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Friday, May 30, 2008
How far can the French fly?


It wasn't exactly Barack Obama-grade hope, but during the first week at Roland Garros, the U.S. men -- sans Andy Roddick, who missed the second Grand Slam of the year with a right shoulder injury -- gave American fans plenty of reasons to feel optimistic.

There was James Blake, the U.S. No. 2 and the No. 7 seed, grinding out a solid, promising first-round win over German player Rainer Schuettler. How about Bobby Reynolds' toughing one against French entry and crowd favorite Thierry Ascione? Mardy Fish took out Argentinean clay dog Agustin Calleri in Round 1, and Robby Ginepri and Wayne Odesnik managed to survive, as well. Not too bad, you might have thought.

Then the U.S. contingent got really lucky: It rained. It rained frequently enough to ensure that the first-round American winners survived for at least an extra day, creating the illusion that Hey, we're in it to win it!. Wrong. By the end of Thursday's play, the only Americans left to battle in Round 3 were Odesnik and Ginepri.

All this might be cause for another round of weeping and gnashing of teeth, but during the French Open, the fan of any tennis nation can usually find comfort in checking out how the French are doing. For they routinely stink the joint out. However, it might be different this year. So far, the French have put four players into the third round: Gael Monfils, Jeremy Chardy, Michael Llodra and Paul-Henri Mathieu. Two others, Julien Benneteau and Florent Serra, will play their second-round matches on Friday, and both have winnable matches. Could this be the year the French penetrate the draw and have an impact in the later rounds of their home tournament?

It isn't out of the question, although you'd have to be insane to predict a French winner, or even a French finalist, especially with the rivalry between Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic going full steam. But let's go all John Lennon here and "Imagine."

Monfils has a third-round gift in Jurgen Melzer, the German who's never been past this stage in five Roland Garros appearances. Of course, Monfils is exactly the kind of guy who's apt to blow up and play the dumbest match in history against Melzer. But apart from that caveat, you have to like this rangy, powerful athlete's chances.

Chardy took out David Nalbandian in perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament thus far, and while Dmitry Tursunov can get hot and is always flashy, he's also moody. This is a great chance for the young Frenchman who has already equaled his best performance in three previous trips to Roland Garros. Mathieu and Llodra are players who drive their native fans and press mad, but Mathieu gets Eduardo Schwank and Llodra gets Italy's Simone Bolelli. Benneteau and Serra have winnable second-round matchups.

I'm not sure you could pick six players from any nation better positioned to make a run through the luck of the draw; there isn't a Nadal or Federer on the near horizon for any of them. Sure, Monfils might get Nikolay Davydenko in Round 4, but anybody who would complain about that isn't living in the real world.

Given the draw, a reasonable fan might expect to see two, maybe three, Frenchmen in the quarterfinals -- in addition to promising matchups, the French contingent is nicely sprinkled throughout the draw. Let's see if pigs really can fly.