Not much can cast a shadow over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; not that big mop of curly dark hair, not the 10 other Frenchmen with top-100 rankings and sometimes not even the Big Four players who’ve dominated the majors for close to a decade.
In fact, the effervescent Frenchman is one of the few men on tour who can boast wins over Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer. And it’s the Australian Open in which he’s achieved much of that success.
In 2008, the man from Le Mans put a horror injury run behind him to record wins over Nadal and Murray, progressing all the way to the final at Melbourne Park, where the then little-known 22-year-old took a set from Djokovic.
It was only Tsonga’s fourth appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam and the fans were enraptured, delighting as much in his huge smile and spirited victory celebrations as they did in the Frenchman’s athletic and explosive style.
Struck by his physical resemblance to Muhammad Ali, commentators were inevitably scrambling to find other comparisons to the boxing legend. When pushed to say how he was inspired by Ali, Tsonga explained: “Maybe his personality on the court … I think I have the same tennis as his box(ing).”
In truth though, while he had some souvenirs from an Ali fight his father had attended years previously, Tsonga’s real inspiration was far more personal. Later he would reveal he’d inherited strength from his father, Didier (a former handball teacher and now a chemistry teacher) and kindness from his mother, Evelyn (also a teacher).
It’s that curiously gentle strength that has shaped Tsonga’s career since that memorable Australian Open run. Along with a further four Grand Slam semifinals, he has claimed 10 career titles but is yet to fully deliver on the major-winning potential he showed in Melbourne six years ago.
Tsonga spent much of 2012 at world No.5, a ‘so-near-yet-so-far’ scenario in the Big Four era. Not that Tsonga lamented his position, instead pointing to what was required to enter the elite echelon. “I still have to improve a lot of things in my game,” he reasoned at the 2012 US Open. “I have to be a bit quicker. I have to a move a bit better to win against these guys, so I work on it.”
Tsonga has since displayed flashes of brilliance, but sustaining them often proves difficult. At times, injury has played a part, including at Wimbledon in 2013 when he was forced to retire with a left knee injury in the second round. That same ailment prevented Tsonga from contesting the 2013 US Open.
The signs are already more promising for Tsonga in 2014. Late last year, Tsonga made a dual coaching arrangement with Nicolas Escude and Thierry Ascione and if his early Australian performances are a reliable guide, the perspective provided by two sets of eyes is priceless. After teaming with Alize Cornet to win the Hopman Cup, Tsonga progressed to the Australian Open’s fourth round without dropping a set.
It gets tougher now for the Frenchman, who faces his good friend Federer in a tantalising final 16 match-up that has some dramatic precedents. At Australian Open 2013, Tsonga lost a thrilling five-set quarterfinal to the Swiss star; he exacted revenge by defeating Federer at the same stage of the French Open – this time without the loss of a set. He’s beaten the 17-time major champion on five occasions now, two of them in Grand Slams.
There’s another statistic that might work in the Frenchman’s favour in the second week of Australian Open 2014. In 2010, he outclassed Djokovic in a five-set quarterfinal, making Tsonga the last player to defeat the four-time champion at Melbourne Park.
They’re career highlights that any player would covet but they’re also accompanied by some pressure, the Frenchman arguably considered one of the best players on tour without a Grand Slam title.
Still, the 28-year-old Tsonga still has time. He has a place too, naming Melbourne as one of his favourite places to return. “I always feel like home here,” he said. “I have so much good memories it’s great to be here all the time.”
Whether Tsonga’s breakthrough occurs at Melbourne Park this time around remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that it’s going to take a lot to overshadow him.
Tsonga takes on Federer in the first night match at Rod Laver Arena on Monday.