former world No.5 had to offer in the first two sets before riding to a 6-7(6), 7-6(4), 6-1, 7-6(0) triumph, booking a second round against Finland's Emil Ruusuvuori.

Though Tsonga couldn’t produce one last epic victory for the Paris faithful, Tuesday’s loss in no way diminished the moment. Win or lose there is something special about Jo.

"For me, to have been able to fight back against a solid player for my final match is what I was expecting at the end of the day," an emotional Tsonga told the press after his final match. "That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to finish this way, on the court, to do my best, injured or not."

The 37-year-old has spent a career pulling at the heartstrings of his legions of fans, and Tuesday inside of Court Phillipe-Chatrier was no different.

Tsonga, a 297th-ranked wildcard making his 13th career appearance at his home Grand Slam, had his own white-clad cheering section, replete with a drummer, a horn section and a chanting cluster of enthusiasts. 

Gael Monfils, author of many a magical moment himself, sat courtside cheering his close friend’s every move. He was one of many French tennis luminaries in the house.

A match well played, emotions heartfelt

Though he may not be as masterful with the racquet as he was in his heyday, Tsonga’s magnetism has not skipped a beat. His explosive tennis, juxtaposed with his sugary demeanor, kept the crowd captivated through the opening two sets as snippets of the old magic that made Tsonga a two-time semi-finalist in Paris surfaced. 

Tsonga took the first set with a trademark smash, the crowd erupting before the winning ball had careened off the back fence, 7-6(6). The second set was nearly as good, but this time it was Ruud striking to claim the tiebreak, the air slipping softly out of the Chatrier balloon as he did, 6-7(4).

In the third set Tsonga’s attempt to forcibly turn back the clock for one last earth-shattering upset went awry. Tsonga couldn't summon the magic against Ruud's muscular game.

The Frenchman did spring to life in the fourth, pushing past Ruud temporarily as he broke for a 6-5 lead, sending the crowd to jubilation one last time. But the moment would prove to be fleeting, as the injuries that have plagued Tsonga over the last few years reared their ugly head again.

A shoulder issue took Tsonga's ability to serve, and after an injury timeout he finished the match in tears, taking time to deliver one last serve, trailing 6-0 in the fourth-set tiebreak as the crowd gave him a standing ovation throughout.

"I thought, I'm going to stay on the court and finish off this match," Tsonga said. "That's how I wanted to finish, on the court, give my best tennis. I think this is what I did."

There wasn't a dry eye in the house on match point. It was Ruud's victory to savour, but most important a magical moment well-earned for a legend who came in as a showman and went out as one as well.

"In any case, there would have been no second match, because I left everything on the court today," Tsonga concluded.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Roland Garros 2022, first round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

An indelible mark left on the sport  

“Congratulations for an enormous career, I took great pleasure to play against you, even to lose against you,” Roger Federer, who also lost in straight sets to Tsonga here in the quarter-finals, said in a tribute video, paying the Frenchman the highest praise. “We had some great battles all these years, we are going to miss you on the circuit.” 

Tsonga, who logged 467 ATP wins and 18 ATP titles during his career, will be known for his charisma even more than his eye-catching athleticism, booming serves and magical touch around the net.

“Jo is one of the most charismatic tennis players ever to play the game,” Novak Djokovic said of his long-time rival and friend. “I was very happy to share the court with him many times. He brought a lot of positive attention and popularity to our sport, not just because of his dynamic game style, but also his charisma and personality – he has made his mark and legacy in our sport.” 

Rafael Nadal echoed the world No.1's sentiments adding: “He is very charismatic. I’ve known him since we were kids. I think he brings a lot of positive things to our sport so I am sad to see him go.” 

For many in tennis’ generation next, Tsonga was an inspiration. 21-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime sums up his influence aptly. 

“It’s always sad to see idols of you retiring,” the Canadian said. “Personally I feel sad but also happy for Jo, he’s starting his new life, new adventures with his family and everything. but he was an idol of mine growing up. Also to have someone who is similar to you, has a similar story, to see him on TV, what he was doing, it was inspiring for me for his game, for his charisma and for the person he was.”