Un: Noah's Empty Ark?
The day after Andy Murray became the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, I have to believe that someone, somewhere in Bourges, Rennes, or Clermont-Ferrand, turned to a friend and asked, “When is it going to be our turn again?”
He would have been thinking, of course, of the 30 years that have passed since a Frenchman last won at Roland Garros—that Frenchman being Cameroon native Yannick Noah, who stunned and delighted all of France, and much of the rest of the world, when he upset defending champion Mats Wilander in the French Open final of 1983.
Noah at the time was seeded No. 6, and had never been beyond the quarterfinals at a major tournament. He would never be ranked higher on the ATP computer than No. 3. But he had already demonstrated a proclivity that very few of his French peers, or successors, have shown: A zest for the big occasion. Had Noah been a basketball player—like his son Joakim, currently a star with the Chicago Bulls of the NBA—he would have wanted the ball in his hands with his team trailing by one and time quickly running out.
But that’s not the French way in tennis. Not lately, at least.
Noah’s win at Roland Garros was seen by some as a fluke, one of those improbable, magic moments. But it was really no more mystifying than Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon. By the time Noah played that match, he’d accumulated an impressive 14-5 record in ATP finals. More to my point, Noah was a guy who liked the big moments, and one who was uncharacteristically—for a French tennis player—prepared to make the most of them.
Noah beat Wilander that sunny day in Paris by pursuing a bold, chip-and-charge strategy. Relying on a heavily sliced backhand (Noah is one of the few Grand Slam champions of the Open era who didn’t have a flat or topspin backhand to speak of), Noah attacked relentlessly and hurled himself all over the forecourt, spearing volleys that, among other dividends, forced Wilander to wilt under the pressure. The exceptional thing about all this is how utterly out-of-character it was for an Open-era French player to do such a thing.
Among all nations, France has succeeded in producing the most varied and appealing group of male players in the Open era. What they have not created since Noah ruled at Roland Garros, however, is a male Grand Slam champion. The closest they’ve come is runner-ups Cedric Pioline (Wimbledon, 1993; U.S. Open, 1997), Arnaud Clement (Australian Open, 2001), and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Australian Open, 2008).
Want to know one big difference between Noah and those Frenchmen? Their embrace of the big ask. Noah was 23-13 in tour finals, but Pioline was just 5-12, and Clement 4-7. Tsonga is an encouraging 10-9, but before you start doing cartwheels on the lawns of Versailles, keep in mind that Tsonga hasn’t won a single one of his titles on clay. In fact, he’s never even played a clay-court final.
Perhaps, in developing such an impressive fleet of stylistic individualists (think Fabrice Santoro, Sebastian Grosjean, Nicolas Escude), the French out-foxed themselves. Or perhaps it’s that the French players are so obsessed with flair, with “beautiful tennis” (or something that travels under a similar name), that coaches as well as budding pros consider it beneath them to spend all that time and effort only to become boring “grinders,” or “clay-court specialists.”
That’s too bad, given that grinding an be so conducive to success at Roland Garros.
Currently, the French have 13 men in the Top 100, and two who were recently in the Top 10 but have now fallen just outside it (Richard Gasquet and Tsonga, ranked Nos. 13 and 14, respectively). But unless you believe in miracles, as in Mahut d. Nadal, 70-68 in the fifth set, only four of them even come close to claiming contender status: Gasquet, Tsonga, No. 24 Gael Monfils, and No. 30 Gilles Simon.
Let’s consider them in reverse order:
Gilles Simon has been ranked as high as No. 6, and he’s won 11 titles. He’s extremely quick and seems capable of running all day—formidable assets on clay, especially when the conditions are slow. And at age 29, he should still have all the stamina and fitness he needs, given that he'll get a day of rest between matches.
But Simon is the quintessential Frenchman suffering from Garrosphobia; he's won just one match in his first four attempts at Stade Roland Garros. He’s improved some since then, but he has yet to get past the fourth round, and only one of his losses has been at the hands of Nadal, Roger Federer, or Novak Djokovic. If you can’t get past Victor Hanescu in the third round at your home major in your best year on the tour (2009), that may be telling.
Gael Monfils is an emotional guy as well as a spectacularly gifted player—a lot like Noah. The 27-year-old also been ranked as high as No. 7, but his modest count of five career singles titles is very un-Noah-like, and it raises a red flag.
In fact, Monfils is different from Noah in at least two ways that are germane to this inquiry. While both men were superb showmen, it often seems that Monfils loses sight of the goal in his desire to entertain and impress. As well, Monfils has less of the killer instinct that earned Noah so many final-round appearances—and wins.
Yet there’s still hope for Monfils, for he’s been able to step up at Roland Garros before. He made the fourth round in just his second try (2006), and he’s played two quarterfinals and a semifinal (all three were losses to Federer; no shame in that).
Monfils had an interesting tournament last year. He upset No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych in the first round, squeaked by talented Ernests Gulbis in four sets, and then lost yet another brutal five-setter to a resurgent Tommy Rebredo. His only bad loss at Roland Garros was to then-No. 92 Fabio Fognini, in 2010, but since then we’ve seen Fognini’s potential realized.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has been entrenched in the middle level of the Top 10 for a few years now, although he’s slipped back to No. 14 at the moment. Tsonga’s game isn’t merely big, it can be huge. Yet it has never really translated well to red clay until lately—and even then, almost exclusively at Roland Garros. But it’s a bit of a bad-news, good-news joke.
Tsonga had four match points against Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the 2012 French Open, and he handled most of them well if not successfully before fizzling in five. Last year, he made it to the semifinals, where he was swept in three sets by David Ferrer. That was a tough situation, because they had to follow a real barnburner of a match, the Nadal vs. Djokovic five-set classic. Instead of a national celebration, the match seemed more like an afterthought. That was a tough blow for Tsonga, but perhaps he’ll be able to improve upon his record once again this year.
Richard Gasquet, like Tsonga, has 10 ATP titles. He’s been ranked No. 7, but he hasn’t played a tour event since Miami because of back pain. His status for the French Open remains questionable.
This mercurial shotmaker has a conspicuous case of Garrosphobia; despite his spectacular talent, it took him four trips to the tournament to secure his first win. That was in 2005, when Gasquet got on the scoreboard with a win over No. 142 Daniele Bracciali. Gasquet performed in fits and starts after that, although he’s made the fourth round in each of the past three years, no farther. In 2013, he lost a two-set lead to No. 10 seed Stan Wawrinka.
Whether he plays or not, Gasquet is unlikely to be much of a factor at Roland Garros. Nor is Simon, who’s been inconsistent. That leaves Monfils or Tsonga as the most logical successor to Noah, but the most likely outcome is that the French will have to wait a little longer to crown a fellow countryman at Roland Garros.
That’s not such a big deal; they still have a good 35, 36 years before they have to start worrying about being mistaken for the British.