PARIS (Reuters) - No French man has lifted the Musketeers’ Cup in over three decades and there is no sign of the frustrating and painful wait ending for one of tennis’s leading nations at this year’s French Open.
A lack of consistency at the highest level, fragile bodies and an outstanding generation barring their way make it difficult to imagine a French successor to their last men’s singles champion Yannick Noah any time soon at Roland Garros.
After it became an international tournament in 1925, the first eight titles went to French men -- but since then, they have claimed only two titles, Marcel Bernard winning in 1946 and Noah in 1983.
“If you want a chance to win the French Open, you need to arrive full of confidence, having won great matches on the surface and, let’s face it, it is not happening with the French male players,” former French technical director Patrice Hagelauer, the coach who led Noah to the title, told Reuters.
”For the French Open especially you need to be in top shape physically and mentally.
“Gael (Monfils) played the odd semi-final but then you’ve already reached your maximum and in the quarter or semi-finals, they hold on for a set or two.”
Since Noah beat Mats Wilander 34 years ago, only the mercurial Henri Leconte has reached the final of the claycourt grand slam, losing in straight sets to the same Swede in 1988.
In the last 10 years, only Monfils (2008) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2013 and 2015) have given some hope to the vociferous home support when they reached the last four.
“Since 1983, we’ve had great talents -- Leconte, (Guy) Forget, (Cedric) Pioline, Monfils, (Richard) Gasquet, Tsonga, but never players who started Roland Garros with the favourite tag. It was the case for Yannick, it’s not the case anymore,” Hagelauer added.
”In the last 15 years, incredible things happened, notably Rafa Nadal winning the French Open nine times.
“The Big Four generation (Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray) also complicated things. These guys are monsters. It never happened in the history of tennis, even at the time of the Musketeers when there were fewer players.”
Pressure is a factor, too, according to Wilander.
“No person in tennis can understand the pressure on a player from Britain, the U.S., from Australia nor especially, I think, from France,” he told Reuters.
While Noah was a pure claycourter, none of the actual French men are real specialists of the slowest surface.
“I think French players are more complete now. I don’t think you have seen a true French claycourter since Yannick Noah,” Wilander said.
“Yannick was so athletic and moved so well. That’s why he was a claycourter even though he came to the net so much. Today, their best surface generally isn’t clay.”
Even if Noah remains the last French man to win a grand slam singles title, France have at least enjoyed more success on other surfaces, even if it all ended in anti-climax.
Arnaud Clement reached the Australian Open final in 2001, Tsonga also made the final in Melbourne in 2008, while Pioline reached the finals of both the US Open (1993) and Wimbledon (1997).
Would Wilander be tempted to coach a French man to try to take him to Roland Garros glory ?
“No!” he said, before adding with a laugh: “I am happy with my life, my work as a commentator for Eurosport -- I have made the finals of every grand slam since 2002.”
Wilander still thinks that no French man is close to winning again on the red dirt in Paris.
“I think the longer it (the drought) goes on, the harder it gets. Yannick transcended sport in the way that Andre Agassi did, and Bjorn Borg,” said Wilander.
“Kids who would otherwise have played soccer wanted to play tennis. But the longer it goes without a grand slam champion, the smaller the pool of kids you influence.”
Additional reporting by Ossian Shine; Editing by Ian Chadband