Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: Charismatic Tsonga bounds into town

France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga debuts in Auckland next week. Photo / Getty Images
France's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga debuts in Auckland next week. Photo / Getty Images

There's an urban legend from a few years ago that nicely sums up the appeal of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Ahead of his highly-anticipated ASB Classic debut this week, tales of Melbourne, 2008, resurfaced.

It was the final of the Australian Open, when the unseeded Tsonga - after a memorable run through the draw - was facing the world No 3 Novak Djokovic.

After Tsonga won the first set 6-4, it felt like the whole of Rod Laver Arena was backing the Frenchman. Every single person. During a break in play, members of the Djokovic camp - including his father - apparently left the arena looking for some Serbians to provide some vocal support for their man.

Djokovic went on to win the match but Tsonga was the ultimate crowd pleaser. Eight years later he remains one of the most popular players on the tour, probably only outside the 'big four' in terms of global appeal and popularity.

He's extremely charismatic on court - a true entertainer - and feeds off the energy of the crowd, often urging fans to get behind him after a big point.

That was the appeal for ASB Classic organisers. Tsonga sells tickets, captures the imagination and can turns heads, even beyond tennis purists. That's what led tournament director Karl Budge to chase him for the last three years. He's finally here.

Tsonga enjoyed a trip to Waiheke and a spot of fishing - one of his favourite hobbies - before hitting the practice courts. Although he has been promoted as the marquee name, the late inclusion of world No 7 David Ferrer boosted an already strong field, with four players inside the top 12 and the eighth seed ranked at 25.

"It's going to be a really good preparation for me to be on court with guys that are able to compete so hard," said Tsonga. "I'm here to play some really good tennis."

Asked who might be his toughest opponent next week, his answer is unusual but doesn't exactly surprise.

"Me, like always. My [toughest] opponent is me. I have to control myself. Every player in this draw is able to play really good tennis [and] there will be tough matches every day."

Tsonga can run hot and cold - not to the same degree as someone like compatriot Gael Monfils, but with the similar Gallic vagaries. He hasn't reached another major final since that night in Melbourne and is often labelled an underachiever.

Tsonga has still achieved plenty - 12 career titles including two Masters tournaments and four more grand slam semifinal appearances. He probably hasn't done justice to his extraordinary talent, but he has also been unfortunate to co-exist alongside Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal. He remains an A-level player, able to beat anyone on his day.

"I try to be a better player every day," said Tsonga. "I still have goals to achieve and try to be focused on this and that's it. When I don't have the passion anymore, I will stop but, for the moment, I still have goals"

Tennis is one of the most demanding sports mentally and physically and can grind players down, a la Andre Agassi, but Tsonga says he still loves the game as much as he did when he was a kid with a racquet growing up in the north of France.

"I had passion for the sport [when] I was not a professional," said Tsonga. "I was nothing and in my head I am still the same boy who started to play tennis, to enjoy the game."

He remains a big threat. In 2015, Tsonga reached the semifinals at Roland Garros, beating two top-five players on the way. He also won a title in Metz and beat Nadal on the way to the final in Shanghai. And memories are still fresh of his performance in Toronto less than 18 months ago when he was unstoppable, beating Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Federer in the space of four days.

Maybe playing in Auckland could be a lucky omen which leads to another magic run at the Australian Open. He hasn't played a tour event in this week of the calendar - preferring instead to warm up in Melbourne - since 2008.

"It's good to be in this kind of atmosphere," said Tsonga.

- Herald on Sunday

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