Injury has wrecked havoc on the ATP World Tour over the past year or so. The struggles of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and even Stan Wawrinka have been well publicised. But one man has been semi-forgotten in all the drama, and his name is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
The Frenchman – once as popular for his energetic on-court persona as his booming forehand and serve – has played just two events this season: losing an agonisingly close third round clash with Nick Kyrgios at the Australian Open, and retiring injured from his semifinal with Lucas Pouille in Montpellier. He was two games away from victory at 6-1 5-5 during that match in February.
This week is the Italian Open, the penultimate high-profile event of the clay-court season and the final Masters 1000 event ahead of the French Open. At 33, Tsonga has been his nation’s best hope for a home Grand Slam champion for a decade. On Monday, he announced that his current knee injury – which required surgery – has forced him out of contention.
The thousands of hopes pinned upon Tsonga are not because France lacks depth of talent. The nation – which contributed four of the world’s top 20 and seven of the world’s top 50 ATP players at the end of 2015 – arguably boasts a wider variety of talent and game-styles than any other country. Rather, the weight of expectation is because former world no. 5 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is exceptional.
Streaky he will always be. Despite his booming forehand and serve, the 2013 French Open semifinalist is well known for being unpredictable. For every thrilling comeback or stunning victory – like his straight sets defeat of Roger Federer in the 2013 French Open quarterfinals – there is a flat and unexpected loss: like the semifinal defeat to David Ferrer that came afterwards. But Tsonga’s raw power, full repertoire and relentless passion have taken him to heights that most players on the current tour will never reach. During 2011 and 2012 – a time span that featured back-to-back Wimbledon semifinals and many top ten victories for the exuberant right-hander – he made waves on major stages, and spent months pursuing the elite of the sport.
Before it was the Big Four and Stan Wawrinka, it was the Big Four and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. More than that, it was the Big Four and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga when the quartet were peaking in their collective dominance. When they were at their strongest simultaneously, it was Tsonga who led the challengers, and nipped determinedly at their heels.
Unfortunately for the current world no. 37, that may cost him some of the accolades that would take him down in history. Because those further down the line recall only the surface results – and not the stories behind them. They see those who won Grand Slam titles – some of them surprising – but forget that there were regular contenders who often came up against the greatest players who have ever lived.
Last week in Madrid, 21-year-old Alexander Zverev won his third Masters 1000 title within a year. The German solidified his place as the current world no. 3, behind only Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Whatever the state of the rest of the tour, and however many absentees, what we are witnessing here is a world class tennis player and athlete who has showcased dedication, ambition, maturity and consistent brilliance on this tier of the sport. The Grand Slam breakthrough the former prodigy is missing will come soon enough, because Zverev is a talent on another level.
But others to attain that world no. 3 ranking have been more of a surprise. Gritty, dedicated David Ferrer was one of the toughest fighters at his peak, but he is on the losing side of a 17-0 head-to-head record with Federer – and saw key players struggling as he attained his highest ranking. Milos Raonic was in scintillating form at the time he reached the Wimbledon 2016 final – but the run came after years of missed opportunities and tough losses. To this day, the Canadian has never won a Masters 1000 title. Croatia’s Marin Cilic, the shock 2014 US Open champion, has done tremendously well to reach two Grand Slam finals within a year – but rarely has he been a force away from these stages, despite the continued misfortunes of many close rivals.
This is not meant to degrade the achievements of the aforementioned players. They have seized their opportunities – on occasion – and their skill sets are vast. Nobody flukes a ranking in the world’s top three.
But while Cilic’s serve is a lethal weapon, Ferrer’s persistence is inspiring, and Raonic’s all-round ability is undeniable, none of these players is as serious a threat on every single surface to every single player as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been. The Frenchman inspired the gamestyle of the insanely talented Nick Kyrgios, and it is his all-court game and execution – on his day – that really does the talking.
Part of what separates the elite from the great is their ability to maintain consistency throughout an entire season, and to bring their best at the biggest moments. Their sheer mental strength. So it would not be fair to say that if Tsonga played his best tennis on a regular basis, and avoided injury, he would likely have made the Big Four the Big Five and won multiple major titles. Because you can argue that for some of the players previously mentioned, and perhaps even ATP Finals champion Grigor Dimitrov, who – for all his unfulfilled potential – also spent some time in the realms of the top three not too long ago.
Yet there is something that makes those arguments appear more unconvincing. Maybe, ultimately, there is an element of subjectivity. How strong one perceives a certain period to have been would certainly alter their perspective, and maybe even a preference of gamestyle would factor. But while the Wimbledon-watchers of Great Britain forget the Milos Raonics and Marin Cilics of tennis from one year to the next – despite the appearances of these two men in the men’s singles final – the average onlooker always seems to know Mr Tsonga.
The 33-year-old produced some of his best tennis at a time when the elite were ready and waiting to cut him off. During two and a half years that have featured all of the Big Four experiencing physical woes or loss of form at some stage, Tsonga himself has continued his battle with inconsistency. But more importantly – as we have seen particularly this season – he has been dogged by injury. There are those who could not knock off the Big Four at the time when Tsonga was their core challenger who have now been around to capitalise on the absence of their total domination, and a career-high ranking has been their reward. Tsonga has not truly had that opportunity.
The likelihood is that the two-time Masters 1000 champion does not care about rankings any more. That all he wants is to be fit enough to pick up a tennis racquet, step out on a tennis court, and continue to compete with the dream of that elusive major trophy. But Tsonga’s situation just goes to show that in tennis, timing can be everything – and timing can cost everything.
The chances that Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will claim a Grand Slam title are growing ever dimmer. But however many – or few – his appearances in the history books, he will always be the man who came from two sets to love down to beat Roger Federer on Centre Court. He will always be the man who had the crowd on Court Philippe Chatrier giving a standing ovation and cheering his name continuously after a devastating loss to Novak Djokovic.
And for those who know their tennis, he will be the man who chased the Big Four at their prime, across all three surfaces, and found ways to come out on top. To those people, that will likely mean more than a computer-generated number next to his name.
For those who made it this far, thanks for reading! Who do you think is the best player never to win a Grand Slam title? Comment and let me know…