At Roland-Garros, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will play this year the very last tournament of his very rich career, marked by a final at the Australian Open in 2008 and two Masters 1000 won. This week, those who closely rubbed shoulders with the 37-year-old Sarthois testified. After his brother Enzo, his various coaches, his player friends and those with whom he will lead his future professional life, it was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga himself who received us in Lyon and agreed to look all the way accomplished. And to open his heart, he the great modest.
How did you manage the flood of media requests before your last tournament?
I had already known for a while that I wanted to stop at Roland-Garros and I didn’t want to announce it too early so as not to have to endure this flood of media for too long. You have to go through that, but it’s true that it’s quite tiring because I continue to play and there are also other demands around. And since I’m no longer in top form, all of that obviously takes a lot of my energy.
Physically, how do you feel?
I feel better and better day by day. I’m quite happy because I’m still going to arrive in good shape at this Roland-Garros, without injury. I feel good.
Did you want to somehow free yourself from a weight by announcing your retirement from Roland-Garros?
It was freeing me from a weight, of course. I also know that I’ve only played a full year out of the last three, four years, so my body is no longer suited for top-level tennis, so the best players in the world, which I’ve been for ten years. For me, it was hard to play and not win anymore, and people say “oh he’s not good” and all that, when, in my head, I knew it was the last rushes.
You played two semi-finals at Roland-Garros in 2013 and 2015. Symbolically, was it the perfect place to stop?
Roland-Garros is a tournament that will have marked my tennis career, from an early age since I did my first national training courses there when I was 11, 12 years old. Sometimes I stayed for a month at Roland-Garros in the summer. I then played the French championships there for all age categories, I played a Davis Cup semi-final there… I had very good results on Roland’s soil, whereas in general, I was not the best player on clay, it was not my specialty. I’m happy to be able to finish there.
“I would like a hanging match, where I go to the end of myself”
Your last dream match, how do you imagine it?
A tough game! (laughs) A hanging match, where I go to the end of myself. This is how I imagine the end, in any case this is how I would like it to happen, regardless of the outcome of the matches. The most important thing for me will be to fight until the end and to finish in a good atmosphere, as I have always experienced in the end at Roland-Garros. I have always had the chance to be supported at all times. I definitely want to end up like this.
Does the opponent matter?
I’m not really sure I can hook the best players in the world today. But my level remains rather correct. I tell myself that depending on who I meet, I can actually have my chances of being able to move forward. I don’t plan on the comet, I just try to be diligent enough at work and arrive well prepared there to give the best possible performance.
Will it be hard to contain the emotions?
It will be almost impossible (to smile). That too, I’m a little apprehensive because I’m not the one who prefers this kind of moment. But on the other hand, I’m not the one who manages to hide his emotions either. I had a glimpse of what awaits me in Lyon (his penultimate tournament, defeat in the 1st round), and it was painful! (laughs) It was nice, but painful.
“I am fundamentally addicted to the game”
What will you miss the most in the life of a professional tennis player?
The game. I am fundamentally attached to the game, to the commitment, to surpassing oneself, to adversity, the relationship with the public on the field, not necessarily outside. I’d swap the one on the field with the one off. (laughs), because I am someone rather discreet and reserved in life. But yes, the atmosphere on the court, all this stress that was mounting before entering the field, the adrenaline at the time of the important points.
Your career may flash through your final points. If so, what would these flashes be?
I have no idea honestly, I’ll let it go. Certainly I will have images in mind but I do not know which ones. Will it be about tennis, will it be about my family or something else? These are question marks and I’m waiting to live the thing, I want to live it fully so I don’t project myself too much.
Do you have any regrets today?
I retire serenely because I am a happy, fulfilled man. I have done many things in my life already for my “young age”. Tennis allowed me to meet lots of great people, to discover lots of cultures, lots of countries, to discover lots of strong emotions, both positive and negative. I feel fulfilled because I have my little family, my children who are in good health. I have everything it takes to feel good.
Don’t you think your career is sometimes underestimated? Especially when we see that the next generation of French tennis is slow to arrive. We realize a little more now how lucky we were with the Musketeers…
Yeah, after that I don’t care a bit (laughs). Me, I know what I’ve accomplished, I know what I’ve been through, I know how lucky I am. Today, I don’t care whether people recognize me or not. At the start, when we play, we are not looking for this thing. When you’re young, you play because you love the game, you love to win and you don’t look any further than that. What people think is up to them. Those who say it was good, I will be very happy, and for those who say it was not enough, unfortunately, I cannot go back (laughs). It’s like that.
“Everything I have, I had to go and get it by the sweat of my brow”
People who know you well describe a disconnect between the ambitious tennis player you’ve always been and the person you are outside of, someone emotional, sentimental. Did you need a shell?
Of course, we protect ourselves from certain things. My everyday personality is necessarily linked to my education. But on the ground also finally. I consider that I was not really born with a golden spoon in my mouth. Everything I have today, I had to go and get it by the sweat of my brow. I trained, I worked hard, I was never given anything but lots of love. It smiled on me and, on the ground, I had, like everyone I think, frustrations to evacuate.
Would you have preferred to retire with a more established succession at the level of French tennis?
I don’t necessarily have an opinion on that. Me, I did what I had to do. And for the rest, I will be the first delighted that there is a little Frenchie who tears everything up and who goes looking for this famous Grand Slam title that French tennis is waiting for. I will be happy to share my experience to try to ensure that there is one who manages to get what we have not managed to get. A player who would do like us, it would not be interesting in quotes (laughs). A player who did better would be better.
“I find myself a lot in the simplicity of Sarthe”
What would you like to say to the Sarthois who have always followed you from afar?
I would like to thank them for this support. I come from Savigné-l’Évêque, a town about ten kilometers from Le Mans. I said that I was not born with a golden spoon in my mouth, but I lived a golden childhood. I didn’t miss much, I had just what it took to feel good. I went to school on foot or by bike, I had lots of friends, we played sports, played football outside, cycled, we had fun. What I remember from my years in Sarthe is that you don’t need shine to be happy. We just need friends, social ties, love around us, food on the plate and a little roof of course (laughs). I find myself a lot in the simplicity of Sarthe and I need to go back to it when I feel that it’s a bit too much in my professional life. Simplicity is what my department brought me.
How do you envision the sequel?
The sequel will be cool! I’m happy enough. Obviously I’m going to leave a part of tennis that I love: competition, training, that, I loved. But at the same time, I’m leaving a part of tennis that I don’t like: being on planes, hotels, everything that can be related to the superficial side of what we do. That, I don’t really like. I’m going to love not having to deal with all that logistics, having to make a decision about what media I’m going to talk to, who I’m going to do this or that with, etc.
You will be able to return to your fishing trips…
That, I never left. I started fishing when I was five years old in Sarthe. We went fishing in the Sarthe elsewhere (to smile), in the Huisne, in all the neighboring rivers. And that will stick with me throughout my career. It was important for me to come back in there from time to time to just take a breather and disconnect from this washing machine that is tennis.
EPISODE 1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga by his brother Enzo: “He quickly had this flame in him”
EPISODE 2. “When he returned from a tournament, he went fishing”: Tsonga by his coaches
EPISODE 3. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga seen by his competitors: “At 14, we wanted to be Jo Tsonga”
EPISODE 4. Which Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after his retirement?