PARIS — Goodbyes can be particularly tricky for aging tennis players. Part of the Darwinian appeal of professional gaming is that there is no place to hide. There is no graceful exit from the arena by substitution, no convincing way to mask the erosion of skill and speed.
It’s you and the opponent, probably younger, healthier and better if you are, like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday, on the verge of retirement.
But Tsonga, the most successful French player of his near-but-not-major French generation, wasn’t exactly alone on main court Philippe Chatrier as he took on No.8 seed Casper Ruud of Norway.
Tsonga, 37 and with a body that probably feels older, announced in April that this French Open would be his last tournament, which meant that the French public were well prepared to give him their due in this first round match. .
The large, renovated stadium was barely half full when Tsonga stepped on the red clay in the early afternoon after wiping tears from his eyes in the tunnel. Lunch remains a priority for Tsonga’s compatriots. But thousands of other French fans eventually found their footing and rose to the occasion, in part because Tsonga did it himself, even in defeat.
“It was tough because I came onto the pitch already in quite an emotional state,” Tsonga said after Ruud’s 6-7(6), 7-6(4), 6-2, 7-win. 6 (0). “I was like, ‘Wait, this is not the time to crack. You have to go. You have to play. You wanted to be here. You wanted 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 semi-finalist now ranked No. 297, hasn’t been a major threat on any surface for several years due to injuries.
“Give me back my legs,” he cried in frustration as he lost in the first round to Alex Molcan last week at the Lyon Open in France.
But with Tuesday as his target, he found the inspiration, and although logic suggested he had nothing to do to push Ruud to the limit, it came surprisingly, poignantly. He won the first set, nearly won the second, then woke up in the fourth with Ruud close to victory and Tsonga close to a bigger finish.
He broke Ruud’s serve to take a 6-5 lead in the fourth, generating one of the biggest roars he’s generated in nearly 20 years of playing at Roland Garros. But he injured his right shoulder on a big forehand in the process and couldn’t do much more than push the ball in play the rest of the way, tearing himself as he prepared to serve the last point of his career at 0-6 in the tiebreaker. He wasn’t the only one crying.
It was a farewell match which, according to Tsonga, symbolized, in many ways, his 18-year career.
“There was a tragedy. There were injuries. There was a very tough opponent on the other side of the net because that was part of my career too,” he said. “I think I’ve faced some amazing players throughout.”
It’s undeniable. At 37, he is three years younger than Roger Federer and two years older than Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. It is telling that Tsonga’s highest ranking was No. 5. Although he beat them all many times with his huge serve, forehand and attacking skills, they all, the most often stole his thunder over the years, exploiting his much weaker backhand wing. Djokovic was the first: he beat him in Tsonga’s only Grand Slam singles final at the 2008 Australian Open.
At the time, with his foot speed, forehand and youth, it seemed obvious that Tsonga would experience more such chances. Instead, he had to settle for five more Grand Slam semi-finals: one at the Australian Open, two at Wimbledon and two at the French Open, the last in 2015 when Stan Wawrinka, a another great talent of the Tsonga era, beat him in four sets. his way to the championship.
In total, Tsonga would win 18 singles titles on the regular tour, 14 of them in the lowest ATP 250 category and two of them in the highest Masters 1000 category.
That was enough to make him the most successful male French player of the Open era after Yannick Noah, who, dreadlocks in the wind, rushed to the net to win Roland-Garros in 1983 and is still waiting for another French follow his lead to victory.
Noah, whose mother was French and whose father was from Cameroon, is now 62 and living again in the family property in Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, where he spent his early years. As a new documentary makes clear, he remains an enduring source of fascination in France and has done his part over the years as Davis Cup captain and consultant to the French federation to inspire his successors.
There have been world-class talents but no Grand Slam singles champions: not Guy Forget or Henri Leconte; not Cédric Pioline, Sébastien Grosjean or Arnaud Clément. And not the generation of Tsonga which includes Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils and was called the New Musketeers a long time ago in a nod to the four Musketeers whose victory in the Davis Cup against the Americans in 1927 led to the Rushed construction of the Roland Garros stadium so that the French would have a setting worthy of hosting the Davis Cup final in 1928.
Tsonga, who once boarded the stadium complex as a junior midshipman, is the first of the new musketeers to retire, although he will soon have company. Simon, also 37, announced that he would join him at the end of the year and also play his last Roland-Garros.
Simon, Gasquet and Monfils were all present for Tsonga’s farewell on Tuesday. After the game and after Tsonga dropped to the clay and gave him a kiss, they joined his parents; wife, Noura; two young children; and coaches from all phases of his career on the court where Tsonga’s generation often shone but, despite his sobriquet, never lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Tsonga, the most recent tennis retiree, had bigger immediate concerns. He could barely raise his right arm, but he looked fulfilled. “I’m proud of myself,” he confirms. “I gave everything”