The French Open Tennis, Roland Garros 2016

by Katrina Allen.

This article first appeared in Languedoc Living in June 2016.

(photograph by Katrina Allen)

So, yet again, no French singles winner, male or female, at Roland Garros. The last man to do so was Yannick Noah, so cherished by the French, back in 1983. As for the women, the nervy and somewhat histrionic Mary Pierce won in 2000 but she was Canadian-born and raised in the States so I’m not sure that really counts. The French probably think it does as the previous winner was Francoise Durr back in 1967 and I expect they were a bit desperate. For a ‘French woman’ I’ve never heard such a deeply-entrenched American accent.

The French have had players in the top 100 aplenty and several top-tenners but they can’t seem to win Grand Slams. Maybe they strive too much to look stylish or to be entertaining. Monfils actually said this year that he was going to concentrate on winning rather than engaging the crowd, a rather staggering admission for a sportsman. I thought trying to win was the whole idea.

The pressure on French players to perform in their home Slam is intense and the home crowd can be brutal. When their players don’t perform, there is a tendency to jeer and boo. Back in the 1988 final, Henri Leconte was publicly mocked during his annihilation by Mats Wilander, who relentlessly targeted the Frenchman’s backhand. A man with a sliced backhand is not likely to win a Slam and it was cruelly exposed. Leconte usually played the clown (and still does), presumably a cover for his nerves, which was rather irritating but perhaps understandable under the circumstances.

And then there was Amélie Mauresmo, famous for mentally collapsing at the French Open. Actually, she was famous for collapsing just about anywhere, although she did finally manage to win the Australian (on a Justine Henin default in the final) and Wimbledon, albeit in familiar jittery fashion.

So, this year at Roland Garros? Tsonga, the highest ranked French player, retired injured at 5-2 up in the first set against Gulbis. He left the court sobbing into his towel but one wonders whether he was secretly relieved to be out of it all, reputation intact. And, anyway, how can one take a man seriously when he plays in a zebra outfit?

Monfils, that great entertainer, pulled out before the tournament began, citing a virus. The other French players all faded early on. All apart from Richard Gasquet, who made it to the quarter -finals for the first time in his career.

Gasquet was on the front cover of a French tennis magazine when he was nine and was later praised as the most talented teenager in the game, seen as a future star. However, he suffered from endless injuries and illness and at one point, was banned after testing positive for cocaine. He managed to wriggle out of a long-term suspension by claiming that he’d kissed a coke-fuelled girl in a nightclub, his explanation of how the drug had ended up in his system. What a wonderful defence! And it worked! But it was an indication of his lack of drive and application.

Gasquet oozes talent. He has wonderful volleys, great variety and anticipation and, above all, a sublime backhand (pictured). What is it about the one-handed backhand? There is something exhilaratingly swashbuckling about the shot, like a man drawing his sword. And his is amongst the game’s most beautiful, on a par with Federer and Wawrinka.

He is a quiet and unassuming character, a bit little-boy-lost which only adds to his appeal. Even his strange service stance is rather sweet and childlike. But he also has a reputation as a choker. He’s been quoted as having the ‘backbone of a soaking wet lettuce’, liable to fold in the heat of competition. And his apparent lack of physical fitness has always been a feature of his career. He has frequently been prone to cramps and to not going the distance.

So, Gasquet played Andy Murray in the quarters. These two are polar opposites. Gasquet’s game elegant, Murray’s workmanlike. The graceful backhand versus the clumsy-looking double-hander. The dancing footwork versus the somewhat lumbering heavyweight. Murray’s strength and physical fitness, Gasquet the more fragile.

The first two sets were extraordinary, with wonderful rallies and, of course, that beautiful backhand. The weather at Roland Garros this year has been dreadful, causing rain-sodden courts and heavy balls, which favour the heavy hitter, like Murray. Gasquet plays his shots with a fairly extreme grip, which creates a lot of topspin and it’s hard to deal with a heavily spun ball which rears up around the shoulders. (It’s why Nadal with his vicious topspin has done so well against Federer on the clay in the past. The single hander may be the more beautiful but it lacks the solidity of the double-hander in dealing with high balls). The heavy conditions meant Gasquet’s shots didn’t rear up but instead ended up in Murray’s lower and more comfortable hitting zone.

Gasquet managed to take the first set 7-5 and then at 6-6 and tiebreak in the second, he looked gone, his eyes punch-drunk. Murray knew exactly what he needed to do, moving the Frenchman from side to side and relentlessly using the drop shot (a major feature this year due to its effectiveness in the soggy conditions). Even if Gasquet had won that second set, he may well not have closed it out with the disparity in fitness between the two players. Five sets on clay are brutal and Murray is more than up to it. In fact he seems to thrive on it.

He also thrives on partisan crowds. The crowd were obviously on Gasquet’s side. But, two things on this. The stadium wasn’t even half full for most of the first set. Ok it started at 2.00 pm and not much gets between the French and their lunch but this was rather insulting (one can’t imagine Wimbledon Centre Court being half empty for a quarter-final featuring a home player). The second thing is that Gasquet, being a little introverted (outside the nightclub), doesn’t work the crowd like a Monfils. He doesn’t seem able to involve them very much, which means he doesn’t use the home advantage sufficiently.

So, a beautiful couple of sets and then Murray moved in for the kill, slaughtering the Frenchman in the remaining two. All sadly predictable and a little tragic to see a player whose game displays such beauty, yet can’t seem to fulfil his potential.

To win the French, a player has to be supremely fit, able to last long rallies and matches, which can go beyond the five-hour mark, over the two weeks. Most winners are emotionally and physically drained by the end of it all which is why it’s so hard to win the ‘Channel Slam’, the French and Wimbledon in the same year.

Gasquet, Wawrinka and Federer, the one-handed backhanders, are coming to the end of their careers. It’s depressing to be losing them and to be subjected to the lumbering two-hander. But then I saw the young Dominic Thiem, the up and coming Austrian, and I was relieved to see another one-handed beauty! All is not lost….

Katrina Allen is a former Junior Wimbledon and senior tournament player.



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