By Nick Carter
Yesterday, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga announced that he would be playing his final tournament at Roland-Garros this year, saying farewell to tennis on home turf. It has been a difficult time for the Frenchman recently, what with all the injuries he’s been hit with over the last few years. He is ranked outside the top 200 and has struggled to win matches since 2020. It will be sad to see such a charismatic player leave the tour, but Tsonga should be proud of his achievements. His biggest moments were reaching the final of the 2008 Australian Open, being runner up at the 2011 ATP Finals, winning Masters 1000 titles in Paris 2008 and Toronto 2014 (quite a run he had to win this one!) and being a silver medallist for France in the men’s doubles at the 2012 Olympics. No less significant were his 18 singles titles, reaching the quarter-finals of every major over the course of his career, and managing to beat every member of the “Big Four” multiple times (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray).
Tsonga never that likely to be a major champion while playing in this era. For multiple reasons. He was perfectly capable of beating the Big Three on his day, but did not consistently find the level to achieve this. For me, his most impressive title was his 2014 Canadian Open title. That title run saw him beat Djokovic, Murray and then Federer in the final. In context, both Djokovic and Federer seemed on top form at the time. Federer was only beaten on grass and US hardcourts by exceptional performances from his opponents that season.
For me, Tsonga had the talent to win a major and it has always surprised me that he hasn’t. Yes, the stranglehold of the ‘Big Four’ made it difficult for him to break through, but Juan Martín del Potro and Marin Čilić managed to do it. Now, I’m not suggesting Tsonga is better than either of these players. Del Potro is more highly regarded as a player, because of his exceptional forehand. Čilić is probably seen as being about the same level as Tsonga when the Croatian was at his peak from 2014 to 2018.
Tsonga did play exceptionally at some majors. His comeback from two sets down against Federer at Wimbledon in 2011 is not really talked about much, but it was a really impressive achievement given no one had ever done that to the great Swiss on his favourite surface before. (Actually, no one had ever beaten him from two sets down at any major before. One wonders if this had any influence on the 2011 U.S. Open, when Djokovic would immediately complete the one-two punch.) He put in an incredible performance against Djokovic at Roland Garros in 2012, four times being a single point away from upsetting the then world number one. Both these examples came in quarterfinals; Tsonga rarely peaked in the semi-finals or final of a major. His record when being in the last four of a major was 1 win and 5 losses. The perfect example of Tsonga not quite managing to find the required level to push into a final came at his home major. In 2013, he lost in straight sets to David Ferrer despite inflicting a lopsided defeat on Federer the previous round. This is probably the most extreme case, given how much of a challenge beating one ‘Big Four’ player was, and often Tsonga had to play them back-to-back if he did go deep at an event.
Tsonga did show he was capable of really excelling at a major, though. Australia 2008 was the first time I’d heard of the Frenchman, when he beat Murray in the first round. At the time, I wrote it off as the Brit underperforming (as he often did early in his career, before he stepped up later in 2008). However, Tsonga showed this result had more to do with the Frenchman finding his peak for the first time in his career. A victory against fellow countryman and (at the time) solid top ten presence Richard Gasquet was another hint that a big breakthrough was happening. His run to the semi-finals was really impressive, but he was playing one of the dominant forces in tennis at the time: Rafael Nadal. So of course, Tsonga won that match in straight sets. Watching this at the time put him back on the radar for me. The final against Djokovic was closer than the score of 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 suggests; Tsonga had chances late in the fourth set.
Despite this promise shown, Tsonga never got as close to a major title again. We’ve talked about how good his ultimate top level was, but he didn’t reach this very often. Tsonga reached 15 major quarter-finals in his career, all from Australia 2008 to Australia 2017. He took part in 35 majors in that time, so only reached the last eight less than half the time. This is despite the fact he was a solid top 10 or even top eight player for much of this period. The sad reality is that when he did play to his potential, he more often than not came up against the ‘Big Four’ or Stan Wawrinka. Whilst he had the ability to trouble or even beat these players, they still beat him more often as they did with every other player on tour. Generally, if he was given a more favourable draw then he capitalised, unless the opponent was peaking (Verdasco at the Australian Open in 2009, Čilić at the U.S. Open in 2015).
My thoughts on Tsonga are that he was good enough to win a major but was unfortunate to have such incredible contemporaries in Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka. He was good enough to challenge and beat them at times, but this wasn’t on a consistent basis. Tsonga was more like del Potro and Čilić in this regard. Someone else who is better at analysing the game can tell you why that might be. The Frenchman had power and variety in his game, as well as a really endearing on-court charisma coupled with impressive physicality. It is hard to identify a clear weakness in his game other than the mental side. When he was on, it was so much fun to watch him play.
For French fans, Tsonga was their best hope of having a men’s singles champion in recent years. He was the one from France’s ‘golden generation’ who had the best chance of winning a major. Richard Gasquet impressed at a young age but had clear limitations to his game. Gilles Simon did not have much beyond his endurance and defence to rely on. Gael Monfils has struggled with his endurance in long matches. They massively underperformed relative to their talent, although again this has more to do with the “Big Four” than them. No Frenchman has a hope of winning Roland Garros whilst Rafael Nadal is playing.
Overall, I will look back on the career of Jo-Wilfred Tsonga with some complicated emotions. I watched him play some really impressive matches, and he was part of making that 2008 Australian Open so great to watch as I was becoming a real tennis fan around that point. Tsonga is one of the few men to have beaten each of the ‘Big Four’ at least once in a major, along with Stan Wawrinka and Tomas Berdych.
For me, Tsonga will go down in tennis history as one of the best players never to win a major. A lot of this was due to the context of the era he was playing in. If he was at his peak now, he’d be talked about as a contender in the same way Medvedev and Tsitsipas are. However, he should not look at his career and think ‘what if’. I hope he, like many tennis fans, takes pride in what he has achieved and the great memories and moments he created on the way.