Commentary

An exciting time for French contingent

Updated: May 31, 2009, 2:06 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Jo-Wilfried TsongaMatthew Stockman/Getty ImagesJo-Wilfried Tsonga bears the charisma that matches his dynamic on-court game.

PARIS -- What took place at Roland Garros on Saturday afternoon, as two childhood friends and sons of France won their matches on the show courts that anchor each end of the grounds, represented delayed gratification in many ways.

Gael Monfils thumped his chest and crossed himself, his eyes round and fierce, after defeating Austria's Jurgen Melzer in four sets. Less than an hour later, waves of appreciative applause washed over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after he cracked an ace to finish off Christophe Rochus of Belgium in a mere 84 minutes. Tsonga lifted both fists in his usual boxer's pose, but kept his celebration restrained as befitted the anticlimactic nature of the match.

France has three men in the top 10, nine in the top 50, and two marquee players alive in the men's draw for the second week of the French Open. That may not sound surprising except that clay has been as much of a downfall for the French, who haven't seen a homegrown champion since Yannick Noah in 1983, as it is for the other three Grand Slam nations. "The serious stuff starts now,'' said an obviously pleased Guy Forget, the French Davis Cup captain.

Tsonga hadn't played at Roland Garros for four long years due to either low ranking or injury. In that time, he has metamorphosed from a gimpy unknown with uncertain prospects to one of the most dynamic celebrities in the game, reaching the finals of the Australian Open and winning an emotional title in the indoor Masters Series event played in the Paris suburb of Bercy.

Yet nothing matters more to a French player than playing well here, and coming into this French Open, few would have predicted Tsonga was poised to make a run even though he was seeded ninth. This is only the eighth clay-court event that Tsonga has played at the elite level, for a total of 13 matches. Imagine driving a powerful Formula One car on a gravel road, and you have some idea of how Tsonga's game has often translated to dirt: Bumpy, with a chance of flats.

Before his first match, the French sports daily L'Equipe made Tsonga its cover boy with a caption that read: "This won't be easy for a guy of whom the French public demands so much without really knowing what his potential is on clay.''

Although the 24-year-old Tsonga's success and charisma have made him the unofficial leader of the French contingent, it was the animated Monfils, younger by a year and a half, who led the way here by fighting his way to the 2008 semifinals.

Tsonga also said he has drawn inspiration from yet another member of France's best generation in, well, a generation, since Forget, Henri Leconte and Noah. That would be the somewhat less gregarious but utterly engaging Josselin Ouanna, a 23-year old with the slender build of a point guard who progressed more slowly than his mates and is currently ranked No. 134. Ouanna took full advantage of his wild-card invitation, electrifying the fans by winning back-to-back five-set matches, the second against aging icon Marat Safin.

[+] EnlargeJosselin Ouanna
Ryan Pierse/Getty ImagesJosselin Ouanna upset Marat Safin in a spectacular five-set match in the second round.
"I told myself I needed to be like [Ouanna] on the court,'' Tsonga said earlier this week. "I need to enjoy it, and I need to go for it.'' He did so against Argentine clay-court specialist Juan Monaco in the second round, playing an adrenalized tiebreaker in the fourth set to close out what Tsonga called the best match he's ever played on the surface. It came at a great time, to say the least -- Tsonga said Monaco congratulated him at the net for playing so well in front of his adoring public.

Roger Rasheed, Monfils' coach, said he's not surprised that the French developmental system, where No. 9 Tsonga, No. 10 Monfils, Ouanna and elfin No. 7 Gilles Simon (who was upset in the third round partly due to being troubled by a knee injury) all learned the game, has produced such a special crop.

"It's basically a numbers game,'' said Rasheed, an Australian previously best known for coaching former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. "They have so many people playing here. Chances are that if I can put that many people on the court, that many kids playing tennis, and good athletes, not second-class athletes -- then there's a fair chance you're going to create some tennis players. In America it's been like Australia, the best athletes play basketball and football and baseball because that's the limelight, that's what's in the papers every day.

"What happens is that these juniors push each other. It's like a big beehive, and it's moving together to the next pot of honey. If my mate's [ranked] 20 spots higher, I'll chase him, because I can beat him. It's an 'I'll-catch-you' mentality in a very sort of friendly way, but also an aggressive way.''

Tsonga, Monfils and Ouanna, born within a 17-month span, all worked with the same developmental coach, Olivier Delaitre. He called them "perfect students'' who "loved competition, loved the show. Gael maybe a little more than the others. He never stops talking, he'll talk to anyone. I spent weeks on end with them and I can assure you I was never bored.''

It looked as if Monfils' bid to go deep again here might be hampered by severe tendinitis in one knee that limited his clay-court action leading up to the French Open. But he seems to be getting looser and looser as the tournament progresses and will present a formidable opponent for Andy Roddick in the fourth round.

Tsonga next takes on fifth-seeded Juan Martin Del Potro, one of the few players on tour who can match Tsonga's physical stature and power. His coach, Eric Winogradsky, who said Tsonga "worked like an insane man" to try to find his clay feet in the weeks leading up to the tournament, tabbed Tsonga as a distinct underdog. "He knows it's going to be a huge fight, and he loves that," the coach said. "Del Potro is steady, and it's hard to move him around. He moves well for a big guy." The Argentine also is somewhat more experienced and adept on clay, though it's not his best surface. But Tsonga, with a third player on his side in the form of the folks in the seats, assessed his prospects calmly.

"I'm never satisfied, as I said before the tournament started," he said. "When some people thought I would never be able to have such results on clay, many people asked me that question. They said, 'What's your objective? What would be good for you? Would you be satisfied reaching the round of 16, quarterfinals?' And I think, well, why not the final? That would be good. So I do my best, and then I'll see what happens."

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.