A finalist Sunday in Vienna against Andy Murray, the Frenchman arrived in Paris beaming. His body feels good, his game is consitent, and a happy event is awaiting him as he’ll become a father next spring.
In the Pullman Hotel in Bercy, a few steps from the hall where he will begin his Paris Masters 1000, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is wearing a frank and warm smile. Yet, 2016 hasn’t really smiled at him up to now: not one title in his basket, one Masters since 2010, a knee that bothered him all of the spring and summer, or almost, retirements at Roland Garros and at the US Open, a withdrawal from the Davis Cup semi-final … in short, a bland season where the thirty-one-year old Le Mans native bounced between doubts and frustration.
But now! A warm wind has seems finally to be blowing his way. At Shanghai, and especially in Vienna, the 13th ranked player in the world has just put back-to-back tournaments together without the least physical worry! It’s bold to expect him to tumble in Paris after an Austrian final against the monster of the moment, Andy Murray. Andy, the big chief, who even flew his worthy opponent to Paris in a private plane Sunday evening! A good thing rarely comes alone, and it’s not just tennis that is going well for JWT. His partner, Noura, is pregnant, and Tsonga is convinced that his coming fatherhood, forecast for the spring, will make him stronger in 2017.
What feelings does this fragile 2016 leave you with, going between recurrent knee worries, doubts and frustrations?
— It was an eventful and difficult season. I went through quite a few different states of mind to sum up. On the emotional level, this year was a bit one to forget because nothing turned out well. I chose in February to travel to South America where I’d never been. It was on clay, and I told myself that it could be a good idea. But it took a lot of energy and it drained me a bit mentally, partly because I didn’t win many matches (one in two tournaments) and my knee started hurting there. Everything after was dictated by that. I had to retire at Roland Garros, I retired at the US Open, I didn’t play the Davis Cup semi-final when the mood on the team was fabulous and I’d never experienced a Davis Cup like that before! All that was very frustrating for me.
How do you manage a season with a knee that’s permanently painful?
— It’s complicated. I was going to tournaments telling myself, “I’ll do what I can with what I have”. The doctors were telling me: “We don’t think that it will get better because your knee is structurally damaged. You need to manage it.” It wasn’t easy.
But it will be like that until the end of your career?
— Actually, yes and no. Last week in Vienna and a bit before, in Shanghai, there was an improvement. In Vienna I put together five matches without the least bit of pain. The last time that happened to me was in Toronto in 2014 (his second Masters 1000 title), and that year was the only time that happened! Before that, I don’t even know how far back I need to go.
You just been through a blessed week!
— In terms of feelings, of game level, it was the best week of the year. Physically, it’s a super positive week. It gives me a bit of hope and mentally it’s bloody good. I told myself, “it’s not over yet”. The more you hurt, the more you feel your objectives are moving farther away. But when you have two, three weeks like the last one, I tell myself I’ll see my objectives again.
What is your objective for this Paris Masters 1000?
— I hope for the best (smiles)! But we’ll start by concentrating on the first match and the first guy I meet (Albert Ramos, winner yesterday evening over Stéphane Robert).
The London World Tour Final, which you could qualify for by winning Paris, is it in a corner of your mind?
— I’m really not thinking about it at all, because it doesn’t only depend on me. In my head, the objective is to really take advantage of this tournament. With more maturity, I’m noticing that all events are important to me. When I play in a tournament, I want to win. I don’t do it to climb five spots in the rankings.
That’s almost swimming against the current. Generally, it’s when you’re a young lion that you want to win everything. Then, with experience, you make choices, no?
— I had a brief period where only certain tournaments interested me. It’s as if tennis has become even more attractive to my eyes, and suddenly I’m hungry for wins. I’ve created an environment around me now, personnel, technical, that makes me feel better.
You mentioned recently your sinus operation and dental surgery, small things that have echoed visibly and well on your physical health. What role did it play?
— First of all, the sinus operation was necessary for my general health. I had infected sinuses which could affect my joints and especially my tendons. It was important to have the operation under local anaesthetic to reduce the inflammation. In any case, it’s a door that’s been closed, and all the doors I can close on my way is good for my performance. It’s sort of like erasing all the errors so the copy can be as good as possible.
If the body holds up, 2017 can be a good year for Tsonga?
— It will be an interesting year in any case, and I hope I can go into it by having the best prep ever! And the year 2017 will also be different because Noura (his partner) is pregnant and I’m going to be a dad with a little baby! I’m very family oriented; I need that and it could be a motor. But I’ll need to manage my calendar and my season.
That’s great news, and not trivial for the course of a career. Did it make you get perspective and change your priorities?
— Of course. Having a child reverses certain priorities. It’s about turning all that into a positive. I’m almost convinced it will be something very positive and that it will make me want even more to do well.
But you won’t be tempted to give up certain tournaments to stay with your partner and child?
— Absolutely! That’s not a maybe, it’s a certainty. What’s also a certainty is that it won’t cause a dip in my desire in the tournaments I do play. Both are vital for me. Having a child is something I’ve always wanted.
Do you think you’ll be a better tennis player being a family father?
— I think so, yes. In any case, since I learned about it, I have the feeling things are going in the right direction. When you start your career, it’s often only tennis that counts. But with maturity you notice that life is filled with nice things, and it’s not only victories that come above everything. For me, well-being is primary. Sure, sometimes well-being comes through a win, but also through news like this.
You were talking about your frustration with the Davis Cup semi-final withdrawal. Gaël Monfils didn’t play that semi-final either after leaving the team at the last minute. What are your thoughts on all that?
— I must admit I really don’t want to talk about it. My opinion is of little value. With that sort of thing, each thinks his own thoughts. Every individual is different, and you can’t fit everyone in the same box. Some fit, others a bit less. The goal is to arrange things so everyone is there one day.
And you’ll be on this team for the first meeting in Japan next February?
— Next year will be very particular for me because of the birth. Obviously I won’t be able to have a year where I won’t be with Noura, leaving her to manage everything alone.
So it’s a meeting you’ll be missing?
— Honestly, I have no idea right now. I need to talk with Yann (Noah).
A body that’s fit, a game that’s improving, a child coming: you’re a happy man right now?
— Yes. All in all, I’ve always been. But today you can say I’m satisfied. Nothing in my life is difficult except, perhaps, the quest for the Grail (a Slam win) But it’s so much pleasure at the same time. I’m a bit of a masochist, taking pleasure in hurting myself!
When you played Andy Murray in the final the day before yesterday, did that let you realize what you’re missing to be a rival to the very best in the world?
— I need matches against them. Playing them more regularly would be value added for me. You play on confidence. The fact that I grabbed onto him in the second set by having a super game level encouraged me for the next time. It allows me to have more certainty when I arrive at those type of matches and to eventually turning the corner.
Where are you in your search for a super advisor to strengthen your technical staff? Gustavo Kuertin was mentioned at one time …
— He was very busy. It was very complicated and it wasn’t really a good fit with what I was looking for. But the search still interests me. But it’s not an easy thing. I need to relate on a very basic, human level above all. I’m a competitor, but I need to nourish myself with solid human relationships and when I don’t have that, I have problems bonding.
Is finding the right person for 2017 a priority?
— I’m not putting any deadline on that. Now, I have the impression I have a good dynamic and I’m not going to break it for something I’m not totally convinced of. The best players in the world have one thing in common, and that’s that they all believe in what they’re doing. And the goal for me is being in that state of mind and believing 100% in what I’m doing.
Translated by MAN