Swan-Tsong

This wasn’t a fairytale with castles and sparkles and shiny pretty trinkets of magic and beauty but it didn’t need to be.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga played tennis throughout his career with a childish smile consistently flashing across his face and so he ended it in exactly the same way, as though he was simply happy to have been able to do this, to play this stupid little game that he loved so much and actually be good at it.

He brought it when he could today against Casper Ruud. The French crowd tried their hardest to carry their hero as well, screaming him on until their voices dried in their throats and their vocal chords rasped and whined for mercy and yet still they carried on calling out for a miracle. They knew that this man that had walked with their country’s colours draped over his shoulders onto some of the biggest battlefields of his sport for the past two decades deserved to have their wishes and hopes and desperate cries for something crazy majestic to happen for him.

Alas, tennis so rarely bends to the pressures inflicted by begging hearts.

***

Throughout his career, Tsonga drew eyes as much for his infectious energy as for his tennis. That’s not to say his game didn’t beggar belief at times, that forehand of his that punched through opponent’s defences like eggshells, leaving their insides spilling out and their minds a mess. Rather, his personality was one that just kept you coming back for more and more and hoping that good things would be waiting for him in his future.

And good things did come Tsonga’s way. Maybe not that elusive major title that remained forever out of reach but other things, other things that you just know that he will treasure now that his on-court playing journey is over. He beat all the top players and hugged them at the net afterwards before dancing in a celebration that will forever be immortalised in the minds of millions.

He won titles and travelled the world and entertained not just us but himself. He lived and breathed this game and made it clear he was having fun while doing it. So much serious and hard and then there would be Tsonga with a wink and a grin that melted cold dead concrete with its power.

I hope whatever Tsonga does next in his life, he dances and jumps and smiles even more than he did on court, for it’s so rare to have the ability that he does to look at the world with such an upbeat attitude and in doing so, carry others up to that level of optimism with you.

***

When he broke Ruud’s serve at 5-5 late in the fourth set, the crowd erupted but Tsonga himself did not. He knew what they didn’t yet, that his body had told him to stop while everything else was telling him to keep going. And that’s the story of tennis generally, that we so often are left waiting a lifetime for a dream that never quite materialises.

A player that brought us such joy had to deal with such sadness at the finish, a cold cup of reality that offered nothing more than the realisation that in actual fact, he had made the right choice to call it a day.

But in a way, I think, that’s maybe what will make this final trip OK for Tsonga. When the tears are dried and the noses are blown and he’s sitting at home with his beautiful family, I truly believe he’ll be able to appreciate that he made the correct decision to draw the line in the sand here.

We all wanted more and when Tsonga screamed “I’m back!” after taking a tumultuous first set in what would ultimately be the final match of his career, it was clear he did as well. But it’s absolutely fine that we didn’t get it and he didn’t get it. That’s tennis and that’s life and we’ll miss watching him play because he mattered to us.

***

Standing on court as the victor of this match, Casper Ruud represented us all as he spoke with care and attention to the man who’s career he’d just brought to a close. Everyone in tennis circles will right now be recalling their favourite Tsonga memories and Ruud was no different, mentioning a moment from his childhood when watching Tsonga on TV. He beat Rafael Nadal that day at the Australian Open and Ruud – a Nadal fan growing up – smiled us he brought up the anger he’d felt towards his fallen foe back then.

When you become so good at what you do that you become a memory-maker for the youth, you can close chapters of your story with the knowledge that you’ve left a legacy behind.

***

Beyond anything else, this is a man that embodied the phrase “don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” But while I feel that this hero of French tennis lived and breathed that sentence throughout his career, I think we can allow ourselves to cry for him now. I think he’d accept our tears as appreciation for his efforts.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga left us wishing we could turn back the clock just for him and that right there makes this send-off just that little bit sadder and also just that little bit more alright.

Just One More Goodbye: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga takes a moment to process the finish of the last singles match of his career. Screenshot: Eurosport

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