Roland-Garros - French tennis in crisis: "The generational gap is worse than in the 1970s"

Roland-Garros – French tennis in crisis: “The generational gap is worse than in the 1970s”

There is no point in brooding before the start of hostilities. But it’s better to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This is the most appropriate state of mind to precisely understand the situation of tricolor tennis. An observation is worth more than a thousand developments: for the first time in the 21st century (and even since 1999), Roland-Garros does not count any French people (neither among the ladies nor among the gentlemen) among its top seeds in the singles tables . After nothingness from the 3rd round of the 2021 edition, the time is therefore not for blissful optimism.

At the beginning of the week, the sky darkened a little more with Gaël Monfils’ package. A single being is missing and everything is depopulated, said Lamartine. At the last Australian Open, they were even two in the quarter-finals with Alizé Cornet. But the Parisian like the Niçoise, representatives of a generation at the end of their career, were trees that hid the forest of very worrying overall results. Remember that no Blue (or Blue) had reached the second week in Grand Slam last year.

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On the ATP circuit, only one has been able to pull out of the game in this spring on earth, especially in Geneva (semi-final): Richard Gasquet and his 35 years (soon to be 36). “That Gasquet knows an upturn at 35 punctually if he has no physical problems, it is rather logical: he was still in the 10 best in the world, in the semis of Wimbledon and the US Open. The problem is that there would have to be some who push it out behind“, points out with lucidity our consultant Jean-Paul Loth.

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A challenge comparable to the refoundation of the beginning of the Open era

For the first time since 1971, there were no tricolor representatives in the table of the Masters 1000 in Rome. To find traces of such a state of crisis in French tennis, we must therefore go back to the famous 1970s, especially in their second half. At the time, the tree that hid the forest was called François Jauffret. Semi-finalist at Roland in 1974, he was also the last survivor in the round of 16 in 1975 and 1976. Then in 1977, the adventure had already ended a lap earlier for Patrice Dominguez and a certain Yannick Noah.

Faced with the beginnings of the Open era – that is to say the authorization given to professionals to participate in the biggest tournaments hitherto reserved for amateurs in 1968 -, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) had then completely overhauled its sports policy. National technical director from 1977, Jean-Paul Loth was one of the great craftsmen with the president of the FFT at the time, Philippe Chatrier.

We set out to restore all of its prestige to Roland-Garros, to make it a real Grand Slam tournament, and to conquer the Davis Cup and victories in the Majors. At the beginning, we had almost no means. And from 1977-1978, the Federation took its part in the training of players. As a DTN, I created tennis-studies, I inaugurated training scholarships so that kids could be trained permanently. We also created competition scholarships, so the efforts made by clubs and leagues were completed by the Federation.“, he testifies.

Yannick Noah with Patrice Beust and Pascal Portes during a tournament in Miami in December 1977

Credit: Getty Images

A regular renewal of talents until the 2000s

It took a while before there was a tremor. Players like the current president of the FFT Gilles Moretton (8th at Roland in 1979), Dominique Bedel (3rd round in 1979) or even Pascal Portes (3rd round also in 1980) have struggled to take over from Pierre Darmon , Pierre Barthès, Patrick Proisy and François Jauffret. Then, the long-awaited great champion arrived in the person of Yannick Noah.

Yannick ended up winning Roland in 1983, and I took the French team to the Davis Cup final against the United States in Grenoble. And then come Guy Forget and Henri Leconte. We trained players with our system until the years 2000-2005. There were always about ten, dozen players in the 100, and with leaders at one point in the Top 10: Cédric Pioline, Sébastien Grosjean, Arnaud Clément then the Gasquets, Monfils, Tsonga and Simon“, recalls Lot.

To date, French men’s tennis still produces a certain density. This week, nine Blues are in the Top 100, Quentin Halys being the very last to enter this elite thanks to his recent good results in Challengers. But when we take a closer look at the ranking, one thing is clear: there are only two left in the top 50 (Monfils 22nd and Ugo Humbert 45th) and there are no more in the Top 20.

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A question of generation but also of values?

France is certainly no exception: many countries have experienced desert crossings. Before its recent revival in the 2010s with Fabio Fognini, Matteo Berrettini, Jannik Sinner or Lorenzo Musetti, Italy had eaten its black bread since the coronation of Adriano Panatta at Roland (1976). If German tennis can now count on Alexander Zverev, he was not proud either after the retirements of Boris Becker and Michael Stich.

So goes the whim of generational waves. But Jean-Paul Loth still points to a responsibility of the Federation in the 2010s. “It is the failure of a system. At one point, we gave a little too much to potential future players for them to completely make the effort to succeed at the highest level. Then, we removed tennis-studies considering that everything had to happen through the club and the parents. But neither the clubs nor the parents have the means to follow a player during the 7 or 8 years of his training..”

In short, the balance is difficult to find between the desire to put young people with high potential in the best conditions and the danger of too much comfort incompatible with the rigors of high level. “The hole is worse than in the 1970s. What is comforting is that we now have at the head of the house a former player who knows what he is talking about. But when you’ve lost part of the mindset and discipline, which it means to fully engage in a sport with respect for people, things and sporting principles, you have to hang on to get it back.“, warns Lot again.

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Take inspiration from Gaston: we have a hole yes, but we have to fight to get out of it

In the short term, it will be necessary to do with the means at hand. One thing is certain, however: this Roland-Garros will not take place in indifference on the French side. Because it will also be a question of paying tribute to a prolific generation on the start at the start of the tournament. Respectively opposed to Casper Ruud and Pablo Carreno Busta in the 1st round, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon will strike their last racket shots on the Parisian ochre. Emotion and thrills guaranteed.

As for the others, what can they aim for? A 3rd round would already be a great performance. In the event of a second week, we would be close to a feat. “Whether for men or women, succeeding at Roland would simply mean fighting like dogs on all points, in all sets and in all matches.insists our consultant. If it smiles, it would be to win a few. But above all it would be to show that they are not afraid of anything. We must take inspiration from what Gaston did against Thiem a year and a half ago. He did not have a priori the level to compete and he had a titanic match. We have a hole yes, but we have to fight to get out of it.”

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