French foursome remains fearsome
The latest generation of Frenchmen on the ATP Tour is unassailably gifted, but wildly unpredictable. While each has a tragic flaw, together they pack quite a collective punch.
In addition to his striking resemblance to Muhammad Ali, the 23-year-old Tsonga is the D'Artagnan of the group, a natural leader whose run to the Australian Open final last year may well have helped pave the way for the others' successes. "Since this moment, all the French players played better," Tsonga observed in his still-hesitant English. "So maybe, yeah."The spokesperson's role falls to the bright and articulate Simon, who is quick to break down their individual personalities. "We've all got different styles," he said. "Jo is very confident, always. That's his strength." "Gael is so amazing," said Simon, pausing for an adjective that captures Monfils' spectacular, acrobatic playing style and his zany personality.
"Richard, it's difficult for him because people are waiting for him to do something unbelievable every day. So it's hard for him, but he's a really nice guy," he finishes, putting his finger on the uber-talented but timid Gasquet.Simon, 24, demurs when it comes to describing himself: "Me? I don't know," but Monfils doesn't miss a beat. "Gilles laughs a lot, plays video games a lot, and he's very smart," Monfils said. Just like their literary equivalents, however, each has a tragic flaw keeping them from the upper reaches of the game. Tsonga's hoodoo is injury. He loves the big occasion and has the mindset of a champion, and his all-around attack is capable of annihilating any player, as Nadal discovered in three devastating sets here last year. But Tsonga has rarely enjoyed an extended period of uninterrupted play, being troubled by back injuries early in his career and a knee problem last season that kept him out for three months. There was another back scare at the Medibank International in Sydney last week, but Tsonga said he has been fine so far at the Australian Open. "I played without pain," he said. "I feel OK." The magic of last year is still in the air for him. "Exactly the same feeling, yeah," he smiled softly. "I play all the time well on this court. I hope I continue like that." Tsonga is the only one considered a real shot to win the whole thing, but the other three are more than capable of shaking up the tournament by taking out a top seed. Tsonga is in Andy Murray's quarter of the draw, while Gasquet, Monfils and Simon are in Nadal's section. Tag both Monfils and Gasquet as dangerous but unpredictable. Their talent holds crowds enthralled, but their tendency to play too far behind the baseline prevents their shots from being as effective as they could. Mentally, too, they are suspect. Next to Tsonga, Monfils has the biggest following in Melbourne. He is working with Lleyton Hewitt's Australian ex-coach Roger Rasheed, and many still remember his late-night pyrotechnics against Marcos Baghdatis two years ago. Australian television repeatedly replayed the overhead slow-motion shots of Monfils doing the splits while sliding on the baseline. "This is natural. I'm not, like, force myself to do this, so I'm really happy that most of the people like it," he said. But the hip-hop-obsessed Monfils, 22, has had trouble harnessing his game. He has gone through a half-dozen coaches in the past two years, none lasting more than six months. He has also been on-again, off-again with Team Lagardere, a French sports academy, which provides its players with access to facilities, coaches, agents, fitness trainers and medical personnel. With Rasheed now in his corner for six months, the hope is that Monfils has stabilized his team and can start delivering consistent performances. There is also cautious optimism around Gasquet. After a turbulent Davis Cup tie in April and a miserable clay season during which he struggled to win a match, the 22-year-old split with his longtime coach this spring and is now working with Guillaume Peyre, the former coach of Baghdatis. "I practice a lot in November and December, I feel sure I can reach the top 10 soon," Gasquet said. As Simon alluded, Gasquet has faced greater and longer pressure than any of his compatriots on tour. He famously graced the cover of a French tennis magazine at 9 years old, with the accompanying tagline "The champion France is waiting for?" All the expectations seemed justified when a 15-year-old Gasquet received a wild card into the qualifying of the Monte Carlo Masters and not only qualified for the event but won his first-round match, to boot. The first point Gasquet ever played on international television was a big serve and winning volley against Marat Safin in the second round. But he struggled with the pressure in subsequent years and was sometimes criticized for being soft. With three more young Frenchmen around to share the burden, perhaps he can now open up his shoulders and strike his magical one-handed backhand without fear.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.
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2009 AUSTRALIAN OPEN
Women's singles: Serena Williams, United States
Rafael Nadal, Spain
Men's doubles: Bob and Mike Bryan, United States
Women's doubles: Serena and Venus Williams, United States
Mixed doubles: Sania Mirza and Mahesh Bhupathi, India
Official scoreboard: Scores
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