MELBOURNE, Australia Jo-Wilfried Tsonga seems like a natural when it comes to settling into the Champs shoes.
Muhammad Ali lookalike Tsonga reached the Australian Open final in only his fifth Grand Slam tournament and was set for a shot at the title early today against No. 3 Novak Djokovic at Rod Laver Arena.
Despite his No. 38 ranking, Tsonga was considered a serious title contender after his semifinal upset of No. 2 Rafael Nadal that followed victories over three other top 15 players.
Hours before Maria Sharapova won the womens final 7-5, 6-3 over Ana Ivanovic on Saturday, Tsonga attended a news conference and told a story of his links to Ali.
My father was at the fight at Kinshasa because hes from Brazzaville, Tsonga said, talking of the famous Rumble in the Jungle when Ali regained the heavyweight title from George Foreman in October, 1974 in what was then known as Zaire.
He took some photos, so I have some souvenir.
Tsongas parents, former Congo international handball player and now chemistry teacher Didier and mother Evelyne, were flying to Melbourne from France to attend the final.
Its been 80 years since a Frenchman won the Australian
Open Jean Borotra in 1928. Five other Frenchmen have advanced to major finals in the Open era, with only Yannick Noah going on to capture the title, at the 1983 French Open.
Just like Ali, Tsonga had the media eating out of his hands.
Revealing that Ali was not exactly a childhood idol, despite the nickname because of the uncanny resemblance, Tsonga said hed grown to admire the great boxer and maybe took some of Alis personality on the court.
Maybe I think I have the same tennis as his boxing! he said.
Meanwhile, no Serbian has won a major and Djokovic is determined to end that drought after snapping Roger Federers run of 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals.
Its the first time since Marat Safin upset Federer in the semifinals here and went on to win the 2005 Australian title that neither Federer nor Nadal will be a Grand Slam champion.
I think every sport is waiting to have some new faces, the 20-year-old Djokovic said. Tsonga is coming up. Hes just an amazing athlete. Hes been performing some impressive tennis in these two weeks as have I.
I still didnt lose even a set here in Australian Open,
which is also amazing.
Djokovic is confident, having become the youngest man in
the Open era to reach the semifinals at all four majors and
saying hed learned a lot from his U.S. Open final loss to
Its going to be interesting very much to see young players playing against each other. Obviously, we will not have anything to lose, Djokovic said. Ive been working very hard in the past year and a half, so its paying off right now.
Tsonga is being extra casual about it, considering this is the first time hes advanced beyond the fourth round of a major.
Its the same, because Nadal is two in the world and Djokovic is three, so both of them won a lot of tournaments and they have more experience than me, he said. I know its going to be difficult, but Im here and ready for that.
Sharapova won her third Grand Slam title after waking up to encouragement from 12-time Grand Slam singles titlist Billie Jean King.
Champions take chances, and pressure is a privilege, King had written in a text message that Sharapova saw when she woke up.
I took mine, the fifth-ranked Sharapova said. I had those great words in my mind during the match.
She did not lose a set in seven matches, including wins over three of the top four players, as she sought redemption from a 6-1, 6-2 loss to Serena Williams in last years final.
From 3-3 in the second set, Sharapova ran off the last three games, breaking Ivanovic for the fourth time to finish the match