Why don’t French men win major tennis titles?

30 May

Noah wins French

In 1983, Yannick Noah dazzled Parisians by winning the French Open men’s singles title in straight sets over Swedish sensation Mats Wilander. Five years later, in 1988, Henri Leconte, another Frenchmen, also surged to the finals at Roland Garros, falling to Wilander at the peak of the Swede’s career.

But as this year’s French Open enters its second week, tennis fans in the City of Light may look back on these memories with more regret than satisfaction, more nostalgia than joy: For, in the three decades since Noah and Leconte made their runs, no French man has won a major title or reached the final in Paris.

Discerning why is one of tennis’ most confounding puzzles.

By most accounts, France is a great tennis nation. It invariably boasts several players in the rankings’ upper crust. Few nations have more players in the top 100 or top 50 at any time than France. Frenchmen routinely claim titles at the 250 and 500 levels, and have enjoyed some, if modest, success in Masters 1000 tournaments, a step below the majors.

This trend isn’t new. For most of the 2000s, there have routinely been as many as four Frenchmen in the top 15, including, most recently, Sebastian Grosjean, Arnaud Clement, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gilles Simon.

A few have poked through to get looks at major titles. Clement beat Grosjean in the semis to reach the final at the Aussie Open in 2001. Tsonga got to the final Down Under in 2008, and Cedric Pioline, a top ten fixture for parts of the 90s and early 2000s, reached the U.S. Open and Wimbledon championship matches in 1993 and 1997, respectively.

Aside from these three, though, and despite their considerable success in the rankings and total titles won, no Frenchman has contested a major championship since Leconte in ‘87.

France is oddly alone in its failure to produce a male major champion.

Argentina, Australia, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and even tiny Austria, Croatia, and Ecuador have all produced men’s grand slam titlists since France last did so.

In 1988, Sweden – a country whose population is about one-seventh the size of France’s – claimed all four men’s majors (Wilander had three, while Stefan Edberg nabbed Wimbledon). None of these countries, save Spain, have had as many men in the top reaches of the game as France. All have done better at winning major titles.

Why?

Tennis analysts posit many theories.

Some say the French training system is exceedingly good at churning out professional mediocrity and exceptionally bad at cultivating greatness.

Others chalk it up to bad timing: The 90s and 2000s were an historic time on tour, with timeless champions Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic laying assault to the record books and leaving few major titles behind for others to win.

Still others say the French simply haven’t produced a player with the fortitude to capture tennis’ top prize, a tautology masquerading as analysis. French men, they say, enjoy the nobility of competition more than reaching into an opponent’s soul and ripping out victory. In other words, they lack the killer’s instinct necessary to reach tennis glory.

The thing is, during the drought, there have been French men with the talent to win a major. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet spring immediately to mind.

Tsonga hits as big a ball as, and has shown himself capable of beating, any player on any day, including Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. Despite his enormous talent, the 2008 finals berth in Australia, and having remained within the top ten for much of his career, Tsonga may be the most disappointing player in modern tennis history. His title haul is extremely modest for a player of such exceptional talent – 12 championships and only two at the Masters 1000 level. The Frenchmen often seems more interested in flare and highlights than faithfully executing a strategy of aggressive play that optimizes his physical gifts.

The Frenchman’s ability to snatch disappointment from the jaws of opportunity was on painful display in the French Open semis in 2013, when he faced David Ferrer, a gritty Spanish counter-puncher about six inches and 50 pounds slighter than Tsonga. At stake was a mouth-watering chance to return the Roland Garros title to French hands on the 30th anniversary of Noah’s triumph. Yet, instead of blasting the Spaniard off the court with a ruthless assault of big serving and baseline bombs, Tsonga fell to Ferrer in three meager sets that were in equal part uninspiring and uninspired.

Gasquet, for his part, was a childhood prodigy. He graced the cover of France’s top tennis magazine at age nine, and was thought by many to have a more promising future than Nadal, who emerged onto the professional scene around the same time. To put it mildly, that has not panned out. In fact, until this year, Gasquet had never before reached the second week at Roland Garros, and has only reached major semi-finals on two occasions.

Now, with his spirited fourth round victory Sunday over Japanese 5-seed Kei Nishikori, Gasquet is the only remaining Frenchman in the Roland Garros draw. Encouragingly, as he heads into a quarterfinal showdown with world number two Andy Murray – who, incidentally, in 2013 unshackled himself from a similar burden by becoming the first Briton in 77 years to win Wimbledon – the Frenchman seems uncharacteristically spirited. In piecing apart the Japanese, Gasquet routinely bellowed out cheers of allez and pumped his fist at the Parisian partisans who’d come to cheer their boy.

The ghost of Sartre will hang heavy over Tuesday’s encounter. Tennis commentator Louisa Thomas has labeled Murray, who suffers interminably from self-directed on-court tirades, a “walking existential crisis.” Gasquet, meanwhile, drips not with perspiration but with the angst of his long-suffering nation.

When he steps onto the red dirt of Philippe Chatrier, Gasquet will play for more than a birth in his third grand slam semi. He’ll fight to extend a national dream three decades deferred: that of a French man claiming major glory on the home soil at Roland Garros.

With Noah and Leconte likely to be on-hand, there’d be no better time to shine.

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One Response to “Why don’t French men win major tennis titles?”

  1. Kathleen May 30, 2016 at 9:59 pm #

    Viva la France, mon ami.

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