When Ugo Humbert finally closed out his three-tiebreaker win over Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Rolex Paris Masters on Monday, he threw his racquet in the air and dramatically dropped to one knee, as if he couldn’t take another step and might need to be carried, James Brown-style, off the court.
Does Humbert’s reaction sound a little over the top for a second-round match? You might not say that if you watched it. The 22-year-old Frenchman had won the first set, and had led 6-3—triple match point—in the second-set tiebreaker, before losing five straight points. In the third set, he had led 3-1 before giving the break back. Humbert had been the better and braver player for the majority of the match, but it had taken him close to three hours, and a cramp or two at the end, to win it.
In any other year, Humbert’s well-earned victory and theatrical celebration would have been accompanied by a roof-raising roar from a packed audience at the AccorHotels Arena in the Bercy neighborhood of Paris. He would have soaked in the applause, and maybe shed a tear or two, as took his place at the center of the French tennis stage for the first time. Instead, there was nothing but silence from the acres of empty black seats around him.
Watching Humbert walk off the court in that same silence, I pictured great, emotional Bercy scenes from the past. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga edging out David Nalbandian for the title in 2008; Gael Monfils pushing Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer to third-set tiebreakers in 2009 and 2010, before losing; Michael Llodra’s thrilling, net-rushing run to the semis in 2010; Julien Benneteau’s win over Federer in 2009, when he walked away sobbing. Roland Garros is the sport’s signature event in Paris, of course, but Bercy feels as if it belongs to the country’s tennis faithful. With the players’ wives and kids and coaches lined up in the front row, the tournament has the cozy vibe of a family reunion mixed with an end-of-year holiday party. No Frenchman has reached the final since Tsonga in 2011, but hope always seems to spring eternal with the fans there.
I’ve missed that vibe over the first three days of this year’s edition of Bercy, and I’ve missed seeing and hearing the crowd more than I did at the US Open and Roland Garros. Maybe that’s because Bercy belongs to everyday tennis fans in a way that the Grand Slams don’t. Maybe it’s because it feels as if the pandemic has burst our little traveling bubble. Maybe it’s because, with France back in lockdown, it’s getting harder to pretend we’re on a path to normalcy.
Still, there was plenty of French-tennis flair on display on Tuesday. As always, some of it was effective, and some wasn’t, but all of it was unique.
Richard Gasquet, 34, lost to Diego Schwartzman in straight sets. Along the way, though, the one-time prodigy gave us a few throwback backhand thrills, including a leaping return winner or two. Gasquet couldn’t match the younger Argentine’s energy or consistency, but he says he’ll be around for another year or two. Hopefully Reeshard will get a better send-off in Bercy when he does retire than he did today.
Next up was Pierre-Hugues Herbert, who showed off the latest iteration of his ever-more-complicated hair—call this one a double man-bun—in a loss to Milos Raonic. Herbert was out-gunned, but few players glide around the net, and drift back for overheads, as smoothly as this world-class doubles player does.
Humbert's killer shot—the forehand:
France did have a winner on Wednesday, over on the second court. That’s where Adrian Mannarino survived a three-setter with Yoshihito Nishioka. Mannarino is 32, but continues to plug along like an old pro should. After losing the final in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan on Sunday, he made the long flight to Paris. and has won two matches since. If Herbert’s flair is in his movement, Mannarino’s is in the easy way he maneuvers the ball from one corner to the other. His shots are compact to the point of nonchalance, but they stay frustratingly low and move through the court with deceptive speed.
Gasquet, Mannarino and Herbert are part of an aging Musketeer generation. Is Humbert ready to grab the torch from them? He’s roughly the same age as better-known Next Genners like Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev, and he has begun to creep up on them. The rangy, skinny lefty from Metz—he’s 6’2 and 160 pounds—is ranked No. 34, but he has won two titles this year, in Auckland at the start of the season, and Antwerp last week.
With no crowd to cheer his win over Tsitsipas, it wasn’t as memorable as it should have been. What’s important and encouraging, though, is that after failing to close the deal in the second set, he showed a winner’s resilience by bouncing back to take the third.
Until now, France hadn’t had a horse in the Next Gen race. Let’s hope Humbert gives this tennis-loving nation one, and that he inspires more ecstasy and agony in Bercy in the future, when the crowds finally return. We all need something, or someone, to look forward to these days.