French foursome of good-but-not-great favourites nears the end

June 6, 2021

It wasn’t just the ‘New Musketeers’ that struggled at Roland Garros this year; no French player – man or woman – reached the third round.

Just over a decade ago, four French men’s tennis players were dubbed the “New Musketeers.” Their names were Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gilles Simon, Gael Monfils. Dare it possible for this quartet to rival the achievements of their fabled predecessors, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Toto Brugnon, who’d dominated tennis in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and all earned spots in the International Tennis Hall of Fame?If such grand feats seemed a stretch, hopes were high that at least one of them would find the magic for one spectacular fortnight and become the first man from France to claim the singles title at Roland Garros since Yannick Noah went the distance in 1983. Gasquet, Tsonga and Monfils did won junior Grand Slam titles, and as pros, all four reached the Top 10, between them winning 57 ATP singles titles.

But when it came to their homeland major, these New Musketeers likely wrestle with appreciation for their efforts and dissatisfaction with their results. All for one and one for all? At Roland Garros, more like, all for morsels: two semis for Tsonga, one for Monfils, a single quarterfinal by Gasquet, three round-of-16 appearances by Simon.

All four have now been eliminated from this year’s tournament. Simon and Tsonga lost in the first round; Monfils went out one stage later. Fittingly, this year’s end of all their hopes happened close to midnight, Gasquet losing a second round match on a fan-free Court Philippe Chatrier to his rival since childhood, Rafael Nadal.

Richard Gasquet topped compatriot Hugo Gaston in the first round, but - and we’re not judging here - lost to straights to Rafael Nadal on Thursday.

Gael Monfils dropped a 6-0 set to Mikael Ymer in the second round, and could never fully recover, eventually falling in four.

Gilles Simon played just three sets at Roland Garros, against Marton Fucsovics, and all were lost.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took a first-round loss in singles, and a second-round loss in doubles.

Sizzling shots, zeal for competition and a passionate connection with the public are the attributes these Frenchmen have sought to bring when trying to win this demanding tournament. But perhaps such a fuel-burning effort has made the task too difficult. Noah’s ‘83 title run as sui generis as tennis gets. Successful Grand Slam campaigns are usually conducted by cool customers, tranquil assassins who briskly conduct business and harness their emotions, expending such energy only when it matters most. That was not Noah. Maybe, for these aspiring successors to the greats, Roland Garros demanded far too much output of body, mind and, most taxing of all, heart.

A fitting symbol of potential French ecstasy turned to agony came in 2013. Tsonga had beaten Roger Federer in the quarterfinals and was set to face David Ferrer late on Friday in the day’s second semifinal-a primetime, must-view opportunity for the entire nation. But the first match that day was an epic between Nadal and Novak Djokovic, a nearly five-hour long, tooth-and-nail battle won by Rafa, 9-7 in the fifth. Only an occupant of another planet would not have been drawn into, and possibly even drained by, that match’s great tennis and high drama.

By the time Tsonga and Ferrer entered the court, everyone from the crowd to even Tsonga felt flat, all parties challenged to generate the energy usually associated with a Roland Garros semi. A lethargic Tsonga lost the match, 6-1, 7-6 (3), 6-2.

Another Tsonga opportunity came the previous year. In the quarterfinals versus Djokovic, Tsonga led two sets to one. He was playing the kind of attacking, dynamic tennis that taken him to the Australian Open final in 2008. When Tsonga was in form like this, he gave hope of the shape of things to come: a bold new playing style that could rule the world-and, hopefully for the Parisian faithful, Roland Garros.

In the fourth set, Tsonga held four match points. But Djokovic, unsurpassed in escaping from these cliff-hangers, fought back, took the fourth in a tiebreaker and went on to easily win the fifth, 6-1.

While Tsonga’s finest Roland Garros moments were compressed into a few years, Monfils has proven compelling over a longer period. Back in 2006, at the age of 19, he won three straight five-setters, beating Andy Murray, Dick Norman and James Blake before losing in the round of 16 to another talented teenager, Djokovic. Two years later came a trip to the final four, ended only by Roger Federer. Given that Monfils was only 21 at the time, it seemed a sure thing he’d get at least that far again.

It was not to be. To be sure, Monfils has thrilled crowds again and again with his incredible mix of improvisational movement and remarkable shots. In 2010, he and Fabio Fognini created a masterpiece, Fognini rallying from two sets to love down to win, 9-7 in the fifth. The next year, Monfils beat Ferrer, 8-6 in the decider. And even this fortnight, Monfils dug deep to win his first round match versus Albert Ramos-Vinolas, 1-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-4.

Though Tsonga and Monfils generated frequent electricity at Roland Garros, Simon’s gestalt was far more acoustic. At heart, Simon was less championship contender than cult-like spoiler, his counterpunching game adept far more at issuing challenges than vanquishing the very best. But Simon too had a few fine moments in Paris, most notably in 2013, when he won five-setters versus Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Querrey to reach the round of 16. At that stage, versus Federer, Simon led two sets to one, only to drop the next two sets, 6-2, 6-3.

Gasquet is arguably the most mystifying of all four. At the age of nine, he was featured on the cover of a French tennis magazine. The year Gasquet turned 13, he defeated Nadal at a junior tournament:

In 2004, offering an appetizer of sorts, Gasquet partnered with his compatriot Tatiana Golovin to win the Roland Garros mixed doubles title. The next year, the 18-year-old Gasquet loudly announced himself to the big leagues when beat Federer in Monte Carlo, lighting up the court with his beautiful one-handed backhand, that shot the crown jewel of a game that would eventually take Gasquet to a career-high ranking of seventh in the world.

But at Roland Garros, Gasquet has often played the role of noble loser, his artistry withering in the face of physicality. Five years ago, his sole trip to the quarters was terminated by Andy Murray, a harshly revealing score of 5-7, 7-6 (3), 6-0, 6-2. Perhaps being anointed at such an early age is more burden than blessing-one can only imagine Toni Nadal’s adamant refusal to permit that kind of exposure for young Rafa.

Maybe, for these aspiring successors to the greats, Roland Garros demanded far too much output of body, mind and, most taxing of all, heart.

Just about anyone who’s ever picked up a racquet would be delighted to have accomplished as much as these four. But perhaps, when it comes to assessing their ups and downs at Roland Garros, each can draw solace from these words from Alexandre Dumas, author of the book, The Three Musketeers: “The merit of all things lies in their difficulty.”

“Of course it’s the end of an era,” said Gasquet following his match versus Nadal (even if he would get some of the ages wrong). “I’m 35. Tsonga is 36, Simon is 37, and Gael is 35. So it’s normal. We are still there. It’s incredible for us to play Roland Garros. Yeah, we need more players to come.

“But for us, you know, it’s even great to be there. Of course we are a great generation. I hope it will be the same for the French future.”

And maybe, just maybe, a bit more at Roland Garros. –

French foursome of good-but-not-great favourites nears the end