MELBOURNE – Jo-Wilfried Tsonga says the good memories are flooding back as he prepares to take on Novak Djokovic Thursday in a blockbuster Australian Open second-round clash - a rematch of their 2008 final.
Eleven years on he recalls his breakthrough Grand Slam fondly - ranked 38 he beat ninth seed Andy Murray in the first round and romped past number two Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the semi-final, gaining a huge band of new fans along the way.
Djokovic won the decider for his maiden major title but it doesn't detract from Tsonga's memories.
“It was great. The stadium was full. A lot of Serbians of course, but also a lot of French and a lot of Australians,” Tsonga recalled.
“That was a good final, so I have good memories. Of course for me, it was disappointing to lose. But anyway, it was good memories.”
It is surprising that the Frenchman has never won a Grand Slam or even reached another major final, given a career that has gleaned 16 ATP Tour titles, a number five world ranking and more than $21 million in prize money.
“When you come from nowhere, nobody expects you to play that good and everybody's cheering for you. You're new,” he said on the ATP website of the 2008 clash, but added that expectations quickly changed.
“All the people say: 'OK, now you're the best or one of the best', and you have to be the best all the time, which is not easy to deal with, of course.”
I'm back in 2008
Tsonga is on the comeback trail after missing seven months of the 2018 season following left knee surgery and seeing his ranking plummet outside the top 200.
“It's not very easy because you have to test your mind. You have to really know if you still want to play and make the effort to come back at the best level,” said Tsonga, who defeated Slovakia's Martin Klizan in straight sets in the first round.
Now as he climbs back up the rankings he finds himself back where it all began 11 years ago, and will Thursday play Djokovic for the 22rd time since that first clash on Rod Laver Arena.
He has defeated the Serbian number one on six occasions since, including a revenge win in the 2010 Australian Open quarter-finals.
“Today it's like I'm back in 2007, 2008. People expect less from me,” Tsonga said.
“It's also something good for me. I work on my side and I try to come back and be better on court and I hope I will be able to do good things again.”
Djokovic had his own issues in 2018, needing elbow surgery, before winning Wimbledon and the US Open to climb back to number one.
“It's funny. I mean, 11 years after our first Grand Slam final here, it feels like a lot has happened for both of us,” said Djokovic after beating American qualifier Mitchell Krueger.
“He also struggled with injuries lately. It's good to see him playing well. It's good to see him back.”
Agence France-Presse (AFP)