Commentary

Sky-high expectations for Tsonga

Updated: June 6, 2013, 5:01 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Thirty years ago, Yannick Noah played completely out of his body and mind here at Roland Garros.

The jaunty, 23-year-old Frenchman, dreadlocked and gap-toothed, stunned eight-time Grand Slam singles champion Ivan Lendl in the quarterfinals, then dropped only three games to compatriot Christophe Roger-Vasselin in the semifinals. Most extraordinary of all, Noah won in a straight-sets final over Mats Wilander, who was is the midst of a seven-year run at the French Open that yielded five appearances in the final and three titles.

It was the finest thing he ever did, although some would argue his son, Joakim, who plays for the Chicago Bulls, is in the conversation. Yannick Noah rose as high as No. 3 in the ATP World Tour rankings and won 23 singles titles, but of the 37 Grand Slam events he played, the 1983 French Open marked his only victory.

In a single fortnight, Noah guaranteed himself a lifetime of love from the French people. He is massively popular here and makes his living today as a pop singer, which probably speaks more to the generosity of the grateful, listening public than any talent he might have.

[+] EnlargeJo-Wilfried Tsonga
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesThirty years have passed since France saw one of its own win. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can change that.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who knocked off 17-time Grand Slam singles champion Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, aches to join Noah in that elite group of French heroes. While most eyes outside of France are focused on Friday's epic semifinal match between No. 1-seeded Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Rafael Nadal, it's safe to say that France will be in lockdown when the No. 6-seeded Tsonga meets No. 4 David Ferrer in the other final four matchup.

"I hope for me it's going to be easy," said Tsonga of his country's awesome expectations. "Because everybody's expecting a lot from me since the beginning of this tournament. Not only for this tournament, but every day. So I'm used to it."

Tsonga was born in LeMans two years after Noah's arcing triumph, and for most of his life, he's been hearing about that victory.

What is Tsonga's relationship with the great Noah?

"When he sings, I dance," Tsonga said succinctly. "That's my relationship. When he says something to me, I listen to him.

"I listen carefully to everything he has to say because he has a lot of common sense -- even if some people don't think so."

Tsonga, like Andy Murray at Wimbledon, has labored at his home Grand Slam over the years. The attention began in earnest a decade ago, when he reached the semifinals of the boys' junior tournament here, losing to American Brian Baker, who in turn was defeated by Stanislas Wawrinka in the final.

Tsonga has gradually improved his results here as a professional and finds himself deeper than ever at Roland Garros. Ferrer, who has reached the French Open semifinals for a second straight year, will be a tough out. They've played three times, on three different surfaces, and the Spaniard has a 2-1 edge, including a straight-sets win three years ago on the clay in Rome.

Tsonga, of course, was ecstatic when he beat Federer, but his celebration was somewhat muted.

"I have more experience in those kind of moments," Tsonga said. "I experienced this in the past when I beat Federer in Wimbledon [in the 2011 quarterfinals], and I had thought I could go further at the time, too."

But he didn't. Djokovic won their semifinal in straight sets.

"So I have much more experience today," Tsonga continued. "I know about being too happy about that kind of match is good, but it takes away a lot of energy from you."

Djokovic and Nadal were able to conserve their energy in the quarterfinals that produced the 35th meeting of their careers. Djokovic took down 35-year-old Tommy Haas in straight sets in 2 hours, 13 minutes. Nadal continued his domination of Wawrinka, winning all three sets in under two hours. Rafa has now won all 10 career matches (and, not insignificantly, all 24 sets) against the Swiss player.

After Nadal won their first nine encounters on clay, Djokovic has stabilized things a bit. Since 2011, they have split their six matches on clay and Djokovic has a straight-sets victory in their only meeting this year, in the final at Monte Carlo.

While this semifinal is being touted as the de facto final, Nadal insisted otherwise.

"It's the semifinals," he said pointedly. "That's the difference at the end. You are not playing a match for a title. You are just playing a match to be in the final.

"I'm going to be nervous for the semifinals probably, yes. If not, better go home and do another thing. Because if you are not nervous to play the semifinals against the best player of the world, it's because you are not enjoying or you don't feel the passion for this game. But sure I will be more motivated than nervous."

Brad Gilbert, the ESPN analyst who coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray, say there are two critical factors for this clay-court matchup. The eye test and the weather.

"Based on the eye test over the first 10 days," Gilbert said, "Djokovic is winning the tournament. He has looked really good to me, and Rafa has struggled to find his forehand. He played great in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, but not as well since. Maybe he's getting his mojo back after that fourth-round win against Kei Nishikori.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBased on their play so far, most pundits think Novak Djokovic has as good a shot of winning the French as Rafael Nadal.
"If the cold weather continued, I'd favor Djokovic, but Friday's supposed to be around 77 [degrees Fahrenheit]. That's perfect for Rafa, gives him the conditions to hit the ball through the court.

"If that's how it goes down, I'd say it's a push."

For the record, five of nine ESPN/ESPN.com experts picked Nadal -- despite a seven-month injury sabbatical that ended in February -- to win his eighth French Open title in nine years; Gilbert was one of them. The other four chose Djokovic.

"He likes to compete," Djokovic said of Nadal. "He never gives up. I mean, that's an impressive virtue that he has. Over the years, he's been so consistent and so dominant, on this surface especially. He's struggled with injuries, came back, and lost only few matches since. You've got to respect that.

"I played a fantastic match [in Monte Carlo], and I know what it takes to win against him. That's what I'm going for. I'm going to win. That's the mindset."

Tsonga, too, is thinking positive thoughts.

"Sports, it's beautiful, because you can always do something," he said after beating Federer. "Even if you play the best player in the world, or anybody, you have a chance. Because the guy in front of you has two legs, two arms, one head.

"That's it."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.