By Andrew Eccles
On Sunday, France was sad.
Okay, probably not all of France. I’m sure there were some people in Nice getting married, a few kids in Paris with new puppies and, most likely, a plethora of happy Federer fans dotted around the nation. But there was a small row of French men who were particularly sad. Saddest of all were Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga.
Objectively, these are three men with little to be sad about. They have, for many years, been the leaders among France’s considerable tennis talent. They have tasted great success – within certain limitations. They have shown great talent and, on their day, been able to beat the best in the game. They are very fortunate, wealthy young individuals. But, they’re also athletes. So the key phrase in this paragraph is “certain limitations”.
Let’s not be objective, because you can’t be when discussing the psychology of an athlete sitting near the top of the world. Athletes are seldom able to look at their own careers objectively, and rightly so: is there anything more frustrating than a player who says, “I’m happy where I am?” Even if Roger Federer said that, it would still be annoying.
So, that small row of downcast French men had plenty of reason to be sad. They had just lost a Davis Cup final on home soil, and were left surrounded by cruel drops of confetti – decorated in Swiss colors.
What made the pain worse was that they had, by their own admission, been treating the Davis Cup like a Grand Slam – the very pinnacle each individual has never quite managed to achieve. A comparable achievement? In this case, perhaps.
The collective struggle of the French contingent in the ATP is paradoxical, given how it is one of the strongest and most prolific national line ups over the last ten years. Even beyond those three, there is the obvious talent of Gilles Simon and, to lesser degrees, Julien Benneteau and Nicholas Mahut. The French do not have a weak field, yet they’ve never quite broken through.
This is probably an unfair question. The answer had been the same as it is for every other nation – strong field or otherwise:
If you weren’t Andy Murray or Juan Martin del Potro, then even trying to win a major had been a fool’s errand.
Though unexpected victors rose in 2014, none of the victorious “second line” were French. Tsonga was perhaps most surprisingly absent, as he has been the consistent feature, the man who has most vigorously waved the flag.
Tsonga did, of course, win Toronto, in one of the most out-of-context victories of 2014 – no small claim in a year that has thrown away any logical narrative. Tsonga’s 2014 was far from brilliant, with a number of surprising early losses to players like Benneteau, Santiago Giraldo and Marinko Matosovic. With his hard-hitting game and fiery personality, the former junior No. 1 is certainly talented enough to beat the very best, and he proved that once again by defeating Djokovic, Murray, Dimitrov and Federer in consecutive matches to take an impressive victory at the Canadian Open. But is that as far as he will ever go?
As cracks have appeared among the game’s elite, so too have they appeared in Tsonga’s game. Gone are the heady days of 2008, when he burst onto the scene by reaching the Australian Open final, which he lost to Djokovic in four sets for the Serb’s first major title. Tsonga achieved his career high of No. 5 in 2012, and that feels like a lifetime ago. The Tsonga of today has looked bored, lacking in confidence, unable to light the fire that once burned so ferociously on court.
In Canada, we saw a glimpse of what he once was, but at 29 he looks, well, tired.
Where Gasquet lacks in confidence, and Monfils lacks in concentration and consistency, Tsonga seems to lack timing. I don’t refer to his shots, which have great rhythm when he is on form, but to his form itself. Now is not the time for Tsonga to fade – he should be looking up the rankings and to see that he finally has the opening, the opportunity to push through. Maybe the pressure is too much, the muscles, too weary.
The French crowd, as is their wont, booed Tsonga as he stepped forward to receive his runners up trophy at the Davis Cup final. They booed his compatriots too, but their venom was focused squarely on the man who had been their best hope. They booed because he hadn’t played, because he had allowed Gasquet to lose the tie for them. They booed without concern for the arm that was too injured to swing a racquet.
And here’s where I think it’s hard for the French players. More than any tennis nation, the French are willing to switch from a cheer to a jeer at the first sign of weakness. We’ve seen it again and again, even aimed at Grand Slam victors like Mary Pierce, Marion Bartoli, and Amelie Mauresmo. Pressure is a privilege, yes. But doesn’t this uniquely French pressure make it that much harder to lift a trophy? Doesn’t it damage your motivation?
I’m not sure, but it can’t help.
All I’ll say is this: what we saw on Sunday was a line of heartbroken players, hanging their heads in shame before an angry crowd. They lost to a better team – it’s fine to feel disappointed, yes, but this is something else altogether.
Can they come back from this stinging loss? Will the experience make them raise their level? I did not see a line of men who ready to rise again. I saw a line of men with the weight of long years of effort firmly – and cruelly – on their shoulders.
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