A Knockout on the Tennis Court

By Spruell, Sakina P. | Black Enterprise, September 2008 | Go to article overview

A Knockout on the Tennis Court


Spruell, Sakina P., Black Enterprise


He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. At 6'2" and weighing 200 pounds, he moves at lightning speed and has the powerful arms of a heavyweight boxing champion. No, he's not Muhammad Ali but he sure resembles him. He is up-and-coming tennis sensation Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who, at 23, has catapulted from number 212 to number 14 in tennis tournament rankings in just one year.

AT THE 2008 AUSTRALIAN OPEN, THE CARAMEL-complexioned French native of French-Congolese descent gave a crowd-pleasing display of confidence and ability. Tsonga came out swinging, hitting drop volleys and effortlessly speeding across the court to return No. 2-ranked Rafael Nadal's topspin-laced forehand shots. Until this match, Nadal hadn't lost a set in the first five rounds of the tournament. Tsonga's precise serve and powerhouse game put an unexpected stop to that. He beat Nadal 6-2, 6-3, 6-2.

Tsonga had such an impressive record at the 2008 Australian Open that a spectator would wonder how he ever ranked at 212. The answer lies in an unfortunate series of injuries that have plagued the athlete since the beginning of his professional career in 2004. But Tsonga refuses to let injury stop him. Like All in his quest to regain the championship belt in 1978, Tsonga is picking off top-ranking players with all his might. Nadal was the fourth player ranked in the top 15 to get taken down by Tsonga at the 2008 Australian Open. He also beat Andy Murray (No. 9), Richard Gasquet (No. 8), and Mikhail Youzhny (No. 14).

During his match against Nadal, which lasted just under two hours, Tsonga landed 18 aces and won 75% of the points played at the net, 85% of his first serve points, and 75% of total service points. And he was able to save break points 100% of the time (three out of three). Tsonga's straight-set win against Nadal [(6-2, 6-3, 6-2)] ushered him into his first Grand Slam final against No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia. Djokovic won the match in four straight sets in a little over two hours. The crowd is what kept Tsonga motivated. "It's just unbelievable because the crowd was unbelievable," Tsonga reportedly said after the match. "A lot of noise and everything. I had frisson (goose bumps). It was crazy."

So exactly how did this tennis phenom rise to fame? Tsonga began playing tennis when he was seven in Le Mans, France, and competed throughout his teenage years. His dad is a former European handball player and a native of the Republic of the Congo. His mom is a French teacher.

In 2003, as a junior player, Tsonga finished with the high ranking of No. 2 junior in the world after capturing the Junior Championship title at the U.S. Open. He was also able to reach the semi-final level in three other junior Grand Slam events--the Australian Open in 2002, and both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2003.

Tsonga turned professional at the age of 19 in 2004. He landed former tennis player and fellow Frenchman Eric Winogradsky as his coach. In his first professional year, he was recorded as having the third fastest serve--clocked at 144 mph--on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) circuit. That same year he experienced his first big career win in September at the 2004 China Open against Carlos Moya who was ranked at No. 5.

Then, just as his professional career was taking off, Tsonga suffered several injuries during the latter part of 2004, among them a herniated disc, shoulder injuries, an abdominal injury, and knee problems. Between 2004 and 2006, Tsonga competed in only eight tournaments. Doctors told him that it would be nothing short of miraculous for him to be able to play at his optimal level again. But the young player worked hard and persevered to make his comeback. …

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