Great Britain had to wait 77 years to have a home champion at Wimbledon when Andy Murray stood triumphant on Centre Court in 2013, so the 32 years it has been since the French last had one of their own stand victorious with La Coupe des Mousquetaires on the Philippe Chatrier Court is not even half that long.
Yannick Noah in 1983 was the last French men’s singles champion at the French Open, and you have to go back to 1988 for the last time a Frenchman even made the final when Henri Leconte got there only to lose in straights sets to Mats Wilander.
That goes some way to explaining the outpouring of love the French public have given Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during his run to the semi-finals at Roland Garros, where he will face Stan Wawrinka on Friday for a place in Sunday’s final.
After defeating Kei Nishikori in five sets in the quarter-finals on Wednesday in a match where he was roared on by a partisan crowd, he returned the favour by writing out on the clay surface of the Phillippe Chatrier Court “Roland, je t’aime,” which translates as “I love you, Roland”.
This is Tsonga’s eighth time at Roland Garros and his second time in the last four, the previous time coming in 2013 when he lost meekly in straight sets to David Ferrer.
But his spirited play over the past two weeks, most notably in his fourth-round win over Tomas Berdych and then Nishikori has his compatriots believing.
Tsonga, 30, has proven in the past that on his day he can beat anyone. He is one of only three men, along with Berdych and Wawrinka, who has a victory over the Big Four of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal at a grand slam tournament.
Tsonga has only made it to one major final, at the Australian Open, in 2008, where, in what was arguably his breakout performance on the ATP Tour, he defeated Murray and Nadal on his way to facing Djokovic in the final, where he lost in four sets.
Since then there has been only glimpses of Tsonga at his best, as he has struggled for consistency, often unable to follow up a big victory with another one.
There have been four other losing semi-final appearances since 2008, but the No 14 seed, who has also been troubled by injuries throughout his career, has played some superb tennis this week, impressing as much for his mental strength as his searing groundstrokes.
He had been two sets up and serving for the match against fourth seed Berdych on Sunday, before enduring one of his notorious lapses of concentrations to conspire to lose the third set on a tie-break.
He then went a break down at the start of the fourth set to the Czech, but where once Tsonga would have panicked or had a tantrum, he rallied to win five games on the bounce to triumph.
It was the same story against Nishikori in the quarter-finals on Wednesday. After seeing the fifth seed come from two sets down to force a decider, Tsonga calmly struck back to take it 6-3 to delight his vocal supporters.
Tsonga is clearly good enough to be a grand slam champion. He like many others has been unlucky to be in an era with Federer, Djokovic and Nadal at their respective peaks, but on Friday against Wawrinka is a great chance to move closer to achieving that goal.
Wawrinka will be playing in his first French Open semi-final, and while he was impressive in beating compatriot Federer on Wednesday, clay is the weakest surface for the No 8 seed and if Tsonga plays to his potential he should have enough to prevail.
Tsonga has done his best to lessen the expectations of his fans, despite the fact they are not blind to just how well he is playing.
“I’ll try to do what I’ve done since the beginning of the tournament – be serious and focus on what I can do best,” he had said in a news conference about Friday’s match. “That’s about it. I’ve not got much to lose.”
But he is not convincing anyone. He is playing his best tennis since January 2008, has a passionate crowd behind him and is thriving in adversity when he has to.
The winner of Friday’s other semi-final, either Djokovic or Murray, will not want to face Tsonga in Sunday’s final, knowing the form he is in and the fact he will have all of France behind him willing him on to the title.
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