by Pete Bodo
Yesterday, I wrote about the prospect of American players still salvaging something from the Euroclay season by making a big impact at the French Open, so today we'll move from the seemingly ridiculous to the seductively preposterous—imagine a French dude wrenching that Coupe des Mosquetaires out of Rafael Nadal's hands and taking a big bite out of it.
Ma, non! C'est impossible! you cry.
Well, maybe. Maybe not. The French have three big guns who, despite generally performing more like pop guns at Roland Garros, are playing like they're loaded up with double-aught buckshot and an extra dam of powder. Gael Monfils (seeded No. 9), Richard Gasquet (No. 13) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 17) are playing like they mean business. And this time, it's not monkey business, in which French players traditionally, predictably and dramatically indulge during their native championships and very own Gallic Grand Slam event.
You'd think a people who take so much pride in their culture would manage to kick up a few tennis players capable of vaulting atop the ramparts at the Stade Roland Garros to shout, for all the world to hear, Vive la France! Not so. Most generally, they get a solid butt-kicking in the second or third round and leave the grounds whining about the heat, the cold, the crowds, the lack of crowds, the pressure, the lack of pressure to perform in a new, post-nationalistic France. And hey, they have a point. For example, all three of the guys mentioned above live in Switzerland. Who do they think they are, Roger Federer?
The French dilemma is best summed up by the biography of their greatest player since Yannick Noah, who improbably but quite heroically won Roland Garros in 1983. That would be Amelie Mauresmo, and it hardly matters that she's a woman and this post is about the French men. The disease afflicting the French doesn't discriminate by sex. Mauresmo was loads more successful, bagged two major titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world. But in 15 appearances at Roland Garros, Mauresmo got as far as the quarterfinals only twice (2003 and 2004). Her record at the French Open is 25-15. The bar is cetainly set low, and maybe that will help these three mousquetaires.
Monfils had an easy time of it today, but then he was playing Guillaume Rufin. Not only is Rufin also French, and thus subject to the affliction under discussion, he talked his way into this event despite a lowly ranking of No. 253, thanks to the wild card entry system. This guy is so off-the-radar that even the official Roland Garros website couldn't find a headshot to post alongside his biographical details. Apart from being French, though, Rufin is just the kind of guy to give a seeded French opponent at Roland Garros conniptions—a prohibitive underdog against just about anyone who has a pulse.
"La Monf" handled Rufin comfortably in the first set but swooned in the second, which Rufin won 6-1. But before anyone had a chance to panic, Monfils got himself straightened out. What struck me during the broadcast was the lavish praise heaped on Monfils by the commentators (including John McEnroe). Oh, he's a great athlete alright (McEnroe said he may be the most athletically gifted of any player who ever played the sport, which if true goes to show how little athleticism per se means in tennis). But he's always seemed a bit too eager to ham it up, a little too comfortable with his elite status and disinclined to make changes in his game or approach that might lift him above that "also in contention" niche into which he's settled. Maybe all the praise ought to be leavened with a bit more challenge.
Monfils plays so deep behind the baseline and so reactively (rather than aggressively) that it's really hard to see him doing the one thing of which almost every proven Grand Slam champion has been capable—taking charges of a match. Declaring it his own. Drawing a line in the sand for his opponent. What La Monf does, instead, is keep drawing new lines as he keeps backing up. It can be entertaining as all get-out, especially when he starts with the Gumby routine, or the behind-the-back volley or spin-around forehands.
But there comes a time in most really big matches when a player really has to reach out and take it, both in a general way as well as tactically. It's unlikely if not impossible that you can beat a Novak Djokovic, Nadal, Federer or Robin Soderling by counter-punching from 20 feet behind the baseline. These days, against those guys, it's all about how fast you can turn defense into offense; an idea that must seem as foreign to Monfils as wearing a shirt with sleeves. His stock-in-trade is turning defense into more defense.
And above and beyond that, winning at the highest level is about determination and confidence, about fully investing yourself in the job at hand. On that score, Monfils comes up a bit short. You can hardly blame the guy; he is who he is. But he always hedges his bet, leaving himself an out in case of failure.
As Monfils said in his presser, while talking about his general state of fitness and chances going forward: "Maybe I didn't practice as much as I wanted (coming into the event), but also I never hide anything to anybody. I never hide the fact that sometimes it's not easy for me, as you know. I think I'm both lucky but also unlucky, because sometimes I miss so many matches. (Then) All of a sudden I find the solution. . .
"I don't know how. The trigger type of thing. For the time being I have not found the trigger in my game this week, not yet; yet I'm waiting for it progressively. I think I can find this trigger, this solution soon. There are so many tournaments when I started this way. I was so shy. I didn't really play well. And then all of a sudden I found the very strong, powerful Gaël Monfils. I'm waiting. I hope this will come soon."
That sounds somewhat mystical as well as strangely . . . passive. Reactive, if you will. But give credit where credit is due: Monfils has been the most successful member of this undeniably gifted trio of French players, both in general and at Roland Garros. He was a semifinalist in 2008 (his three compatriots at that stage were Federer, Nadal and Djokovic—yikes!) and a quarterfinalist in 2009. But he lost in the second round last year, so it would really behoove him to have a good tournament this time around, less the Mauresmo factor metastasize and La Monf turn to "La Pouf."
Monfils has a reasonable draw; should he beat Steve Darcis in the third round and potentially face a serious if not insurmountable task in David Ferrrer, who seems the most likely obstacle on Monfils' path to the quarterfinals. "I have confidence in two ways," Monfils declared. "First, I managed to win two matches, and I more or less killed my demon. . .the demon I had last year (presumably, the second-round loss). And physically I feel okay. I move around the court more easily."
Compared with Gasquet, Monfils is a regular Rafa at Roland Garros. Ree-Shard has been to the third round there only once, way back in 2005—long before his reputation as a head-case of the highest order really picked up steam. That reputation has made it that much harder for Gasquet, who's still just 24, to get traction at the French Open. Note to Gasquet: Deal with it, because it can only get worse, and that might make your life hell at this time of year for the next six or eight years.
For a while today, it looked like the same old Gasquet. He lost the first set to Marcel Granollers, a contemporary whose record in Paris is even worse than Gasquet's, although he's only played the event three times (Gasquet has logged seven trips). But, like La Monf, Gasquet came to life today and played well to roll through Granollers in the next three sets. That match was on the "Bullring" No. 1 court, where the periodic outbursts of the chant, "Reeeshie. . . Reeeshie" enlivened the proceedings and, undoubtedly, helped inspire Gasquet.
Tsonga has been the most consistent performer at Roland Garros among this Big Three, although his assortment of injuries has kept him out of all but three French Opens before the present one. His start was somewhat inauspicious—a first-round loss in 2005 to Andy Roddick, but at the time Roddick was No. 3 and still seemed to have a zest for clay-court tennis. After that, in 2009 and 2010, Tsonga lost in the fourth round. In '09 he was bounced out by eventual semifinalist Juan Martin del Potro; last year he retired with an injury after losing the first set to Mikhail Youzhny.
Today, Tsonga did what neither of his French cohorts managed earlier; he won in straight sets (over Igor Andreev). Perhaps the three Frenchmen are on the verge of writing a great story on a surface of red clay. But if that's the case, it's going to a bittersweet tale for native fans. All three men are in the same, lower half of the draw. That rules out an all-French final, even if you're daft enough to entertain the idea. All three men could make the quarters, where Monfils and Tsonga would have to battle it out with each other or a place in the semis. That would be a good one to watch—let's see if the men can be atypically French and make the appointment.