Thirty Years After Yannick Noah, France's New Reason For Hope At Roland Garros
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga knocked off Roger Federer to advance to the semi-finals of the French Open. Can history repeat itself?
PARIS – After his quarterfinal win over Roger Federer at the French Open, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hugged Federer and congratulated the Swiss legend. “Thanks for letting me win this time,” Tsonga said.
Then the French top player came back to center of the court to celebrate reaching the French Open semifinals for the first time in his career. He performed his signature victory dance — thumbs pointing to his back while spinning across the court — as the crowd chanted his name “Tsonga! Tsonga!” This battle cry drowned out the shouts of “Roger!,” the other darling of the Parisian spectators at Roland Garros Stadium, and the Swiss flags were quietly put away.
Tsonga's trademark victory dance
Supporters chant Tsonga’s Congolese family name, and why wouldn’t they? “Jo-Wilfried” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. He hopes to hear it up until the final match Sunday. “I don’t know what more to wish for, these days,” Tsonga said after his win. “I play really well. I want to shout, I want to jump around, but I have to stay focused. I really think I can do this.”
The thought of victory is now the most shared fantasy in French sports at the moment, and it might just come true for Tsonga. Because what the man from the northwest city of Le Mans did on the court against Federer showed that he deserves a shot at the first title for a Frenchman since the one captured exactly 30 years ago by tennisman-turned-singer Yannick Noah.
France's Sports Minister Valérie Fourneyron sees in Tsonga “a maturity in technique, an appetite for victory and a determination to write a new page in the book of French tennis history, and for that, he deserves respect.”
He got some advice from Federer himself, who finally won his first title at Roland Garros in 2009. “Jo must keep his aggressive style, he must keep believing that he can do it and let the audience bring him up and hope that everything falls into place.”
Next on tap is David Ferrer, who rolled over his fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo (6-2, 6-1, 6-1) and sent a few shivers down the backs of spectators. Fans quickly realized that the No. 4 player would be a whole new kind of adversary, as Ferrer is the other player besides Tsonga not to have lost a set so far.
Ferrer lost in the semifinals to Rafael Nadal in 2012, but the Valencian said that “having to play against Jo is not better or worse than playing against Rafa. I’ll have to play long, and a lot on his backhand, and I will need to serve better than that.” Tsonga, meanwhile, has described Ferrer as “a very tenacious player who covers a lot of ground,” someone who is very quick. “But I know that I can beat him,” Tsonga said. “I have the means to do that."
Though he resembles a young Muhammed Ali, people compare this year’s great French hope with Noah, who won over the hearts of the nation in 1983. Tsonga, like Noah before him, is the No. 6 seed. They both took out the No. 3-ranked player. And both were born of a mixed couple: teacher mom and African father skilled in team sports (handball for Didier Tsonga, soccer for Zachary Noah).
Tsonga clarified all the comparisons: “My relation with Yannick? When he sings, I dance.”