Tough to be French at the French Open

It's been 24 years since a Frenchman won the French Open. Barring some major upsets in the next two weeks, that drought likely is going to continue for at least one more year, writes Greg Garber.

Updated: May 28, 2007, 1:53 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Pressure exists in all forms of athletics, but it is particularly acute in individual sports. When an athlete performing at home carries the hopes of a nation in an event of global proportion, well, that can be lethal.

Sure, England's Tim Henman is 0-for-13 at Wimbledon and Australia's Lleyton Hewitt is 0-for-10 at the Australian Open, but the pressure here at Roland Garros is hard to imagine.

Richard Gasquet
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty ImagesDespite being just 20 years old, Richard Gasquet is competing in his sixth French Open.

Every story has a title. This one: The Incredible Burden of Being (French at the French Open). Just ask Richard Gasquet, the highest-seeded (No. 11) French player this year.

"We all have the same expectations," Gasquet said. "We want to please the crowd. But I don't believe I have more pressure than any other French player."

It's a nice little sentiment, but probably not true. With all due respect to Amelie Mauresmo -- who is riding an infamous 0-for-12 streak at Roland Garros -- Gasquet has the best chance for a series of crowd-pleasing performances. Trouble is, with rain washing out most of the schedule on Monday, he will have another 24 hours to ponder his match with countryman Nicolas Mahut.

A total of 22 French players were scheduled to play on Monday and the two that managed to get their matches in, No. 31 seed Severine Bremond and Alize Cornet, both lost. If the red-clay courts ever dry out, eventually they will be joined by their compatriots as so much French Toast.

Eli Weinstein of the French Tennis Federation's information office, tried to put the event in a context an American could understand.

"It's like winning the World Cup -- the World Series in America, maybe," Weinstein said. "A Frenchman winning the French, that's huge. It's the front page of every newspaper, the lead story of every broadcast."

Mary Pierce, who was born in Montreal plays under the French flag. She was embraced (naturally) by the title-deprived populace when she won at Roland Garros in 2000, but her less-than-perfect French was widely critiqued. The last French-born woman to win here was Francoise Durr, 40 years ago.

The most recent epic moment for a Frenchman in Paris was 1983, when Yannick Noah, a 23-year-old from Sedan, stunned Mats Wilander in a straight-sets final. For Noah, the tide of nationalism was a positive force; he would play in 37 Grand Slam events during his career, and it was the only time he progressed past the semifinals.

Santoro seeks Slam history

PARIS -- At 34, he is the second-oldest man in the draw. In his 19 years in professional tennis, he has been the portrait of consistency, forging a career record of 422-398 and 56-58 in Grand Slams.

He may not have the tennis Q factor of a Jimmy Connors or an Ivan Lendl, but France's Fabrice Santoro is headed for history.

This year's French Open marks the 59th Grand Slam event for the diminutive shot-maker. That's No. 2 on the all-time list behind Andre Agassi. Barring injury, Santoro will tie Agassi by appearing at Wimbledon and in the U.S. Open -- something his ranking of No. 55 should allow.

He made his major debut as a wild card here in 1989 and has, gradually, piled up the appearances. Santoro has also played in 35 consecutive Grand Slams, going back to the 1998 U.S. Open, the seventh-longest streak ever.

Santoro doesn't have any particularly troubling weapons, but he's speedy and clever. Improbably, he reached the quarters of the Australian Open last year -- his best Grand Slam singles result ever. In the '04 French Open, he outlasted countryman Arnaud Clement in a first-round match (6-4, 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 16-14) that consumed 6 hours and 33 minutes. It is the longest known match in men's history.

Another day of rain meant Santoro will have to wait until Tuesday to officially close to within two of Agassi's mark. Santoro's match against No. 18 seed Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina was postponed on Monday.

-- Greg Garber

To this day, Noah is revered -- along with Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini -- among the most cherished of French athletes. He is a major pop star, but in America he is better known as the father of the Florida Gators' Joakim Noah.

"Basically," Weinstein said, "Yannick Noah is a sort of Michael Jordan. What he did was that important.

"It's not just the fact that people want [the French players] to win so badly, it's that it has been such a long time. It's been 24 years since Noah won here -- that's nearly a quarter century."

On the day that Noah won in Paris, a 3-year-old girl in St. Germains en Laye watched the match with her parents on television.

"He seemed so happy," Mauresmo remembered. "I told myself I wanted to do the same thing."

Out in the garden, she imitated Noah's strokes. But, of course, it wasn't that simple.

Even though she grew up on clay, the slow surface negates the power that informs her game. During her career, Mauresmo's annual meltdowns at Roland Garros have cast her as a tragic heroine. Last year, after she broke through with her first-ever Grand Slam victory in the Australian Open, the French ached for a different result in Paris for the top seed and the No. 1-ranked player in the world. Mauresmo won the first set against Nicole Vaidisova -- who she had ruined 6-1, 6-1 on the way to the Australian Open title -- then, inexplicably, lost the next two sets, 6-1, 6-2.

Contrast that with her performance a month later at the All England Club. Mauresmo defeated the mentally-tough Justin Henin in the Wimbledon final, putting to bed forever the "choker" epitaph that had dogged her.

"It's just great to be able to hold the trophy," Mauresmo said after winning the final. "I wanted it badly, and I don't want anyone to talk about my nerves anymore."

Of course, those discussions will return if the No. 5 seed doesn't show well at the French Open. Mauresmo might actually have a better chance this year than usual, since expectations are quite low following surgery to remove her appendix six weeks ago. She reached the final last week in Strasbourg, France, and seems to be flying under the radar here.

Gasquet has never flown under the radar in France.

He was on the cover of French Tennis magazine at the age of 9 and was the Roland Garros junior boys champion in 2002. That same year -- at 15 years, 11 months -- he accepted a wild card and became the second youngest player ever to compete in the men's draw. Gasquet, three weeks shy of his 21st birthday, has worked his way steadily up the ladder and is currently ranked No. 13.

Gael Monfils, the 2004 French Open boys champion, was born in Paris. At 20, he has yet to fulfill his earlier promise. He reached the fourth round a year ago (beating James Blake), but his ranking, as high as No. 23 a year ago, has fallen to No. 75. Monfils had lost 10 of 13 matches before reaching the final last week in Portschach, Austria, beating No. 3-ranked Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals.

For Gasquet -- as with all the French players -- expectations are low.

"I try to think round after round," Gasquet said. "There are so many matches to play. If I could reach the second week, it wouldn't be too bad."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.