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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tsonga and Simon lead French charge

Photo Titled Gilles Simon Gilles Simon
Perhaps the most frequently-aired sports statistic you will come across every summer in Britain is the number of years it has been since a British man won Wimbledon. With The Championships only days away, the number has crept up to 73, the huge gap since Fred Perry captured his third title in as many years back in 1936.

Much was made of the fact that Rafael Nadal's triumph last summer was the first by a Spanish player for 42 years — since Manolo Santana in 1966 — yet France, a nation rich in talent, labours under a Wimbledon record almost as dire as Britain's.

France once had a fearsome foursome known as the Musketeers back in the 1920s, they now boast talent in virtually battalion strength. The latest ATP rankings show four Frenchmen in the top 20, a dozen in the leading 100 and another ten ranked inside 200. In fact, France can boast 21 players with a higher ranking than the British number two, Alex Bogdanovic.

Yet this richness in numbers — testimony to their excellent coaching programmes — has brought France nothing but disappointment since Yannick Noah's epic Roland Garros victory in 1983. Certainly they have gone close at The Championships on several occasions since Yvon Petra, in 1946, became the last Frenchman to win here. So long ago was this, in fact, that Petra was the last man to win Wimbledon wearing long trousers.

Cedric Pioline remains the last Frenchman to reach a Wimbledon final, where he was destroyed in straight sets by Pete Sampras in 1997. The popular Sebastien Grosjean confounded the theory about Frenchmen not being able to play on grass by appearing in the semi-finals in successive years — 2003 and 2004. Once fourth in the world, Grosjean now labours down at 521 in the rankings. Richard Gasquet was also a semi-finalist two years ago but will be missing from the line-up this year pending investigation into an alleged drug offence.

The withdrawal on Thursday afternoon of Gael Monfils, the 14th seed, has robbed The Championships of a brilliant extrovert capable of exploding fireworks on court. Rated by other professionals as the fastest man around a tennis court (and rejoicing in the nickname of 'Sliderman') he was a semi-finalist at Roland Garros in 2008 and a quarter-finalist there two weeks ago — losing on both occasions to Roger Federer. To advance to the last eight this summer was a personal highlight, since he has been plagued by knee problems and forced to miss the clay court run-up to the French Open. But it was damage to his right hand, rather than knees, which wrecked Monfils' Wimbledon hopes. In his second round match at the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club, Monfils suffered the injury in a fall and withdrew first from that event and now, sadly, from Wimbledon itself.

So France's main hopes will be carried by Gilles Simon and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But those hopes need to be set in perspective. Simon has never been beyond Wimbledon's third round, while Tsonga, in his only appearance at The Championships two summers ago, went out in the fourth round.

While Simon's progress to seventh in the world has been steady rather than spectacular, Tsonga is capable of eye-catching stuff, whatever the surface. Runner-up at last year's Australian Open, he ended Andy Murray's hopes in the opening round and eliminated Gasquet and Nadal before bowing to Novak Djokovic — clear indication that there is more to come from this 24-year-old known in France as ‘The Kid’.

But those hoping to match, or even surpass, their leading compatriots are flooding forward — from the deeply experienced Fabrice Santoro (in what will be his 14th appearance at The Championships) and Arnaud Clement, a quarter-finalist last year and stepping up for his 13th consecutive Wimbledon, to the new sensation Josselin Ouanna, who has risen to 121 in the rankings on the strength of a victory over Marat Safin at Roland Garros.
And should they be in need of inspiration, these French males could do a lot worse than look to the French ladies. A certain Suzanne Lenglen was Wimbledon champion six times, but much more recently — in 2006 — Amelie Mauresmo showed them how it should, and could, be done.

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