On June 5, 1983, Yannick Noah won Roland-Garros. Forty years later, no Frenchman has succeeded him. The former tennis champion, who became a star of the song, was back on the Central of Roland-Garros last weekend to celebrate his only coronation, this time with a microphone in hand.
Treading barefoot on the famous red clay of Court Philippe-Chatrier, he performed a dozen songs, joined on stage by his opponent of 40 years ago, Mats Wilander. Asked about the lack of success of French players in the Porte d'Auteuil tournament since the 1980s, Yannick Noah joked: "Because I don't coach anymore!"
The player, who led the France to victory in the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, then gave advice to young French people hoping to break through: pack their bags and go abroad.
"You have to go and feed yourself elsewhere because we are used to losing at all levels," he told a news conference. "All the coaches lost. Not one has won! So you're surrounded by people who have all lost."
"As if Real Madrid had won nothing"
Turning abroad is precisely what the French Tennis Federation (FFT) has done by calling on Croatian Ivan Ljubicic, former coach of Roger Federer who guided the Swiss to three new Grand Slam titles.
Former world number three, Ivan Ljubicic has been appointed head of the Ambition 2024 mission, which aims to restore momentum to French tennis and train a new generation of champions. When he took office in December, the imposing Croatian said he was baffled by tennis' lack of success in France.
"French tennis [...] is the one that makes the most curious those who are not French," he told the newspaper L'Equipe. "It's like Real Madrid haven't won anything for a long time."
Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, who won Roland Garros in 2015, made sharper remarks at a tournament in Marseille earlier this year, saying it was "sad" not to see better players in a country that has "a Grand Slam and many resources to invest in the future of tennis."
Yannick Noah at the inauguration of a mural retracing his exploits, including his victory in 1983, in the Roland-Garros stadium, May 28, 2023. © Anne-Christine Poujoulat, AFP
Self-flagellation is recurrent at Roland-Garros, especially during anniversary years. In 2018, as the organizers celebrated the 30th anniversary of the last participation of a Frenchman – Henri Leconte – in the final, he castigated the lack of dedication and mental strength of the players.
"They don't train as much on clay as they used to," Leconte told Reuters. "They are afraid to play at Roland Garros. They always come with an excuse, saying, 'Oh, my back or elbow hurts.'"
If this judgment is severe, it remains today shared by some fans met at Roland-Garros, who highlight the inability of French players to meet expectations. "The French have great courts and great players, but at this level of tennis, it's the mental strength that makes the difference," said Marcus, a tennis tournament regular from Denmark. The forty-year-old draws parallels with former world number one Andy Murray, who ended a decades-long wait for a men's Grand Slam title "despite even greater pressure at Wimbledon".
Andy Murray, who has lost eight of his eleven Grand Slam finals, all to Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, would certainly have been more successful if he had not lived in the era of the "Big Three" (with Rafael Nadal). On RMC, Marion Bartoli, the last French player to have won a major tournament in 2013, also pointed to the "psychological challenge" of winning at home: "What Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gaël Monfils lacked [to win Roland-Garros, editor's note] is that we had to beat very great players consecutively. They managed to do the feat once, or even twice, and then afterwards, there is a fatigue that sets in. There is the pressure that is mounting [...]. And of course, to win at home is a psychological challenge."
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Quantity at the expense of quality
Already in 2018, Henri Leconte judged that the FFT had its share of responsibility in the choice of "quantity at the expense of quality", encouraging an abundance of young talents instead of focusing on the few most promising players.
Over the past 20 years, many French players have been in the top 100 of the ATP rankings. This situation explains why the French, as a team, have often done well in Davis Cup. Yet, over the same period, no player has come close to winning a Grand Slam tournament. Only Arnaud Clément (at the Australian Open in 2001) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (at the same venue in 2008) have reached a final in the twenty-first century.
Proponents of the French model point out, however, that individual Grand Slam titles are not the only way to measure success. The France has the second largest number of licensees in Europe, behind Germany, and its clubs are envied by most European countries.
Since 2000, French women's tennis has gradually risen from the ashes with four Grand Slam singles titles: Mary Pierce at Roland Garros in 2000, Amélie Mauresmo at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006 and Marion Bartoli at Wimbledon in 2013.
Caroline Garcia during her first round against Xiyu Wang at Roland Garros on May 29, 2023. © Pierre René-Worms, France Médias Monde
Once again, the country's hopes rest largely on a woman, world number five Caroline Garcia, who beat China's Xiyu Wang in three sets on Monday (7-6, 4-6, 6-4), six months after her triumph at the WTA Masters in Fort Worth, Texas.
"Don't forget girls!" said Yannick Noah after his concert Saturday on the Roland-Garros Central. "Women have won victories. We should talk about that too."
The dream of a young talent
Among the new "Four Musketeers" who have dominated men's tennis over the past two decades, two of them recently retired, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon. The other two, Gaël Monfils and Richard Gasquet, are both 36 years old and not in the top 50 in the world.
The transition to a new generation has not been smooth. Ugo Humbert, 24, is currently the best French player, at 40th place, but his progress has stalled since he burst into the top 30 in 2021. The only other player in the top 50 is 34-year-old Adrien Mannarino.
A ranking that explains why no French is now seeded in singles at Roland-Garros, for the second consecutive year. As in recent editions, there may be no French in the second week of the Parisian tournament.
But with a promising new generation of players under 20, there is cause for hope. Since the beginning of the year, eight French players have won a Challenger Tour tournament, the springboard to the senior ATP circuit. That's more than any other country.
The prize goes to Luca Van Assche and Arthur Fils. The first, who turned 19 earlier this month, has already won two of these tournaments this year. The second, who is only 18 years old, made his ATP debut by winning the Lyon Open a few days before his first match at Roland Garros.
🎾 #RolandGarros | 🤩 BUT YES LUCA VAN ASSCHE 🇫🇷!
💥 What a match for the Frenchman born in 2004 who gets rid of the 2018 semi-finalist Marco Cecchinato 🇮🇹 in three sets! He's phenomenal!
▶ Follow the matches live on: https://t.co/QcnMbW4Uvz pic.twitter.com/KBNHb9hddw
— francetvsport (@francetvsport) May 29, 2023
However, they are not newcomers to Roland-Garros. In 2021, Luca Van Assche won the junior title at the Porte d'Auteuil by beating his friend... Arthur Fils in the final. For their first steps in the big leagues on Monday, they experienced opposite fates: the first won his game, not the second.
Arthur Fils was eliminated by Spain's Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, the No. 29 seed, in four sets (1-6, 6-4, 3-6, 3-6), while Luca Van Assche claimed an impressive three-set victory (6-1, 6-1, 6-4) against Italy's Marco Cecchinato, semi-finalist in 2018, carried by a delirious crowd.
"With the help of the public, it's always much easier for us, the French, to play here, it's always a huge strength, we are pushed from start to finish," Van Assche said after the match. He will again count on the public to try to avenge his buddy Arthur Jr. by facing the winner of the match, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, on Wednesday.
Among the 12 French players entered on Tuesday, only Diane Parry and Océane Dodin have so far cleared the hurdle of the first round. Not Fiona Ferro, Hugo Gaston, Selena Janicijevic, or Giovanni Mpetschi-Perricard.
This article was adapted from French by Barbara Gabel. The original can be found here.
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