It’s been 37 years that it lasts. Since 1983, Yannick Noah has been waiting for his successor in the Grand Slam and Roland-Garros. Chance of the calendar, at the time of his coronation, the person had himself put an end … to 37 years without a tricolor title in the men’s singles after Marcel Bernard in 1946. So bis repetita? Let’s face it right now, while the wink of fate would undoubtedly be magical, there is, at the time of this writing, little reason to believe it. It would even be quite the opposite. Because since the resumption of the circuit in mid-August, our representatives have bruised the soul.
At the US Open a few days ago, none reached the second week. And if Adrian Mannarino and Corentin Moutet saved the honor by making their way to the 3rd round, we will unfortunately no longer remember on the French side the misfortunes of Benoît Paire, excluded from the tournament due to a positive test for coronavirus, and of his contact cases, that tricolor performances. Back in Europe for a quirky clay season, things could – at least we dared hope – get better.
Absent at Flushing so as not to take risks with the virus and avoid a sudden change of surface, Gaël Monfils has also made his comeback after six months without competition. Author of the best start to the season of his career – he was 3rd in the Race with two titles in his pocket when the competitions were suspended at the beginning of March -, member of the top 10 more ambitious than ever, the number 1 tricolor largely carries the hopes a rosier tomorrow. But cut off in his tracks, he obviously has trouble regaining his feelings. With two defeats in the 1st round in a row in Rome and Hamburg against the 97th and 103rd players in the world, “La Monf ‘” worries.
Monfils, leader under pressure and too isolated
The person admits it himself – he opened up about it on social networks – he is currently far from his best level. But beware of catastrophism. “It is the Frenchman who has the most chances of going in the second week, despite his two defeats. He has proven in the past that by playing very badly in the preparatory tournaments, he was able to get a quarter or a half at Roland Garros. He’s a player with whom there are no rules“, estimates our consultant Arnaud Di Pasquale. And it is clear that the former DTN (national technical director) knows the loustic well.
Monfils reached a semi-final (2008) and three quarters (2009, 2011 and 2014) at Roland: during these four seasons, he won at best 4 small matches on ocher on the circuit (he had also won a Challenger in Marrakech in 2008) before setting foot on Parisian soil. Worse, in 2009, he had no success in preparation, just like in 2017, an edition in which he still played the knockout stages near the Porte d’Auteuil. Seeded number 8, he could only face Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals, one round later than last year.
Although very consistent at this stage, the Parisian does not necessarily represent all risk insurance of presence in the second week. “The problem is betting on one man. It’s still dangerous. And Gaël Monfils does not like having too many eyes on him. The difference is that usually there are still several to be counted on. And there, I have the feeling that it is a little isolated. There are a few absent, and inevitably, a little less depth. Above all, it lacks well-ranked players capable of performing well. On that side, it’s not a good omen“concedes Di Pasquale. The packages of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille in recent weeks have a certain weight in the ambient pessimism.
A clan weakened by absences and hard knocks
Because if the Manceau has not reached the second week for five years at Roland, it has still held the house often during the last decade. Twice semi-finalist (2013 and 2015) and once quarter-finalist (2012), he represented certain chances of a good career, but at 35 years old, his body and his back in particular leave him little respite and he has already drawn a line at the end of the season. Pouille has never shone at Roland before but he had the potential. “In view of what he showed very early on when he arrived on the circuit, how he was able to raise his level of play to beat Del Potro at Wimbledon or Nadal at the US Open (in 2016, Editor’s note), it still presaged very good results. I’m sad because he can’t get over his elbow injury“, emphasizes our consultant.
Who then can we turn to to support Gaël Monfils? Benoît Paire who had discovered the knockout stages last year? It is not even known if the Avignon player will be allowed to play, he who once again tested positive for covid-19 in Hamburg. And even if he can line up, what condition will he show up on the court? Mentally and physically tired from weeks of isolation, he only worked in Rome, before giving up in Germany. Unable to hold two sets at the moment, he will have to rub shoulders with the format of the five sets, a challenge not far from being insurmountable for him.
It will be understood that the French chances of appearing in the second week are not legion. But since the beginning of the Open era, the French absences in the round of 16 at Roland Garros can be counted on the fingers of two hands. This has happened precisely 7 times, the most recent two years ago, and only twice in the last 20 years (with the 2007 edition). Among the other Blues entered this year, Richard Gasquet is the one who has the most references on Parisian ocher: eighth in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015, as well as a quarter in 2016. But just like his friend Tsonga, he is currently fighting with a body that no longer fully meets the requirements of the very high level. Since his defeat in the second round against Alex de Minaur at Flushing, he has not been seen in action on a court.
Gasquet, emblem of a generation at the end of the track
“It’s a difficult time for him. There are small glitches to the right, to the left which prevent it from fully developing on the court. For having crossed paths with him on several occasions, he hangs on, he wants to because he is passionate. He loves tennis, smelling the ball and I’m quite admiring it“, confides Di Pasquale who does not however have any illusions about the physical limits of the moment. Gasquet is perhaps the emblem of a generation – Gaël Monfils excepted – which arrives at the end of the track. Gilles Simon, who does not ‘won a qualifying match in Hamburg on ocher, also suffers at the moment.
“The dynamic is quite different than at a time when we expected them in quarter and half of Grand Slam almost every time. It was also very exciting because we knew that we had four guys who were capable of achieving great results and who almost always ended up in the top 20 in the world.“, considers the former DTN. The expectations towards them are in fact now much lower. But if we want to see the glass half full, they have nothing to lose either in this 2020 edition except standard where, ultimately, the very short preparation on clay can work in their favor.
“I’m not pushing him towards the exit at all, but Richard can tell himself he’s going through one of his last Roland and that can set him free. Some, at the end of their career, managed to play with a little less pressure and achieved great things. Having more perspective, distance, height, sometimes it allows you to play more relaxed. And if physically, he holds, it remains a very dangerous player. ” Nicolas Mahut, a surprise guest in the 3rd round last year at the age of 37, can attest to this. The problem is that the draw was particularly cruel for Gasquet and Simon, condemned to the exploit of entry respectively against Roberto Bautista Agut and Denis Shapovalov.
The absence of an audience (or almost) will not help
Another important data to consider this kind of positive scenario is missing: the support of the public. For the Blues to transcend Roland, it is an essential element. However, only 1000 spectators will enter the 12 hectares of the site. The Philippe-Chatrier court, which can accommodate more than 15,000, will therefore sound very hollow. “There is one point that worries me, it is that Gaël likes to play with the public a lot, to feed on them. He has this showman side and when things don’t go well in a match, it can act as an electric shock, it can make a big difference. He will have to go and look deep inside to find the energy. But if all goes well in the score, we obviously will not ask these kinds of questions“, observe Di Pasquale.
Opposed to the whimsical and talented Alexander Bublik – currently in the quarterfinals in Hamburg – for his first round, the French number 1 can only count on himself. Watch out for diesel starting! But he is not the only one concerned. To overturn badly started games, to sublimate, to achieve exploits in the first laps, the Blues in the more modest classification often use this extra soul. In the current anxiety-provoking context with the shadow of the coronavirus hanging over the tournament, they sorely missed it during qualifying. Benjamin Bonzi is thus the only French to have escaped.
Mentally, the Blues will therefore have to be very solid. And hope is perhaps to be found on the side of the next generation. In Flushing, Corentin Moutet notably showed that the closed door did not affect him more than that. The left-hander, passed a few games of the round of 16 last year, is certainly very motivated to take a step forward. “It is still a little green at times, a little irregular. But he is moving forward, he is progressing, he knows where he wants to go. His project is well defined and this is what should be remembered. He’s a player who is super happy to play Roland, who wants to do battle and who might surprise us“, incenses Di Pasquale. To reach the third round like last year, the person concerned will nevertheless probably have to beat Diego Schwartzman, just finalist in Rome. A sacred challenge.
Humbert and Moutet, the next generation to the rescue?
But the most fit Frenchman at the moment is undoubtedly another left-hander: Ugo Humbert. With his attacking game, he has at first glance more arguments on fast surfaces. Moreover, he discovered the second week of a Major at Wimbledon last year, before winning his first ATP title in Auckland in early 2020. But it was on Italian clay that he reached his first eighth final in Masters 1000 last week, before offering Daniil Medvedev (his first top 10) in Hamburg. “It’s a breath of youth too, it’s nice, it feels good. He will arrive with a little confidence. He can go for a second week. But we are not going to lie to each other: everything also depends on the painting, it is not the seed“, observe l’ex-DTN.
Now 41st player in the world, the best ranking of his young career, Humbert was not protected either. Like Moutet, he will have to get rid of a qualifier then, above all, logically pull out the big game against Chilean Cristian Garin, seeded 20 and clay specialist, in the second round. Nothing has therefore been spared the Blues, and beyond a hypothetical second week, it will already be important to see how many will still be in contention in… 3rd round. A stage of the competition where there has always been at least one French representative in the Open era. Is a historic debacle possible?
Arnaud Di Pasquale refuses to play the gloomy prophets. “It’s very hard to venture into any prognosis. Despite everything, there will be quite a few French people in the table and maybe one or two will manage to make a nice trip. And when I say have a nice course, it’s aiming for the second week. ” By counting the guests and the qualified, they will be 18 on the starting line, ie more than 14% of the entries. Will the number be the strength of French tennis? There is nothing more than to hope so.