Basquet Cases

Saturday, May 25, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

In our “Rally” here the other day, I suggested that the French are in desperate need of a male player to win the French Open—something that hasn’t happened since Yannick Noah’s stunning upset of Mats Wilander in the 1983 final.

It wasn’t just a delightful surprise to see Noah, a charismatic athlete of Cameroonian origin, do what no other Frenchman in the Open era had been able to accomplish. That win also lit the fire under the French, and it killed a number of birds with one stone: It greatly boosted national enthusiasm for the game, helped bump along plans to renovate what was becoming a rickety-old Roland Garros, and it served as a great example to aspiring young athletes across lines of color and class.

The Noah factor has paid many dividends currently enjoyed not just by his countrymen but by the global tennis community. What it did not do, however, is inspire succeeding generations of French men to duplicate his feat. In fact, while the French have probably fielded the most skilled, diverse, and successful set of players in the world since around the 1990s, they presently trail tiny Switzerland in the Grand Slam derby, and by 16 titles.

Okay, not entirely fair.

But you get my point, and it raises an interesting question: What’s worth more to a nation: one Roger Federer, or a fleet that might include Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Guy Forget, Gael Monfils, Sebastian Grosjean, Henri Leconte, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, and the Seven Dwarfs?

That no Frenchman since Leconte in 1988 has even made the French Open final is downright shocking, especially when you consider the roll of players who have. That list includes names like those of Martin Verkirk, Alberto Berasategui, and Mariano Puerta.

Tsonga and Monfils have stirred the hopes of the home crowds in recent years. The former has reached at least the fourth round in three of the last four years, and last year had match points against top seed Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. Unfortunately, four such chances slipped away and Djokovic went on to win.

Injury plagued Monfils (career-high of No. 7, but now ranked No. 109 as he battles back from injury) has gone one round better than Tsonga once, when he made the semis in 2009. He lost that year to the ultimate champ, Federer. He also lost two quarterfinals to Federer in recent years. No shame in that, but. . . then there’s also the case of current No. 9 Richard Gasquet and many other Frenchmen more like him than Monfils.

When Richard gets Roland Garros, he becomes a real basquet case—as does his Top 10 colleague, Gilles Simon. In nine tries, Gasquet has won back-to-back matches just three times (two of those in the past two years) and he’s never been past the fourth round. Simon, presently No. 17, has been as far as the fourth round just once in seven attempts. In 2008, the year Simon would rocket into the year-end Top 10 for the first and only time, he lost in the first round of the French Open.

There’s another way to look at this undeniably grim record, which is not through the lens of underachieving but that of the inspiration—or lack thereof—taken from the “home court/crowd” advantage. It’s no mere coincidence that Andy Roddick won his only major in the United States; that Andy Murray’s great breakthrough last year started at the Olympic Games in London; or even that two of Austrian Jurgen Melzer’s four career titles were collected in Vienna. Some players clearly are inspired rather than intimidated by the prospect of competing for their domestic championships.

The most relevant example here may be Tim Henman. Since the 1990s, the French have churned out such a staggering array of diversely talented players that you have to wonder how at least one of them didn’t somehow stumble or wander into a final. The British, of course, have had exactly one—one!—top 10-caliber player since the dawn of the Open era, and that was Henman. He reached a career high of No. 4, but he was among the year-end Top 10 for just four of his 14 years of Grand Slam competition.

At his peak, between 1995 and 2002, Henman lost to a Wimbledon champ on all but two occasions, and he consistently surpassed his seeding there. He lost to Pete Sampras in back-to-back semis at the peak of the “Sampras era” at Wimbledon, but he let his best chance to win slip away in 2001.

That year, wild card and ATP No. 125 Goran Ivanisevic (a multiple-time Wimbledon finalist) beat Henman in the semifinals in five dreary and rain-plagued sets—after some kid named Federer had upset Sampras in the fourth round. It was a sad and sodden end to Henman’s best chance to win his home championships (and save Murray a considerable amount of grief), but Henman did go on to make another semi and a quarterfinal before he faded out. Let no one say that “Gentleman Tim” didn’t give it his best shot.

Well, the only consolation for most of the French players is that by choking at the French Open, they’re participating in a national pastime open to players of either sex—and running with a pretty fast crowd. Their countrywoman Amelie Mauresmo, a former No. 1 and multiple Grand Slam champ, never did get past the quarters in Paris, and got even that far just twice. You could go on and on through the list of French players—Paul Henri-Mathieu, Julien Benneteau, Arnaud Clement, Fabrice Santoro, anyone?—playing this game, but I think the point is made.

But boy have I got a guy for you, if you’re of the mind that what the French most need is a collective case of amnesia and a fresh start. (Who can forget Tsonga’s Cassandra act last year, when he blithely told the press that no Frenchman was going to win Roland Garros any time soon?) His name is Benoit Paire, a 24-year old from Avignon who reached a Masters 1000 semifinal for the first time in his career last week in Rome.

Paire acts—and plays—like he was raised by wolves, and that may be just what the French need at this point. He has been a rebel and outcast from the French establishment, which for our purposes isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He just might have the stones to decide, “I don’t care if I’m French, I’m gonna win this danged thing!”

Of course, Paire also could get a bad call in his opening match, blow up emotionally, and go on to lose 6-1, 6-0, 6-2. After all, he is French. And that seems to be a common problem this time of the year in Paris.

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