Commentary

Roddick's French ties go beyond tennis

Originally Published: May 27, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Andy RoddickClive Brunskill/Getty ImagesAndy Roddick has cultivated a strong relationship with various French companies.

PARIS -- Top-ranked American Andy Roddick and veteran Frenchman Sebastien Grosjean first crossed paths in Boca Raton, Fla., nearly a decade ago and have stayed pals. They make a point of attending each other's charity events. A few days ago, Roddick showed up for a dinner in Paris benefiting Grosjean's foundation, which raises money for rare childhood diseases, and was introduced as "the most French of all the American players."

That might seem an incongruous label for an athlete who by all appearances is the prototypical, ballcap-tugging, American gunslinger, defined by firepower, obstinate self-belief, fierce desire and a rabid interest in college hoops and football.

Yet Roddick, through a series of building-block coincidences, is entering his late 20s backed by a trio of formidable French companies: Babolat (racket and shoes), Lacoste (apparel) and the Lagardere conglomerate, a many-tentacled octopus where he and his agent Ken Meyerson jointly migrated in a deal consummated last month. Roddick's first coach, Tarik Benhabiles, was a Frenchman, and a French player Roddick befriended in his junior days would later prove to be an important business liaison.

The obvious irony is that the French Open is the major where Roddick's ambitions have gone to die, buried in a red dust storm. He's reached at least the semifinals of every other Grand Slam but has advanced to the third round here only once, on his first try in 2001.

Boxy, intimate Suzanne Lenglen Stadium, second in the pecking order at Roland Garros, has been a pit filled with quicksand for Roddick. He had never won a match there until Monday's first-round victory over young French wild card Romain Jouan and now is 5-7 here lifetime.

With his usual straightforwardness, Roddick said he'll need more than commercial appeal to establish a strong connection with French fans.

"I think affinity is built through success, and I certainly haven't had much here," Roddick said. "I think it will take a lot more than associating with French brands or endorsement deals. But that being said, I would love to do well here because of that."

He might be selling himself a bit short. Philippe Bouin, lead tennis writer for the French sports daily L'Equipe, said Roddick doesn't have the highest of profiles here but is appreciated by hard-core tennis fans who are tired of their own players' insecurities.

"He's very intelligent and curious about things," Bouin said. "I think the fact that he chose [Benhabiles] as his first coach shows that he's not prejudiced about things, he has an open spirit. I love talking to him even when he's in a bad mood. He gets furious when he loses, which I regard as a very respectable emotion."

It was Benhabiles who made the Babolat connection for Roddick through a friend at the company when Roddick was an unknown junior. Ten years later, the company's booth on the Roland Garros grounds features not a French player, but a larger-than-life poster that depicts Roddick blowing smoke off his racket like a satisfied cowboy.

Meyerson, a Francophile who grew up in Montreal and Miami and taught tennis at a club in southern France for several years, said his familiarity with the culture was a factor in the Lacoste deal Roddick signed in 2005, defecting from Reebok. But Roddick would have appealed to Lacoste in any case, the agent said. The late Bernard Lacoste, a Princeton graduate who ran its operations from 1963 to 2005, wanted Roddick to serve as a "bridge" to help the quintessentially French company's marketing in North America and Asia, Meyerson said.

Julien Cassaigne, a former top French junior who worked for Lacoste at the time, was raised in Florida and has known Roddick since their 12-and-under days. Cassaigne went on to work for Lagardere, whose corporate arms include publishing, retail, aviation manufacturing and a sporting group that nurtures French tennis talent. He introduced Roddick to CEO Arnaud Lagardere at a ATP tournament in Lyon, France, this past fall, setting in motion a series of events that led to Meyerson becoming president of a new management arm, Lagardere Unlimited, and Roddick joining the company's stable of athletes.

"I asked Arnaud Lagardere to look at who Andy is off the court, his foundation [which raises money for abused and disadvantaged children], the way he treats people," Cassaigne said. "I thought he would be a great ambassador for the brand."

It would be icing on the patisserie if Roddick could make a run at the French Open. As he's pointed out in the past, his career record on clay is quite respectable if one subtracts Roland Garros. He has won five clay-court tournaments and was 68-35 on clay coming into this tournament.

"Obviously, I know there is more of a ceiling at this event for me probably than any other event as far as what I'm going to have to do with my game and the limits that it puts on my style sometimes," Roddick said. "I'd like to make a second week here. I feel that's a feasible goal and something that I'm surprised I haven't done to this point in my career."

[+] EnlargeAndy Roddick
Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty ImagesRoddick has not advanced past the second round of the French Open since his debut in 2001.

Roddick's draw is no cakewalk, but it's relatively favorable. Next up is the Czech Republic's 85th-ranked Ivo Minar, who would be followed by another unseeded player. France's flexible flier Gael Monfils, the 11th seed and a potential fourth-round opponent, has severe patellar tendinitis and wouldn't be 100 percent physically. The plot would thicken in the quarterfinals, which are likely to involve Roger Federer.

The week after the French Open, Roddick will be competing at the AEGON (Queens Club) Championships on grass in London, a tournament he has won four times. He'll also be taking one of the most expensive tennis clinics of his career -- $7,000 for two hours, the amount Roddick donated to Grosjean's foundation for the privilege.

It might seem appropriate for Grosjean to give him French lessons instead. Grosjean grinned at the suggestion. "Andy knows one French word -- this," Grosjean said, then expelled a breath through his lips in the horsey sound that is the universally recognized Gallic expression of disgust. Roddick hopes his game translates to Roland Garros better than that in 2009.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.