MELBOURNE, Australia Jo-Wilfried Tsonga seems like a natural when it comes to settling into the Champ's 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 women's 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 he's 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."
Tsonga's parents, former Congo international handball player and now chemistry teacher Didier and mother Evelyne, were flying to Melbourne from France to attend the final.
It's 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 he'd grown to admire the great boxer and maybe took some of Ali's "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 Federer's run of 10 consecutive Grand Slam finals.
It's 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. He's just an amazing athlete. He's been performing some impressive tennis in these two weeks as have I.
"I still didn't 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. He said he'd learned a lot from his U.S. Open final loss to Federer.
"It's going to be interesting very much to see young players playing against each other. Obviously, we will not have anything to lose," Djokovic said. "I've been working very hard in the past year and a half, so it's paying off right now."
Tsonga is being extra casual about it, considering this is the first time he's advanced beyond the fourth round of a major.
"It's 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 it's going to be difficult, but I'm here and ready for that."
He dismantled three-time French Open champion Nadal with an audacious forehand, some nerve-defying serving and an incredible physical presence.
Tsonga's rise has been phenomenal after spending the best part of the 2005 and 2006 seasons recovering from back and abdominal injuries. The former second-ranked junior player, Tsonga was ranked 345 at the end of '05, 212 in '06 and 43 at the end of last season.
He beat No. 9 Andy Murray in his opening-round match and followed with wins over No. 8 Richard Gasquet and No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny.
He's projected to jump to No. 18 if he loses the final or No. 9 if he wins and he's never won an ATP Tour-level title.
Jonathan Erlich and Andy Ram became the first Israeli doubles pairing to win a Grand Slam when they outlasted Michael Llodra and Arnaud Clement 7-5 7-6 (4) Saturday.
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 year's 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.
She dropped to her knees and appeared to be fighting back tears as she waved and blew kisses to the crowd.
Sharapova wished her mother, Yelena, a happy birthday and told her she'd buy her flowers with some of her $1,207,790 prize money.
She also dedicated the win to Jane Joyce, the mother of her hitting partner and coach, Michael Joyce, who died last year."Jane was the name we were thinking about," Sharapova said. "I want to dedicate this win to her because after the loss (Joyce) suffered, I got a whole lot of perspective with my injuries and setbacks."
The Tsonga-Djokovic men's championship match started after press time early this morning. It will be replayed today at 10 a.m. on ESPN2.