PARIS — Farewells may be particularly tricky for aging tennis players. A part of the skilled game’s Darwinian appeal is that there isn’t any place to cover. There isn’t a exiting the world gracefully through substitution, no convincing manner to mask the erosion of skills and speed.
It’s you and the opponent, probably younger, healthier and higher should you are, like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday, on the point of retirement.
But Tsonga, probably the most successful French player of his close-but-no-major French generation, was not exactly alone on the primary Philippe Chatrier Court as he faced the No. 8 seed, Casper Ruud of Norway.
Tsonga, 37 and with a body that more than likely feels older, announced in April that this French Open could be his final tournament, which meant that the French crowd was well prepared to present him his due on this first-round match.
The grand and renovated stadium was barely half full when Tsonga walked onto the red clay within the early afternoon after wiping tears from his eyes within the tunnel. Lunch stays a priority for Tsonga’s compatriots. But 1000’s more French fans eventually found their seats and rose to the occasion, partly because Tsonga rose to it himself, even in defeat.
“It was difficult because I got here on the court already in quite an emotional state,” Tsonga said after Ruud’s victory, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (0). “I said to myself, ‘Wait, this shouldn’t be the time to crack. You have got to go for it. You have got to play. You desired to be here. You desired to fight until the last ball.’”
Clay has long been Ruud’s best surface. He can run and run. Tsonga, a former Australian Open finalist and French Open semifinalist now ranked No. 297, has not been a significant threat on any surface for several years due to injuries.
“Give me back my legs,” he yelled in frustration as he lost in the primary round to Alex Molcan last week on the Lyon Open in France.
But with Tuesday as a goal, he found inspiration, and though logic suggested that he had no business pushing Ruud to the limit, he got here surprisingly, poignantly close. He won the opening set, nearly won the second after which roused himself within the fourth with Ruud near victory and Tsonga near a much bigger finish line.
He broke Ruud’s serve to take a 6-5 lead within the fourth, generating one among the largest roars he has generated in nearly 20 years of playing at Roland Garros. But he injured his right shoulder on a giant forehand in the method and was unable to do way more than push the ball into play the remainder of the best way, tearing up as he prepared to serve the ultimate point of his profession at 0-6 within the tiebreaker. He was not alone within the tears.
It was a farewell match that Tsonga acknowledged symbolized, in some ways, his 18-year profession.
“There was drama. There was injury. There was a really tough opponent on the opposite side of the online, because that also has been a part of my profession,” he said. “I feel I actually have faced some incredible players during.”
That’s undeniable. At 37, he’s three years younger than Roger Federer and two years older than Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. It’s telling that Tsonga’s highest rating was No. 5. Though he has beaten all of them multiple times on the strength of his huge serve and forehand and attacking skills, all of them have, most of the time, stolen his thunder through the years, exploiting his much weaker backhand wing. Djokovic was the primary: defeating him in Tsonga’s only Grand Slam singles final on the 2008 Australian Open.
On the time, along with his foot speed, forehand and youth, it seemed self-evident that Tsonga would experience more such occasions. As an alternative, he needed to accept five more Grand Slam semifinals: one on the Australian Open, two at Wimbledon and two on the French Open, the last in 2015 when Stan Wawrinka, one other great talent from Tsonga’s era, beat him in 4 sets on his solution to the championship.
In all, Tsonga would win 18 singles titles on the regular tour, 14 of them in the bottom ATP 250 category and two of them in the very best Masters 1000 category.
It was enough to make him probably the most successful French men’s player of the Open era after Yannick Noah, who, dreadlocks flying, rushed the online to win the French Open in 1983 and remains to be waiting for an additional Frenchman to follow his result in victory.
Noah, whose mother was French and father was from Cameroon, is now 62 and back living on his family’s property in Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, where he spent his early years. As a recent documentary makes clear, he stays a permanent source of fascination in France and did his part through the years as Davis Cup captain and French federation consultant to encourage his successors.
There have been world-class talents but no Grand Slam singles champions: not Guy Forget or Henri Leconte; not Cedric Pioline, Sebastien Grosjean or Arnaud Clement. And never Tsonga’s generation that features Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils and was way back called the Latest Musketeers in a nod to the 4 Musketeers whose Davis Cup victory over the Americans in 1927 led to the hasty construction of Roland Garros stadium so the French would have a worthy setting to host the Davis Cup final in 1928.
Tsonga, who once boarded contained in the stadium complex as an aspiring junior, is the primary of the brand new Musketeers to retire, although he’ll soon have company. Simon, also 37, has announced that he’ll join him at the tip of the 12 months and can be playing his final French Open.
Simon, Gasquet and Monfils were all readily available for Tsonga’s farewell on Tuesday. After the match and after Tsonga had dropped to the clay and given it a kiss, they joined his parents; wife, Noura; two young children; and coaches from all phases of his profession on the court where Tsonga’s generation has often shined but, despite its sobriquet, never lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Tsonga, tennis’s newest retiree, had greater immediate concerns. He could barely lift his right arm, but he looked fulfilled. “I’m happy with myself,” he confirmed. “I gave all of it.”