Thirty-four years ago Didier Tsonga crossed the Congo River from his home town of Brazzaville to watch Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in Kinshasa in the "Rumble in the Jungle". Yesterday he hoped to witness another great moment in sporting history, only to see Novak Djokovic come off the ropes to beat his son, Jo-Wilfried, who bears a striking resemblance to Ali, to the Australian Open title.
Djokovic won 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 to claim his first Grand Slam title and crown a magnificent year of progress, but the lasting memories of the first major of 2008 will be of a 22-year-old Frenchman floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. From the very first day, when he beat Andy Murray in four sets, Tsonga captivated the crowds here with his languid movement, thunderous groundstrokes, exquisite drop volleys and winning smile.
Having beaten four seeded players on the way to his first singles final on the main tour, in only his fifth Grand Slam appearance, the world No 38 sustained his level of performance for one more set before his opponent showed what a resilient competitor he has become. The first Serb to win a Grand Slam men's singles title, Djokovic has proved over the last fortnight that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who between them had won the previous 11 Grand Slam tournaments, are no longer fighting a two-man battle for global supremacy.
Djokovic, nevertheless, had not endeared himself to the locals with his comments about beating both Federer and the crowd in his semi-final and further alienated the spectators here with the length of time he took between points and serves. Tsonga complained, but to no avail. "Between points you're supposed to have 25 seconds," he said after the match. "When it's 40 seconds the umpire should say something."
There was a distinct edge to the atmosphere in Rod Laver Arena and Djokovic's family were unhappy with the behaviour of a group of French fans behind their box. The Police were on hand, but only in the shape of Sting and colleagues following their concert at the Melbourne Cricket Ground the previous evening.
Djokovic, who had failed to take seven set points in losing to Federer in straight sets in his only previous Grand Slam final in New York four months ago, made a nervous start and conceded his first set in the tournament after two sensational points when he served at 4-5 and 30-30. The Serb hit a straightforward smash straight at Tsonga, who responded with a forehand winner across court. On the next point Tsonga reached what looked to be a winning volley and whipped a superb top-spin lob just inside the baseline. The Frenchman went on one knee and pumped his fist in celebration, while his father threw punches into the air.
Djokovic, however, was not about to fall victim to any "rope-a-dope" tactics. The world No 3 picked himself off the floor and at 3-3 in the second set a superb backhand winner down the line off a 132mph serve created break point, which he converted when Tsonga put a forehand out. Djokovic served out to take the set with four successive unreturned serves.
The Serb dominated the third set, breaking serve twice, but the fourth was tight as both men suffered physical difficulties. Tsonga started to show signs of cramp, while Djokovic took a timeout for treatment to a sore hamstring. The Frenchman's last chance came when Djokovic served at 5-5 and 30-40. Having chased down a drop shot, Tsonga chose to go down the line rather than cross-court and the waiting Djokovic put away his volley.
Djokovic dominated the tie-break, which he won 7-2 after Tsonga hit a forehand out. The Serb fell on his back in celebration, kissed the court surface and ran over to celebrate with his parents and two younger brothers, who have supported him throughout the tournament.
Afterwards Djokovic said the feeling of winning a Grand Slam tournament was "indescribable". He added: "I feel relieved because I've reached at least the semi-finals of every Grand Slam in the last year and I was pretty close to winning the US Open. I was a bit nervous at the start because I found myself in the strange situation of being the favourite in a Grand Slam final. It was dangerous, but I managed to cope with the pressure.
"I knew that he would go for his shots. That's where I really needed to calm down and keep my focus. Playing in a Grand Slam final at the US Open obviously gave me a lot of experience, which I used today. In these crucial moments I was probably more patient and more focused, so I think that was one of the turning points."
Tsonga, who had never won more than three matches in succession on the main tour before this tournament, was proud of his performance. "I'm happy for Novak, because he played unbelievably today," he added. "I don't know whether I should be sad or happy, but I feel great."
The Frenchman's tally of 100 aces was the highest of the tournament and he has other reasons for satisfaction. His runner-up's cheque for A$685,000 (£304,952) doubles his career earnings and he will rise to No 18 in today's updated world rankings list. For someone who needed a wild card to play here 12 months ago as the world No 212 that is some achievement.Reuse content