The moment was perfectly poised. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky above Court Philippe Chatrier, and none of its 15,000 seats were empty. If you couldn’t quite hear a pin drop, you could hear the sound of the ball being bounced on the clay by Julien Benneteau as he stepped to the baseline to serve. Just as he began to dig his feet in, though, the silence was pierced by a raspy cry from one of the stadium’s top rows:
This fan, like virtually all the fans in Chatrier on that sunny day last May, had come to watch Benneteau take what many assumed would be his final bow. After a yearlong farewell tour, the 36-year-old from the village of Bourg-en-Bresse in eastern France was playing his final singles event. Benneteau was also playing Juan Martin del Potro, which meant this was probably going to be his final match. But was there a chance for an upset? Whenever a French player sets foot on that most emotionally charged of tennis courts, hope will spring eternal.
In this case, hope didn’t last nearly that long; it was the silence that reigned instead. Del Potro gently dismantled Benneteau, and put the older player out to pasture. Every few games, another “Allez, Ju-lee-en!” would pierce the quiet, but to no avail; the magic that had thrilled these fans when Benneteau reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros in 2006 had gone out of his racquet. Still, no one abandoned him; when it was over, the French fans, who recognize and care about their tennis players more than we do in the States, ushered Benneteau off the stage with a standing ovation.
Benneteau’s exit wasn’t the first time that French fans had waved good-bye to an old favorite, and it won’t be the last. The Musketeer generation, whose members are now firmly in their 30s, is fading away in fits and spurts.
Michael Llodra and Paul-Henri Mathieu have hung up their racquets, and 37-year-old Nicolas Mahut has been threatening to do the same for at least a year. Richard Gasquet, who will turn 33 next month, just came back from a lengthy layoff due to groin surgery. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is 34, had knee surgery last year. While Gael Monfils has had a bounce-back season, he’ll be 33 by the end of summer. Gilles Simon and Jeremy Chardy, 34 and 32, respectively, have put in a lot of miles over the last 15 years.
Together, they may constitute the best French men’s tennis generation since the original Four Musketeers—René Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon—of the 1920s. In an era when power seemed destined to dominate, the ATP’s French contingent have helped keep style alive in a variety of ways, from Gasquet’s baroque one-handed backhand, to the leaping athleticism of Monfils and Tsonga, to Llodra’s old-world net skills, to Benneteau’s all-court classicism. Tennis in this century would have been poorer and more cookie-cutter without them.
Unfortunately—you knew an unfortunately was coming—this French generation may end up being more famous for what they haven’t done (so far): win the big one. While they finally came together in 2017 to bring the Davis Cup back to France, none of their individual members have given this tennis-loving nation what it wants most, a Grand Slam title, and in particular a title at Roland Garros. These Musketeers, unlike their legendary namesakes, will probably inspire mixed memories in their countrymen when they go.
“I think overall they’re beloved [in France] because people are aware how lucky French tennis was to have so many top players at the same time, being able to fight for the big titles for a decade or even more,” says Carole Bouchard, a French tennis writer and the author of The Quest, about Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. “But there’s also a sense of disappointment as no Grand Slam title in singles came, and that remains what the public think of as the greatest achievement. People are winning greedy, we all know that.”
With all of that talent, why have the French come up short? It’s a question that Canadian journalist Tom Tebbutt posed last year to Louis Borfiga, who ran France’s national junior-development program for years, and helped train this group as teenagers. Borfiga was as stumped as anyone.
“When I was at the Federation, we had lots and lots of meetings about that, and we couldn’t come up with an exact answer,” Borfiga told Tebbutt, while noting that two Frenchwomen, Amélie Mauresmo and Marion Bartoli, have won major titles fairly recently, and that Mary Pierce won at Roland Garros.
“The explanations can come down to very small margins,” Borfiga continued. “You can say lots of things, maybe we did too much for them and didn’t make them self-reliant like Amélie, who had her own way. We came close with Tsonga and with [Cedric] Pioline and other players. But I don’t think there’s a rational explanation for it.”
No matter how many times the French faithful are disappointed, though, they never step putting their hearts on the line. Yannick Noah’s operatic run to the 1983 title at Roland Garros looms too large for the nation’s tennis fans not to wish for a repeat. And while Tsonga and Monfils are past their primes, each has won a title in 2019. It wouldn’t be a surprise if one of the Musketeers makes a tantalizing—and perhaps crushingly disappointing—run again this time.
Still, unless you’re a hopelessly fair-weather type of fan, sports watching is about more than just rooting for the winners; there’s a depth to defeat. Some of my most memorable moments as a tennis spectator have come while watching epic French losses at Roland Garros.
I can remember the dizzying joy in Court Suzanne Lenglen when Gael Monfils went up two sets to love on Tommy Robredo in 2013, and the desperate pain that replaced it when he eventually lost in five. Gasquet’s five-set loss to Stan Wawrinka on the same court, the same year, was one of the great shot-making displays I’ve ever seen, but it was the emotions in the audience, which swooped from peak to valley and back again with every point, that made it more than just another slugfest. The same was true in Chatrier in 2012, when Tsonga squandered match points and lost in five sets to Djokovic; afterward, Jo hid under his towel as the crowd stood and applauded his effort. Tennis means something at Roland Garros; the stakes seem higher there than anywhere else. You can hear it in the cheers and boos and whistles from the fans, and you can feel it just as profoundly in defeat as you can in victory.
But this group of Musketeers doesn’t just mean something to the French. Tennis lovers all over the world have appreciated the personality, panache, and patented celebrations that they’ve brought to the court for the last 15 years, and which will be difficult to replicate when they retire. (As with the Spanish Armada, there doesn’t seem to be another French men’s generation like this one on the horizon.) Many of us in the borderless nation called pro tennis have watched this group of Frenchmen for so long, and know their many strengths and equally numerous flaws so well, that they feel like our countrymen, too.
The Musketeers may not make their last ride through Paris this year, but that day will come soon. For now, I’ll look forward to seeing the crowd’s hopes spring eternal again when Tsonga or Monfils or Gasquet take the court, and to hearing a cry of “Allez, Jo!” or “Allez, Gael!” pierce the silence in Chatrier. I’ll look forward to the excitement that comes when one of them gets on a roll, and to the anguish that comes when that roll inevitably comes to a halt. Few things in tennis are more profound.
However it ends for the Musketeers at Roland Garros in 2019, we won’t have many more chances to appreciate this group for what they are, rather than for what they’re not.