A simmering volcano

The Frenchman with a predominantly serve and volley game possesses such potent power that he can turn a tennis ball into a fireball while serving, but Tsonga is hardly a one-dimensional player. Bearing a striking likeness to the former World Heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, he mixes sting and subtlety in one of the most exhilarating and explosive games on the Tour. By Ayon Sengupta.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga must be wondering what hit him that he missed the photo op before the famous London double-decker bus along with the other hunks of tennis. Among the several demons that lurk in the gap between potential and fulfilment is physical injury, the bitter presence of which confronted Tsonga at the Valencia Open this year.

When a good run there would have given Tsonga a ticket to the lucrative, year-end Masters Cup in London, a wrist injury surfaced during a first-round match against Mikhail Youzhny, throwing all his plans into disarray.

A quarterfinal loss to Rafael Nadal at the Paris Masters later, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Tsonga, now ranked No. 10 in the world, would hope that withdrawals of players ranked above him would grant him a place in the elite eight of men’s tennis.

The Frenchman with a predominantly serve and volley game possesses such potent power that he can turn a tennis ball into a fireball while serving, but Tsonga is hardly a one-dimensional player. Bearing a striking likeness to former three-time World Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, he mixes sting and subtlety in one of the most exhilarating and explosive games on the Tour.

Tsonga showcased his skills during his dream surge as an un-seeded player at the 2008 Australian Open, dispatching four top-15 players — Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny and then World No. 2 Rafael Nadal — to reach the final of the Melbourne Slam and even took the first set before bowing to Serbian Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-7 (2-7).

His bruising power and intensity suggested that, in top form, no one would be able to face up to him. But a subsequent run of injuries unsettled him when he missed the French Open and Wimbledon. But the 24-year-old has returned to his best, winning three Tour titles. Sportstar catches up with Tsonga in this email interview.

Question: How would you rate your performance in 2009?

Answer: I know that winning three times is important but I cannot be satisfied with my performances, especially at Grand Slam events where I have stalled in some important moments of big matches.

What has been the most satisfying part of this year?

Most likely my three wins so far this year and my good form.

How do you then explain your poor run of form at the Slams?

I had put all the chances on my side this year to remain healthy this season and thus allowing me to play all the Grand Slams. I have played some good matches in Grand Slam events and some not so good ones. I am thinking about some missed opportunities at the Australian and U. S. Opens. Grand Slams are special events and there is a special feel once you are on the courts at these events. (Tsonga has reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the fourth round of the U.S. Open.)

But your performance at the French Open has not been up to the mark so far. Do you think you can be good on clay?

There are no reasons for me not to. I am as tough as many good players, I have more power than the average, I can hit the ball up the shoulder and on clay, I will have more time to go to the net.

But pundits are convinced you won’t succeed on clay…

Yes, yes. I’ve heard it. I don’t know how people can think so. But well, I take it as a challenge and I think I can surprise more than one people. Even for myself, I do want to know how I will handle it, if I am going to go to the net… What people say doesn’t put me off; it doesn’t make me laugh either. It motivates me. I’ve always worked like this. Often, my motivation doesn’t come from myself but from my eagerness to contradict people. Even with a bit of bad faith, if it’s needed. We are all a bit like this, aren’t we?

What are your immediate and long term goals?

The first would have been to play at the ATP finals in London. My ultimate goal is of course to win one or more Grand Slam events!

What areas of the game do you think you need to improve?

You can always improve by training hard. I personally believe that I can become better at the net and hold the rallies longer from the baseline; hence I am often working these situations during my daily routines at practice. Fitness is also extremely important for tennis and my coach puts a lot of emphasis on being fit and healthy.

Is the younger crop of players including you ready to challenge the Nadal-Federer supremacy?

We are already seeing some great players coming into the action such as Del Potro, Murray and Djokovic. All the guys in the top 10 are tough competition for Federer and Nadal.

Is Del Potro’s win at the U.S. Open going to herald a new era in men’s tennis?

I cannot say the opposite as the win will for sure contribute towards a new era. At least what it does now is that it makes all of us believe in our chances to win a Grand Slam. Juan Martin has opened the way.

Who is your favourite player?

Growing up I was a big fan of Pat Rafter for his style of play. I am also a fan of French player Arnaud Boetsch. The most important match I’ve watched on TV was the Davis Cup clincher that Arnaud Boetsch won in the final against Sweden. That day made me realise what I wanted to become and contributed to who I am today.

What’s your first tennis memory?

The Final, Davis Cup final, between Sweden and France. I watched it on TV. I remember the last match, it was (Nicklas) Kulti against (Arnaud) Boetsch and it was unbelievable. Both players finished with cramps. It was unbelievable.

And what has been your greatest moment in the game so far?

I think that would be winning the Paris title in Bercy last year. Also my victory in juniors at the U.S. Open.

There must be a most painful moment too…

My injury four years ago — my back. And I was out for two years. (He was sidelined with a herniated disc for five months in 2005, and then suffered another setback with abdominal and shoulder injuries in 2006.)

Any favourite tournament in the circuit…

U.S. Open. Because I won the juniors there. I like this place. People enjoy watching us play, so it’s good to be in New York.

Who is the best player to watch from the stands nowadays?

Maybe Nadal.

Who will take the honours for being the toughest competitor?

That would be Federer.

Do you recall any funny moments from the court?

Against Mario Ancic in Bercy three years ago. I served a big serve and he put his racquet out and it broke in the middle. So, for me, it was funny because he was like this — with a broken racquet. I think he broke the racquet before he even played with it. When he hit the ball it goes BOOM!

You are from Le Mans. Have you ever had the chance to watch the Le Mans 24?

In my youth I witnessed the event from afar. It is one of sport’s greatest events that are famous worldwide.

Do you see yourself behind one of those fast cars any time soon?

Probably not as I’d prefer to leave the wheel in the experienced hands of a professional! My serve travels at 240km/h… that is about it!

You are called Ali for your resemblance to the famous boxer. Do you find any other similarity between the two of you?

I see the resemblance and appreciate the comparison to this great champion, but I remain myself. I don’t have a poetic saying, but my dad told me the stories about Ali and the fight in Kinshasa; a fight that he witnessed.

Apart from tennis what else holds your interest?

I have many interests outside of tennis, fishing is one of them. I am extremely close to my family so whenever my schedule permits I just enjoy relaxing with them and enjoying the smaller things in life.

Favourite movie: Lord of the Rings Favourite TV show: I don’t watch TV too much. Musical tastes: Everything.

Favourite meal: Meal from Congo — it’s like chicken with peanut butter.

Favourite ice cream flavour: Vanilla.

Favourite non-tennis sport to watch: Basketball (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s younger brother (Enzo) is part of the French basketball programme).

Best tennis pals: Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Marcos Baghdatis.