PARIS — Farewells can be particularly tricky for aging tennis players. Part of the professional game’s Darwinian appeal is that there is no place to hide. There is no exiting the arena gracefully through substitution, no convincing manner to mask the erosion of skills and speed.
It is you and the opponent, probably younger, healthier and better if you are, like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Tuesday, on the brink of retirement.
But Tsonga, the most successful French player of his close-but-no-major French generation, was not exactly alone on the main Philippe Chatrier Court as he faced the No. 8 seed, Casper Ruud of Norway.
Tsonga, 37 and with a body that most likely feels older, announced in April that this French Open would be his final tournament, which meant that the French crowd was well prepared to give him his due in this first-round match.
The grand and renovated stadium was barely half full when Tsonga walked onto 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 more French fans eventually found their seats and rose to the occasion, in part because Tsonga rose to it himself, even in defeat.
“It was difficult because I came on the court already in quite an emotional state,” Tsonga said after Ruud’s victory, 6-7 (6), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (0). “I said to myself, ‘Wait, this is not the time to crack. You have to go for it. 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 semifinalist now ranked No. 297, has not been a major threat on any surface for several years because of injuries.
“Give me back my legs,” he yelled in frustration as he lost in the first round to Alex Molcan last week at the Lyon Open in France.
But with Tuesday as a target, he found inspiration, and though logic suggested that he had no business pushing Ruud to the limit, he came surprisingly, poignantly close. He won the opening set, nearly won the second and then roused himself in the fourth with Ruud close to victory and Tsonga close to a bigger finish line.
He broke Ruud’s serve to take a 6-5 lead in the fourth, generating one of the biggest roars he has generated in nearly 20 years of playing at Roland Garros. But he injured his right shoulder on a big forehand in the process and was unable to do much more than push the ball into play the rest of the way, tearing up as he prepared to serve the final point of his career at 0-6 in the tiebreaker. He was not alone in the tears.
It was a farewell match that Tsonga acknowledged symbolized, in many ways, his 18-year career.
“There was drama. There was injury. There was a very tough opponent on the other side of the net, because that also has been part of my career,” he said. “I think I have faced some incredible players all the way through.”
That is 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. Though he has beaten them all multiple times on the strength of his huge serve and forehand and attacking skills, they all have, more often than not, stolen his thunder through the years, exploiting his much weaker backhand wing. Djokovic was the first: defeating 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 self-evident that Tsonga would experience more such occasions. Instead, he had to settle for five more Grand Slam semifinals: one at the Australian Open, two at Wimbledon and two at the French Open, the last in 2015 when Stan Wawrinka, another great talent from Tsonga’s era, beat him in four sets on his way to the championship.
In all, 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.
It was enough to make him the most successful French men’s player of the Open era after Yannick Noah, who, dreadlocks flying, rushed the net to win the French Open in 1983 and is still waiting for another Frenchman to follow his lead to victory.
Noah, whose mother was French and father was from Cameroon, is now 62 and back living on his family’s 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 did his part through the years as Davis Cup captain and French federation consultant to inspire his successors.
There have been world-class talents but no Grand Slam singles champions: not Guy Forget or Henri Leconte; not Cedric Pioline, Sebastien Grosjean or Arnaud Clement. And not Tsonga’s generation that includes Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils and was long ago called the New Musketeers in a nod to the four Musketeers whose Davis Cup victory over the Americans in 1927 led to the hasty construction of Roland Garros stadium so the French would have a worthy setting to host the Davis Cup final in 1928.
Tsonga, who once boarded inside the stadium complex as an aspiring junior, is the first of the new Musketeers to retire, although he will soon have company. Simon, also 37, has announced that he will join him at the end of the year and is also playing his final French Open.
Simon, Gasquet and Monfils were all on hand for Tsonga’s farewell on Tuesday. After the match and after Tsonga had dropped to the clay and given it 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 has often shined but, despite its sobriquet, never lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Tsonga, tennis’s newest retiree, had bigger immediate concerns. He could barely lift his right arm, but he looked fulfilled. “I’m proud of myself,” he confirmed. “I gave it all.”