Monday, May 18, 2009

French Men's Tennis: C'est La Vie as the French Open Nears

It has been 26 years since a Frenchman has hoisted the Coupe des Mousquetaires above his head, and while a new generation of highly regarded French players (two in the top-10, seven in the top-50) will be taking to the clay next week, it doesn't appear likely that Yannick Noah's legendary achievement at the 1983 French Open will be replicated, at least not this year.

Roland Garros Stadium (renamed to Court Phillipe Chatrier in 2001) was originally designed and built to be a fitting home to the fabled Four Musketeers, who were fresh off their inspiring Davis Cup victory over U.S.A in 1927, on American soil. When the rematch, to be played on French soil, was proposed, the stadium was built, and the Musketeers went to work admirably, retaining the Cup until 1933.

While today's French players lack the mystique and the history of "Toto" Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, and Rene Lacoste, they still managed quite an impressive showing at Roland Garros in 2008, sending 5 players to the round-of-16, and 1, Gael Monfils, to the semi-finals.

But unless similar surprises occur this year, the French will be in worse shape. There are several reasons for that.

Monfils, the 2004 boys Junior champion and a semi-finalist last year, would be considered to have the best title chances for the French under normal circumstances -but he has been out of action with knee tendinitis since the first round of Monte Carlo, and even if he is "feeling it" Roland Garros should prove to be an uphill battle for him.

Of the two French top-10 players, Gilles Simon has the game that is best suited for the slow playing clay of Roland Garros. But since the clay season began in Monte Carlo, he has only managed a paltry 4-4 record against mostly lower-ranked competition. His career record of 1-4 at the French Open can't be a confidence builder either.

The other top-10 French player has a game that is suited for anything other than clay. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has managed a 1-2 record on clay thus far this spring, and in his only French Open appearance in 2005, he was a straight set loser to Andy Roddick. Not much to go on there either.

Paul-Henri Matthieu, Michael Llodra, Jeremy Chardy, and Julian Benneteau were the other 4 French players to reach the round-of-16 at Roland Garros last year. Benneteau, a one time Quarter-finalist (2006), seems to know the lay of the land in Paris, but he's 28 now, and only 8-12 on the year.

Llodra, now 29, has made it to the round-of-16 twice in 9 tries - 2009 was his high water mark, and he's not getting any younger either.

Chardy, young and explosive, might be the best hope for a repeat of last years success. He's had some positive results on clay this year (semi-final appearance on the Munich clay) and wins over Federico Gil, David Nalbandian, and Dimitry Turnsonov at Roland Garros last year show that he can rise to the occasion in front of the home crowd.

Noah, a two-time quarter finalist at Roland Garros in 1981 and 1982, was in prime position to make a run in 1983, the year the magic happened. With Monfils ailing, Gasquet suspended, and Simon struggling mightily, the reality will more than likely sink in quickly for French tennis fans: There is no heir apparent.

With Rafa set to squash out any flames of rebellion before they become dangerous, this year looks to be very similar to the last 25 for the French: The wait will continue until a hero who is worthy emerges.