18/10/11 - 17:57
He started the year 2008 on a high, closing the Australian Open as runner-up. And he finished the year majestically by winning the BNP Paribas Masters, the first ATP Masters Series of his career.
In between these two incredible chapters of his season, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was out of the picture for much of the time, suffering from a right knee injury for which he had surgery on May 27th… during Roland-Garros. With his wings clipped in flight, he could have easily succumbed to discouragement. But resources he is not lacking. He went through too many hard times during his younger years to give up in front of the slightest obstacle.
So he skips over the French Open as well as Wimbledon. He then takes the time necessary to get himself back in shape and makes a comeback just before the US Open, right in the middle of the American tour. Of course there is hesitation early on. But very quickly, Tsonga the fighter, who shone in Melbourne Park in Australia some months earlier, is back.
His first tournament win is in Bangkok, Thailand, where he ousts one after the other Gaël Monfils in the semis and then Novak Djokovic, ranked-world n°3 at the time, in the final. And it’s all uphill from there for Tsonga.
“Jo” arrives in Paris as the n°13 seed and… motivation to light up the stage. But he’s not the only one. Even though the champions are mighty tired at the end of the season, the best twelve players in the world are among the field at the Parisian tournament… as is the public, arriving in great numbers throughout the week and breaking the attendance record with 112,873 spectators by the end of the event.
This exceptional outcome is also the price of an audacious ticketing policy. The BNP Paribas Masters offers a double session (day and night) during three days – Wednesday the 29th, Thursday the 30th and Friday the 31st of October. “This totally different approach contributes to strengthening the entertainment and festive aspects of the event in regards to the evening programming, while welcoming a larger public to the tournament, explains Jean-François Caujolle, co-director of the event. We also want to go beyond the limits of hosting a sporting event, which is what it’s been thus far, and turn it into something much broader”.
So the favorites to win fly through the early rounds with not much problem. Tsonga on the other hand has to labor his way through early on. Radek Stepanek (ATP ranked 28th), his first opponent, makes life difficult for him. The Czech, always inspired in Paris, is up a break in the third set. But the player from Le Mans holds on and reaches the finish line in over two hours of play. What lies ahead is just as complicated, as Tsonga is to face the world number 3 player, Novak Djokovic, in the Round of 16.
Tsonga suffers there again, holds on, and feeds off the energy emanating from the fans of the POPB. “Today, Bercy was my home, he declared on the court after his win. My authorization was needed to come in and I decided not to give it!” In the quarters, the American Andy Roddick (7th) is not invited either, even though he tried. On a great day, Roddick hits everything in sight. His serves go over 220 km/h. And identical to the start of the tournament, Tsonga gives in… but doesn’t give up. Totally dominated in the first set, he gets out of ten break points against him in the second set and stays in the match. Andy Roddick is yet again the first to break in the third.
But Tsonga holds on. He immediately breaks back, and shuts the door on his opponent without giving any notice. “During the first two sets, Jo spent more time closing the shutters of his house rather than finding other solutions”, describes his coach Eric Winogradsky. This 2’39’’ masterpiece is a welcome moment following the bad day which had been unfolding since morning.
On this Friday, October 31st, the numbers 1 and 2 in the world left the event for medical reasons. Suffering from a bad back, Roger Federer forfeits in the quarters against James Blake. And as far as Rafael Nadal is concerned, tendinitis in his knees forces him to retire after a set against the Russian Davydenko. “I saw Roger in the locker room five minutes before my match, confides the Spaniard after he retired. He told me his back hurt and I said to him ‘I am in the same state as you. Maybe both of us will go home tonight.”
Even though the number 1 and 2 players are out of the picture, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga still has not finished his hard work. However, after laboring through the first three rounds, all won in three sets, the Frenchman has an easier time against James Blake (11th). Unable to keep up with Tsonga’s pace and bullied by his power, the American doesn’t make a dent in the semis.
This is not the case however with David Nalbandian (8th) in the final. Looking for a second consecutive win at Bercy, never before accomplished in the history of the tournament, the taciturn Argentine is in total confidence from day one. Del Potro and Murray, both in great shape, are ousted in two sets. Only Davydenko poses a threat in the semis.
However, this time Tsonga leads early in the match, takes the first set and drops the second. But in the third, he is the one serving for the match at 5-4. Deliverance is not far. But fatigue has set in. Tense, “Jo” finds himself down 0-40. Audacity, guts and his great serve (25 aces throughout the match) get him out of his hole. And yet again, his ability to force destiny makes all the difference at a very crucial time.
In tears on centre court in front of a standing ovation from a very emotional Parisian crowd, Tsonga has accomplished two great feats. Not only does he become the third Frenchman in history to win at Bercy (after Forget in 1991 and Grosjean in 2001), he also wins his ticket to the prestigious Masters Cup in Shanghai, thanks to the fact that he became 7th in the world following his win in Paris.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is not the only Frenchman to leave the BNP Paribas Masters with a ticket to the Masters Cup. Gilles Simon as well. Runner-up in Madrid a few days earlier, the player from Nice, who lost in the Round of 16 in Paris, reaches the n°9 ranking. And so in November 2008, there are two “Frenchies” in the Top 10, a statistic one hadn’t seen in twenty years (Noah, 8th and Leconte, 10th, on October 3rd 1988)…
At first, Gilles Simon is invited as a replacement in Shanghai. But Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal allows him a place amongst the “Masters”. An invitation which he honors by making it to the semifinals.