Is Paris Yearning?

Wednesday, November 09, 2011 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

The Paris Masters 1000 may be the greatest stage for the sometimes dazzling and often maddening body of French players who in recent decades have been as ubiquitous on the ATP tour as the Spanish. True, the French Open is the unrivaled queen of French tournaments, and one of the four pre-eminent Grand Slam events. But the Paris Indoors, or "Bercy" (so known because that's the precinct in Paris where the event is played, in the Palais Omnisport), is in many ways a better display case. And the players know this.

The problem—if that's the right word for it—is that Roland Garros is just too big. . . too international. . . too loaded up with Grand Slam bells and whistles for all but the biggest stars to shine and command the attention of the spectators and/or television audience. Oh, all of the French competitors at Roland Garros are tracked and followed and written about at length, but even they they can get lost in the shuffle, no matter how many video clips they inspire or how much ink is squandered on them, because they're just part of the larger avalanche. 

Bercy, by contrast, is a 48-player men's draw. It's an indoor event that uses just three courts (almost all of the notable singles matches are played on the main Central Court), and play goes on long into the night. The atmosphere at indoor events is totally different than at Roland Garros, or any other outdoor event. The theatrical setting, the lighting that makes the court look almost hyper-real, the lack of distractions and the fact that you can't just go walking around to ogle the pretty girls (or boys) and eat ice cream in the sunshine, all work together to give every player on the Central Court something like undiluted and sometimes unprecedented attention. If you're ever going to bring your A game, this is the time. But a captive audience is a two-edged sword.

This is a mixed blessing for the native players, because a guy like Jeremy Chardy (who lost to No. 2 seed Andy Murray earlier today; see my Racquet Reaction post for more on that), who might be assigned to a secondary show court for a first- or second-rounder at Roland Garros—and have to compete with Roger Federer or Maria Sharapova, who might be on the Chatrier Court or in Lenglen at the same time—not only has the spotlight, he also has nowhere to hide should he not be up to snuff. And today his game was erratic and unconvincing. How he must have burned with frustration, feeling his chance to impress his compatriots slipping away.

Every year, the French are heavily represented at Bercy, and some years they do better than others. Last year, for example, six of the eight French players in the draw stumbled out before the third round was played, but it was still a banner year for the Tricolor.

Unseeded Michael Llodra, whose big, lefty game thrives on fast indoor hard courts, where the conditions are ideal for pursuing the impossible serve-and-volley dream, made it to the semifinals before Robin Soderling sent him packing in a memorable three-setter (7-6 (0), 5-7, 7-6 (6)). Gael Monfils did even better. Seeded No. 12, the athletic specimen his fellow Frenchmen call "La Monf" (it strikes just the right tone of tribute—and bombast) beat Roger Federer in a three-tiebreaker semi, but ultimately fell to Soderling in the final, 6-1, 7-6 (1). It was typical Monfils performance: Riveting, but with an unhappy ending when it most mattered.

Is there a Monfils—besides the original—on deck to fire up the almost exclusively French crowd at Bercy this year? 

Two French players, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (seed No. 6) and Richard Gasquet (No. 16), are already through to the third round, although each of them has played just one match (being among the 16 most highly ranked players in the draw, they both received first-round byes). Tsonga is penciled in for a potential quarterfinal clash with top-seeded Novak Djokovic, but we all know that Djokovic has serious fitness issues.

If Tsonga does find a way through or around Djokovic and makes it all the way to the semis, we may have one of those great battles for the bragging rights to Paris—and a good illustration of the points I'm trying to make about how crucial this event is to the French. Monfils is on the other half of Tsonga's draw, with the main obstacle standing between him and the semis being No. 4 David Ferrer. The Spaniard is no gimme, of course, but it beats having to blast through one of the top seeds (respectively, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Federer). 

Monfils is on tap to play his first match tonight against unseeded Feliciano Lopez, who already knocked out last year's co-hero, Llodra. John Isner, who's already punched his ticket into the third round with two wins, also stands in Monfils' way. But a Tsonga-Monfils semi would be hyped and a huge draw, commanding widespread attention on a chilly November night in France.

It's a shame that the two best French players are on the same side of the draw. In the other half, two Frenchmen still can strut their stuff before their countrymen. Gilles Simon, ranked No. 10, plays Juan Monaco in the final match tonight, while Gasquet already sits waiting in the third round after he knocked off Kevin Anderson in his first match. Should Simon and Gasquet roll on, they would meet in a Gallic "dream quarterfinal." But first Gasquet would have to get by Federer, champ last week in Basel, so I wouldn't un-cork the Armagnac or whip up that frog-legs dip just yet.

In order to make the final, Simon or Gasquet would have to avoid or get by Federer and also Murray, the best player this fall—by far. So it's unlikely that we'll have a French finalist from the bottom half.

This year, the draw featured nine Frenchmen, one more than last year. Five of them have been eliminated before the third round, much like last year, and we have yet to see what this long day has in store for Monfils and Simon. The French players are lucky to have a showcase like Bercy; the dream of every player is to perform before his friends and peers. But then, the nightmare of every player is to stink the joint up in front of the same folks, which is why it isn't entirely easy or all fun to be a French player in Paris in early November.

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