Biofile with Tennis Powerhouse Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
by Scoop Malinowski - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Biofile: The Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Interview By Scoop Malinowski
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
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Jo-Wilfried Tsonga scored a 7-6(4), 6-4 win over Novak Djokovic to earn is first title in Bangkok.  © Getty Images
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Break point has rarely carried such combustible connotations as it did the day Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lowered the boom in delivering a destructive serve that splattered and nearly shattered Mario Ancic's racquet in the process.

"(I was playing) against Ancic in Bercy three years ago. I serve a big serve and he put his racquet out and the racquet broke at the middle of the racquet," Tsonga recalls. "So, for me, it was funny because I serve a big serve and he was like this — with a broke racquet. I think he broke the racquet before he play with it. When he hit the ball it go BOOM!"

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Tsonga possesses such potent power he can turn a tennis ball into a wrecking ball when he's serving, but Tsonga is hardly a one-note player.

The man who bears a striking resemblance to former three-time World Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali mixes sting and subtlety in one of the most exciting and explosive games on the ATP World Tour.

Tsonga showcased his skills during his surge to his first career final at the 2008 Australian Open last year.

He dispatched four top-15 ranked players — Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet, Mikhail Youzhny and then World No. 2 Rafael Nadal — to reach the final of the Melbourne major and took the first set before bowing to Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-7(2).

Throughout his inspired run through the Oz Open field, Tsonga played the decisive, dynamic tennis of a man well aware of what he needed to do on court and fully committed to executing his plan, but in the final act of his upset of Youzhny Tsonga suddenly found himself momentarily overcome for the first time in the tournament.

Moments after completing a comprehensive 7-5, 6-0, 7-6(6), Australian Open victory over 14th-seeded  Youzhny to surge into his first career Grand Slam semifinal in only his fifth career major, the 22-year-old Frenchman felt the flood of emotion surging within.

"I don't know how to say that. It's like I want to cry, I want to smile, I want everything. And it's a lot of emotion," Tsonga said. "I have a lot of image in my head, and it's coming like this, and it's very big. And, yeah, it's a lot of emotion."

His emotional accessibility as well as attacking game has made Tsonga a fan favorite.

Tsonga's talent has never been an issue — he beat Marcos Baghdatis to win the 2003 U.S. Open junior title and finished second to Baghdatis in the 2003 year-end ITF Junior world rankings — but his conditioning and commitment was undermined by back and abdominal injuries early in his career.

While Baghdatis broke through by reaching the 2006 Australian Open final, Tsonga was toiling on the Challenger circuit. Sidelined with a herniated disc in his back for five months in 2005, he suffered another setback with abdominal and shoulder injuries in 2006. He did not win an ATP Tour-level match in 2005 or 2006 and admits the injury-induced futility caused him to question his ability to come back.

"Sometimes it was like, 'Oh, it's too tough,' I don't know if I will do it," Tsonga said of the injuries that stalled his career before it even took off.

Since turning pro, the Frenchman has had a flair for summoning some of his best tennis against seeded players.

Five years ago, Tsonga made his ATP main draw debut one to remember at the China Open as the then 19-year-old qualifier slammed three straight aces to start the match and sustained a high level of play throughout to shock top-seeded Spaniard Carlos Moya, 6-3, 6-3, in the opening round of the China Open.

He began the 2007 season ranked No. 212, pushed Andy Roddick to four sets, including two tiebreak sets, in his Australian Open debut last year, won five Challenger championships in the spring season and beat former World No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt at Queen's Club last June. Playing his first Wimbledon, Tsonga reached the fourth round before falling to fellow Frenchman and friend Richard Gasquet.

Starting the 2008 season surging to the Adelaide semifinals, Tsonga made an immediate impact on the Australian Open in dispatching ninth-seeded Andy Murray in the opening round, defeating Gasquet in the fourth round and overwhelming Youzhny.

In past years, Tsonga's all-out attacking style was born of necessity: he simply wasn't fit enough to defend and prolong points. Shedding 10 pounds in the offseason, a much sleeker Tsonga has made greater use of his all-court gifts.

He bounced back from knee surgery that shelved him for part of the spring to capture his first career title by beating Djokovic, 7-6(4), 6-4, in the Bangkok final last September. Then roared through the Paris field in defeating Radek Stepanek, Djokovic, Andy Roddick, James Blake and David Nalbandian to claim his first career Masters Series crown in Paris, thrilling his home crowd in the process.

The second-seeded Tsonga will face off against his good friend Gasquet in the Brisbane quarterfinals after edging Jarkko Nieminen, 0-6, 7-6(1), 7-6(5) in today's Brisbane International.

"I feel I am getting better and better. I think I played a really good game with Jarkko," Tsonga said. "My game is here and I hope it is going to stay here."

Scoop Malinowski, whose jarring jab, penchant for distinctive headwear and fondness for reptiles has evoked comparisons to Livingstone Bramble, recently caught up with Tsonga for this Biofile Interview.

Tennis Inspirations:  "A lot of guys. I try to take something from every player — Agassi, Sampras, Rafter."

Hobbies/Interests:  "I have lots of hobbies. I like life so, maybe my best hobby is fishing. I like music, being with my friends."

Favorite Movies:  "Lord of the Rings."

Favorite TV Shows: "I don't watch TV too much, so."

Musical Tastes: "Everything."

Last Book Read: "DaVinci Code."

First Tennis Memory: "Final, Davis Cup, 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."

Favorite Meal: "Meal from Congo — it's like chicken with peanut butter."

Favorite Ice Cream Flavor: "Vanilla."

Pre-Match Feeling/Mindset: "To think of my game. Visualize my game and how it's gotta be."

Favorite Non-Tennis Sport To Watch: "Basketball."

Greatest Sports Moment: "Winning the Paris title in Bercy. Also my victory in juniors at U.S. Open."

Most Painful Moment: "My injury four years ago — my back. And I was out for two years."

Favorite Tournaments:  "U.S. Open. Because I won juniors. I like this place. People enjoy to watch us, so it's good in New York."

Favorite Players To Watch Today: "Maybe Nadal."

Closest Tennis Friends: "Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Marcos Baghdatis."

Funniest Players Encountered: "For me, because he's my friend, it's Gael Monfils. I've known him since we are kids. (What is it about him?) There is a lot of expression to his face [smiles]. So, for me, it's funny. But maybe for someone else it's not funny."

Toughest Competitor: "Federer."

Funny Memory: "Against Ancic in Bercy three years ago. Because I serve a big serve and he put his racquet out and the racquet broke at the middle of the racquet. So, for me, it was funny because I serve a big serve and he was like this — with a broke racquet. I think he broke the racquet before he play with it. When he hit the ball it go BOOM!"

Last Vacation: "Was in France, La Baule."

Best You Ever Felt on Court: "Winning Paris (indoors in '08). Australian Open final last year. Two years ago against Feliciano Lopez. Everything I did on the court it was easy."

People Qualities Most Admired: "Generous."

Scoop Malinowski created the Biofile interview in 1992. Scoop is a Tennisweek.com contributor, noted boxing expert and accomplished recreational tennis player who has competed in the USTA Nationals and the National Public Parks Championships at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. Scoop's latest book "Heavyweight Armageddon: The Tyson-Lewis Championship Battle" is available at www.amazon.com. Scoop, who once verbally sparred with Tyson at a press conference before the pair eventually made peace, is currently in deep training in Florida to defend his Tennis Week singles title.