If there’s a little bit more flight in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s post-match celebrating hops, it might be because the Frenchman feels as though he’s standing on sturdier ground at this year’s Australian Open.
The reason? He’s got an Aussie in his corner.
Beginning in October, the world No.7 partnered up with Roger Rasheed, the former coach of Lleyton Hewitt and – more recently – fellow Frenchman Gael Monfils.
On Monday at Rod Laver Arena, Tsonga won through a tough test with compatriot Richard Gasquet 6-4 3-6 6-4 6-2, booking a place in the quarterfinals against either Roger Federer or Milos Raonic.
So how’s Tsonga’s Australian lingo coming?
“G’day mate,” he joked with a smile during an on-court interview. Rasheed looked on from the player’s box half smirking, half shaking his head.
While the accent needs a little work, Tsonga’s game has been raised a level thanks to Rasheed, who Tsonga revealed is working on “everything” to make him better.
“It's different because last year I was by myself,” Tsonga said, noting he was coachless prior to Rasheed.
“This year, I'm with Rog. It's just great to be with him. He give me good advice, so I hope I will continue to play good tennis and hope we'll have some good victory together.”
So far, so good for Tsonga and Rasheed. At the Hopman Cup earlier this month, the 27-year-old won three matches and has notched four more here in Melbourne, making another run to try to emulate his finals appearance from 2008.
It was during that tournament in 2008 that Tsonga and Gasquet met in the fourth round, Tsonga emerging victorious in four sets.
If history is to repeat itself, then the 188cm Frenchman may have to go through Federer in the quarterfinals, a player he’s faced in that same round twice before at majors – beating him at Wimbledon in 2011 but faltering weeks later at the US Open.
“I expect a good opponent. If it's Rog, it's going to be, of course, very difficult,” Tsonga noted.
“I lost many times against this guy. So, of course, you know, play against him, it's going to be a big challenge for me. And if it's Raonic, I know he's confident.”
But Tsonga, who has won nine career titles as a pro, should have a smattering of confidence should he face Federer knowing that he’s beaten him three times.
It’s a sort of confidence that is present, but Rasheed’s added confidence buoys it ever more.
“[Rasheed]’s giving me an extra motivation,” Tsonga admitted. “I mean, it's great because he's always positive. He want maybe more than me to win. He's incredible. So, you know, I try to be at his level and have exactly the same motivation because I think he can move some mountains … because he's very motivated.”
Federer is a mountain that may be hardest to move on tour along with Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, a group that Tsonga has been trying to join – along with the injured Rafael Nadal – for years now. A breakout win here – and nothing less – would finally prove to Tsonga that he belongs.
“To win majors, that’s my goal,” Tsonga said earlier in the tournament.
A major shift in mentality has taken place for Tsonga on court, who notes his ultimate appreciation for Federer’s game as a fellow competitor, but says he steps on the court and sees him as the enemy, the one he has to beat.
“I have respect for him outside of the court, and on the court I have to – how you say? – unrespect him? Because if you respect him too much, then for sure you lost. So it's different on the court. On the court, I will try to beat him. And I'm sure it's going to be the same thing for him.”
There is noted improvement in Tsonga’s physique, the thickly-built baseline puncher with a booming serve and dangerous forehand looking more svelte, moving on the courts of Melbourne Park more smoothly this year and attacking, as he did effectively against a softer-hitting Gasquet on Monday, with purpose.
While Jo-Wilfried’s game has come to form, what about his Australian coach’s French?
“Still the same,” Tsonga said, laughing. “Just ‘bonjour’.”