MERCI JO


Jo-Wilfried Tsonga carried the mark of a champion.


On Tuesday afternoon in Paris, that mark was a tennis ball-shaped cake of red clay on his forehead, fresh from kissing centre court for one last time, as he bid farewell to a sport that owes him much for what he brought to it.


The French champion ended his career without a major title. But few have received a farewell filled with the love and respect shown on Tuesday at Roland Garros to one of the most popular players of the past 15 years.


The eloquent final words of his tennis career, said with friends and peers surrounding him and with Stade Philippe Chatrier at full capacity, befitted a gentleman of the sport.


“Merci tennis. Je T’aime,” he said. The tennis world responded: “Thank you Jo. We love you.”


A generation of stars joined his loved ones and coaches on centre court to celebrate Tsonga after he bowed out cramping and in tears, but also full of fight and brilliance, 7-6 (8) 6-7 (4) 6-2 7-6 (0) to Casper Ruud, the 8th seed and among the best clay courters playing.


Gael Monfils. Richard Gasquet. Gilles Simon. Among other Davis Cup teammates. All magnificent players in their own right and proud representatives of France and tennis.


The Big Four of tennis also passed on video messages of gratitude and solicitation. They loved playing against him but enjoyed his goodwill and humour in the locker room even more.

Novak Djokovic. Rafael Nadal. Andy Murray. Roger Federer.


In a mark of his excellence, he is among the handful to manage a win over each one of them in a grand slam. And he beat Federer, Nadal and Djokovic when they were ranked No. 1.


The former world No. 5, a finalist in Melbourne in 2008 and multiple semi-finalist in Paris and Wimbledon, could not walk at the end of an almighty performance in a remarkable career.


But that did not matter to any who loved the pizzaz and exhilaration he brought to tennis right to his very last match, for he played an absolute corker against Ruud until cramp struck when he was serving to force a deciding set.


In full flight, few have been as good to watch, which is a credit to him given the calibre of his rivals.


The right-hander’s best was extraordinary. Such athleticism. Such craft. And all the power and energy in the world to burn. Remember those Mohamed Ali inspired celebrations?


As Tsonga said in a beautifully crafted retirement speech where he touched on the many facets of his life and those who he represented, he had to be. “It is true that I had to be good in the midst of the best generation of all time and an unequalled French generation. But I did it,” he said.


Emblazoned across the beams of Philippe Chatrier Stadium is the phrase “Victory belongs to the most tenacious.”


Tsonga was as tenacious and as courageous as they come in overcoming injuries that stalled his career at its very start and endangered it several times over the next 18 years.


A member of France’s triumphant 2017 Davis Cup team, he won 18 ATP Tour titles including Masters titles in Paris in 2008 and also Toronto in 2014 when red hot against the best.


The 37-year-old was unlucky to be born in the same era as the golden generation when it comes to major success. He joins the unwanted ranks of the very best not to win a major.


But he came so close.


It is almost eleven years since Djokovic struck the forehand heard around the world, as it was dubbed at the time, in a US Open semi-final against Federer.


Facing two match points at 3-5 in the fifth set, the Serbian launched at a serve from the Swiss and thumped a cross-court forehand winner that has shaped tennis history.


Djokovic had won his second and third grand slam titles that year leading into the US Open, but if that forehand goes wide, either Federer or Nadal have another to their current tally.


Less recognised is a forehand struck by Tsonga three years earlier in Melbourne that could have delayed Djokovic’s march to legendary status while claiming him a grand slam title.


Finally fit and on the rise, Tsonga emerged with a flourish to reach the decider of the 2008 Australian Open. The manner with which he eclipsed Nadal in a semi-final was devastating.


Yet to claim a major, Djokovic was starting to fray late in the fourth set. Facing a break point at 5-all, he hit a sub-standard drop shot that sat up nicely for his rival’s powerful forehand.


Although on the run, Tsonga had options. Attempt to weave one down the line, or flick it back cross-court in front of the Serbian star. Novak had none. He had to gamble on where to go.


The coin toss flipped in his favour. Djokovic guessed correctly. He took a step to the left, made the reflex backhand volley and, crisis averted, walked back to the baseline nodding with conviction to the crowd.


Had Tsonga broken, given the strength of his serve and the momentum, a fifth set and uncertain outcome loomed large. Instead Djokovic rallied and closed out his first grand slam title with a convincing tiebreaker.


It is not quite a sliding doors moment. So brilliant is Djokovic that it is inevitable he would have broken through soon for the major that sent him on his way to becoming a legend.


Tsonga would have been a surprise winner at the time. But hindsight shows he would have been an entirely worthy one. Tennis needs more players like him.