Winning or losing, the joie de vivre that made Jo-Wilfried Tsonga one of the game’s most-loved figures of the past two decades was never far from the surface.
First evident when the beaming teenager signalled his potential as the 2003 US Open boys’ champion, Tsonga’s joyful spirit endured as he contested his final match in a 13th main draw appearance at Roland Garros.
Symbolising his 18-year career in a broader context, Tsonga pushed Casper Ruud – who at world No.8 is ranked considerably higher than the now-No.297 Frenchman – in a four-set battle that showcased the Frenchman’s dazzling showmanship and gritty determination.
“The way the crowd support(ed) me today, they give me the power to fight, and that's what I did,” said 37-year-old Tsonga, who soaked up the final emotional moments with fans before dropping to his knees and kissing the famed terre battue surface.
“Today was a good match for me. Unfortunately I didn't finish the way I want to finish, but I finish on the court, playing like I did all my career, running after the ball.
“It’s going to stay a good moment in my head. Yeah, in a way I finish like I want to finish.”
The ability to translate raw passion into breathtaking tennis had long been a Tsonga trademark.
Fans arguably witnessed the best of those qualities when the then 22-year-old made his unforgettable run to the AO 2008 final.
Ranked world No.38 and contesting only a fifth Grand Slam main draw, Tsonga overcame four top-20 opponents, including Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, before falling to Novak Djokovic in a four-set final.
Dubbed “Ali” for his remarkable physical resemblance to legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, Tsonga captivated fans, media and even other players with his explosive shot-making and jubilant on-court celebrations.
Natural charisma and unfiltered emotion added to his enormous popularity.
“It’s like I want to cry, I want to smile, I want everything,” he enthused on securing his place in a first Grand Slam final.
Those qualities were ever-present as the Frenchman claimed an eventual 18 singles titles – including two at ATP Masters 1000 level – and peaked at world No.5 in the rankings. And while Tsonga didn’t reach another Grand Slam final, five more semifinal appearances (one in Melbourne, two at Roland Garros and two at Wimbledon) highlighted his ability to thrive on all surfaces.
Fighting spirit was a key to amassing some rare milestones in a heady era of men’s tennis.
Tsonga is one of only three players (alongside Murray and Juan Martin del Potro) to claim wins over Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer while they held the world No.1 ranking. He’s also one of only three men (with Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych) to beat the Big Three at Grand Slam tournaments.
There was naturally high emotion as the much-loved Frenchman contested his final match in the Roland Garros first round. And while his stunning athleticism had inevitably dipped after battling injuries in recent years, there were also many reminders of Tsonga’s former brilliance.
After taking the first set against the No.8 seed Ruud – who at age 23, is 14 years younger – Tsonga extended the battle to almost four hours before an adoring Court Philippe Chatrier audience.
Tourmates and fellow Frenchmen Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet were among the many supporters who cheered Tsonga’s every move – and later gave a prolonged standing ovation – before Ruud secured a 6-7(6) 7-6(4) 6-1 7-6(0) victory.
“I don’t want to talk about the match, I want to talk about Jo,” said a gracious Ruud, mirroring the mood of many in his on-court interview.
“It’s tough for everyone and sad for all the players that you are stopping, Jo. You have been an inspiration to me and many other players and young players around the world, so thank you for all the memories.”
Glowing tributes from Tsonga’s most prolific opponents further highlighted his far-reaching influence. As Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Murray congratulated the retiring star on a tremendous career in a video produced by the ATP Tour, they also spoke of his many ambassadorial qualities.
“Jo is one of the most charismatic tennis players ever to play the game and I was very happy to share the court with him many times,” said Djokovic. “He brought a lot of, I think, positive attention and popularity to our sport because of not just his game style, but also, his charisma, his personality …he’s made his mark and his legacy in our sport.”
Humble to the end, Tsonga will embrace the next chapter with wife Noura and young sons Shugar and Leelow knowing a sparkling career had far greater measures than wins and losses.
“I spent so many good moments, and I think the most important for me was to live this with people around me and be able to share the sadness sometimes, the happiness,” he reflected.
“What I will remember for sure, it's all the relationships I had with people around … that's what will stay.”