A no-look overhead so stylishly angled that it wouldn’t be out of place at a haute couture fashion show. A backhand down the line winner so buttery smooth that it reminds you of freshly baked croissants. A drop volley so delicately caressed that it seems like the sporting equivalent of a love-struck couple walking along the river Seine with the glittering Eiffel Tower in the background.
French tennis players do know how to remind you of the land where they come from, don’t they? Like everything about the country, French players are usually stylish and elegant, with just a hint of snobbery – every move they make seems like a work of self-important art. A match involving a French player is always a show worth spending money on.
Unfortunately for the people of Paris though, that show has rarely produced a significant result at their home Slam in recent times. Roland Garros has presented a unique challenge for French players since the turn of the century, in a way that is both peculiar and predictable.
When you think of French players, you think of touch, finesse and casual elegance. When you think of claycourt tennis at Roland Garros, you think of muscular power, nose-to-the-ground patience and labor-intensive rallies. The two things don’t seem to be compatible in any way, even though they are literally made for each other.
The last female Roland Garros champion from France was Mary Pierce, in the year 2000. For the last male champion you have to go a further 17 years back, to Yannick Noah in 1983. The drought of a home-grown champion at the French Open has been long and torturous, and there’s not much hope of relief in the near future either.
Pierce’s win in 2000 wasn’t a one-off; she had also reached the French final in 1994, and was a constant threat on clay with her power-packed tennis. But all the relevant French players after her have fared rather poorly at the year’s second Major.
Amelie Mauresmo used her attacking, serve-and-volley approach to win Slams at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, but could never go beyond the quarterfinals in Paris. Marion Bartoli’s double-fisted groundstrokes off both wings reminded many of Monica Seles and her reign over Paris, but her results on clay didn’t; Bartoli only ever reached one semi-final at the French Open, and tasted far more success at Wimbledon.
The more recent female contenders from France have performed decently, but have never threatened to go all the way. Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic both reached the French Open quarter-finals in 2017, while Alize Cornet reached the fourth round in 2015 and 2017. Garcia’s performance was perhaps the most surprising of the three considering her first-strike mentality, while Cornet with her tireless defense seemed the most likely to break through at home until she started fading away with age.
The men have come a little closer, but title-winning glory has remained elusive. The semi-final has been one hurdle too many for a host of talented Frenchmen: Cedric Pioline (1998) and Sebastien Grosjean (2001) a couple of decades ago, as well as Gael Monfils (2008) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2013 and 2015) in more recent times.
There have been other challengers too, but no breakthrough runs to write home about. Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau have made one French Open quarter-final each, while Gilles Simon, Jeremy Chardy, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro have reached the fourth round at some point of their career or the other. Other gifted players like Benoit Paire and Lucas Pouille haven’t even gone that far, with a third round finish being their best result.
Santoro regaled the spectators with his magic and flair for over a decade, but Mathieu is possibly the most notable of these names if you’re looking for a truly memorable French Open performance. He once stared down Rafael Nadal himself at Roland Garros, engaging the King of Clay for four hours and 53 minutes in the titanic 2006 third round match.
On the face of it, it is easy to see why French players have failed to make much of an impact on Parisian clay. Players like Tsonga, Chardy, Llodra, Benneteau and Pouille have games far more suited to quick surfaces than slow ones; their booming serves and groundstrokes aren’t as effective on the gritty red dirt as they are elsewhere, because they are rarely accompanied by discipline or patience.
On the other hand, the likes of Simon and Santoro have been unsuccessful on clay because, paradoxically, their groundstrokes didn’t have enough power. While they did have the discipline and the variation that Tsonga & Co are short of, the lack of pace off the surface meant that they struggled to put the ball past their opponents.
There’s been another factor at play too: the crowd factor. Ordinarily you’d think a raucous home crowd cheering every move you make would give you a sense of comfort and help you get out of tough situations in the match. But the support of the Parisian crowd comes with a suffocating caveat: they’ll cheer you on when you’re doing well, but boo you mercilessly when you fail them.
The pressure of expectations from an unforgiving crowd has made many local players develop a fear of Court Philippe Chatrier. “Instead of helping me, sometimes it just weighs on me,” Mauresmo once said when speaking about the attention she received in Paris.
Pierce expanded on that when she said, “Being a French player, when you come to the French Open, you’re automatically more nervous, more tight. There’s more pressure and stress and you want to do better and you feel the whole weight of the country on your shoulders.”
Having the whole weight of a country on your shoulders is never a good thing. But even having the weight of Court Philippe Chatrier can be a tedious task: Gasquet, for instance, prefers playing on the smaller Suzanne Lenglen because he gets unnerved by the sheer size and demands of the main court. And Garcia once bluntly said that she just can’t play at the French Open.
But not every player is intimidated by the tough love of the Parisian public. Chardy likes to play in front of his home crowd because they give him ‘a lot of energy’, while Monfils even attributes some of his wins in Paris squarely to the crowd.
That Monfils would revel in the cauldron-like atmosphere so common at Roland Garros is no surprise. The athletic shot-maker seems to need a boost every now and then to remain focused on his match, and he gets plenty of boosts from the crowd in Paris. His lone semi-final at the French Open, against Roger Federer in 2008, was a carnival-like epic, with every “Allez!” screamed by Monfils being followed by a chorus that was 100 times louder.
What Monfils showed in that match, and what Mladenovic showed in her fourth round match against Garbine Muguruza at the 2017 French Open, is that the conditional crowd support in Paris can be used to your advantage – if you feed off it to produce good tennis. It’s a bit of a cause-and-effect situation; you won’t like the atmosphere if you’re not doing well, but you’ll never not do well if you take the right inspiration from your ‘well-wishers’.
Sure, your game needs to keep pace too; Monfils and Mladenovic are two of the very few current French players whose game seems tailor-made for clay. But then you see Tsonga, a player nobody will ever mistake for a dirtballer, using the crowd support in Paris to similar effect, and you wonder whether it’s just a matter of focusing on the positives and blocking out the negatives.
That’s a lot easier said than done though, as two decades of French futility at Roland Garros have shown. The Parisian crowd is more starved than ever of home-grown success, and at the French Open this year they will have to put their faith in the same old suspects once again: Monfils is looking like the strongest contender among the men, and Garcia the strongest among the women.
Will the story be any different this time? It’s hard to say, but for the rest of us non-French people looking from afar, it is enough to know that there will be plenty of shot-making exhibitions when the local players take the court.
Whether they win or lose, the French players do know how to put on a show, and how to remind us that the land where they come from is filled with the most stylish, delicious and romantic things the world has to offer.
Updated Date: May 20, 2019 16:37:59 IST