PARIS — Much as he wanted to avoid tears, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga simply could not. And, he said later, he knew he would not. So they flowed freely during the final moments of his final match at the French Open, the final singles match of his professional tennis career, and he wiped them away with the black sweatband on his left wrist.
They were not there because of the right shoulder that was so painful he couldn’t properly swing his racket by the end of a 6-7 (8), 7-6 (4), 6-2, 7-6 (0) loss to No. 8 seed Casper Ruud on Tuesday in Court Philippe Chatrier. They were there because he knows he is done trying to win matches, done hearing the supportive roars from spectators, done experiencing the highs and lows of a professional tennis career that featured a spot at No. 5 in the rankings, a run to the 2008 Australian Open final and France‘s first Davis Cup title in 16 years — but also a series of injuries.
He‘s been limited to a total of 18 matches since the start of 2021, turned 37 last month, has a family now and knew this trip to Roland Garros would be the perfect way to bid adieu.
“It was pure madness today. One of the best atmospheres I have seen in my career (for) my last match. I couldn’t have asked for something better,” Tsonga said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better script, apart from the fact that I could have won.”
He appeared to have a chance to extend the match by breaking to go up 6-5 in the fourth set. But at the end of that game, he wrenched his shoulder, and that was that. Ruud quickly broke back, and Tsonga was visited by a trainer, who tried to help the situation but could not. During a three-minute medical timeout, a band in the stands got fans to clap and chant “Jo! Jo!” to the rhythm of a drumbeat, then played “La Marseillaise” as some in the seats sang along to France‘s national anthem.
When play resumed, Tsonga could barely even serve, tapping the ball at barely more than 60 mph (100 kph) - less than half as fast as the booming offerings he was known for - and even tried hitting one shot left-handed as the tiebreaker ended in a shutout. No matter. The locals gave Tsonga a prolonged standing ovation, and he went up near the net, knelt and rested his forehead on the ground, creating a splotch of the rust-colored clay on his face.
Asked later what he‘ll miss the most as he leaves the sport, he replied: “The adrenaline, stepping on a big court like this one. Adrenaline you can feel when you have 15,000 people shouting your name.”
It all offered the most compelling moments of Day 3, which included first-round victories in the men’s bracket for U.S. Open champion Daniil Medvedev, 2021 French Open runner-up Stefanos Tsitsipas, No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev and No. 24 Frances Tiafoe, who had been 0-6 at Roland Garros.
Danish teenager Holger Rune eliminated No. 14 Denis Shapovalov 6-3, 6-1, 7-6 (4).
The fourth-seeded Tsitsipas dropped the opening two sets before getting past Lorenzo Musetti 5-7, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 at Court Philippe Chatrier as the calendar flipped from Tuesday to Wednesday and the temperature dipped to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius). A year ago, Tsitsipas blew a two-set lead in the final against Novak Djokovic.
“Mentally, I don’t know what it was, exactly, but I was not there. I was somewhere else,” he said about his start against Musetti. “And I was frustrated with myself. What did I do to kind of feel that way or deserve that in an opener like this in a Grand Slam, you know? I think I was really focused too much on the future, thinking about other things instead of really being fully present in what I was doing at that time.”
Women who advanced to the second round included 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko, 2018 champion Simona Halep, No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka, No. 9 Danielle Collins, No. 11 Jessica Pegula and No. 22 Madison Keys.
Tsonga leaves with 121 wins in Grand Slam matches, a record for a French man. It is a tough time for tennis in the land of the French Open: For the first time since 1980, there were zero men or women from the country seeded in the tournament.
Another member of Tsonga’s talented generation — Gilles Simon, who won a five-setter against No. 16 seed Pablo Carreño Busta that ended past 1 a.m. on Wednesday — has said he will retire at the end of the season. Yet another, Gael Monfils, missed Roland Garros because he needs heel surgery — although he was there Tuesday for a postmatch retirement ceremony in Chatrier, along with so many folks who mean so much to Tsonga: other players; a group of his coaches dating to when he was a kid; his wife and children; his parents.
There were video tributes from the greatest four male players of this era - Novak Djokovic (who called Tsonga‘s retirement “a big loss for professional men’s tennis”), Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray (“You’ve been a great ambassador for the sport,” he told Tsonga) - and a series of speeches.
“You’ve been an inspiration to me and many young players around the world,” said Ruud, a 23-year-old from Norway who joked about being sad at age 10 when his favorite player, Nadal, lost to Tsonga at the Australian Open. “Thank you for all the memories.”
No. 3 seed Paola Badosa, whose 6-2, 6-0 victory over France‘s Fiona Ferro followed Tsonga vs. Ruud in Chatrier, said she got “super emotional” watching the whole scene. Later, she ran into Tsonga as they were doing interviews and told him kiddingly she was upset that all the hullabaloo over him delayed the start of her match — then asked him to pose with her for a photo.
What awaits Tsonga now? He said he‘ll need to have medical tests Wednesday on his shoulder, which he said was in bad enough shape he couldn’t hold his baby.
But Tsonga took pride in playing — well, trying to play — until the end, rather than conceding the match.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t finish the way I want to finish, but I finished on the court, playing like I did all my career, running after the ball,” Tsonga said. “It was emotional for me. And anyway, it’s going to stay a good moment in my head. Yeah, in a way, I finished like I wanted to finish.”
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