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Monfils' Paris Masters run evokes creative essence of French tennis
As always, it was a matter of style. Gael Monfils plays to win, naturally, but he also plays to entertain, to dazzle, to perform in the truest sense. As much as Robin Soderling needed a victory to join the list of this year's significant performances, the Paris Masters was mostly about Monfils, who stormed past Fernando Verdasco, Andy Murray and then Roger Federer in his march to the finals.
It was a treat to witness, via the Tennis Channel, a joy to behold. And as Monfils dismantled that fine Swiss machinery known as Federer's game, I wondered (not for the first time): Where would we be without the French?
Quickly comes the cynic: "We'd be right here, pal. What else you got?"
But wait; just hold on a second. I won't argue that the sport of tennis would survive unscathed without French influence, particularly in modern times. Over the course of recent years, how many of their players have really come through when it counts? That's not the argument, though. For me, so much of tennis is about flair, a bit of wit and whimsy, the element of character. In that realm, the French are unsurpassed. Come to think of it, no other country even comes close.
Just for starters, the French invented tennis style. To quote Bud Collins on the great Suzanne Lenglen, who burst onto the scene in the early 1920s: "In the days of ground-length tennis dresses, Lenglen played at Wimbledon with her dress cut just above the calf. She wept openly during matches, pouted and sipped brandy between sets. Some called her shocking and indecent, but she was merely ahead of her time. She became easily the greatest drawing card tennis had known. Along with a magnetic personality, personality, grace and style, she was the best woman player the world had seen."
And let me just say that any time a player stops for a sip of brandy in mid-match, I'm right there with a refill on request.
In a splendid bit of historical symmetry, the fabled "Musketeers" happened to be the mainstays of French men's tennis during Lenglen's time. Henri Cochet was a magician on court, a mastery of timing and finesse, and he ended Bill Tilden's six-year, 42-match winning streak at the U.S. Championships in 1926. Rene Lacoste was more of a self-made player, relying on smart-money tactics and supreme knowledge of the opposition. Jean Borotra was a dashing, cosmopolitan sort who enlivened every party and carved out more than his share of history on court. Together, the trio won every French title between 1925 and 1932; three more at the U.S. Championships, and an astounding six straight Wimbledon titles between 1924 and '29, in addition to countless heroics in Davis Cup competition.
(There was a fourth Musketeer, Jacques Brugnon, somewhat diminished in the historical context because his greatest accomplishments were in doubles.)
In his book, Behind the Scenes at Wimbledon, former Wimbledon secretary Duncan Macaulay wrote, "They were all very different in style and temperament, and they sometimes clashed bitterly with one another on the courts. But whenever they were playing for France, they always put France first. Thus it was the combined pressure of Lacoste and Cochet which began to rock the great Bill Tilden on his pedestal and finally toppled him off it."
It was difficult to match the Roaring Twenties for essential French panache, and a titanic lull ensued, but in the years I've been following tennis, the French have constantly been at the top of my must-watch list. At my very first Wimbledon, 1987, I had the pleasure of watching Henri Leconte -- nutty showman, pure shotmaker, consummate entertainer -- dispatch the young Andre Agassi with such authority, Agassi went into a shell-shocked Wimbledon retreat for a spell.
After a few go-rounds watching Yannick Noah play the majors, I happily latched onto his mystique. I'll never forget one of my female friends, sometime in the early 80s, saying, "With this guy, I don't even care if he wins or loses. I just like watching him. He's so cool." It was a great moment for mankind when Noah won the 1983 French Open -- thus becoming the first French man to win the singles title since 1946 -- and the cosmopolitan community rejoiced when Noah danced so joyously around the court after captaining the 1991 French Davis Cup team to a stunning upset over the United States.
It goes on, always with a nod to aesthetics. Richard Gasquet may be a total flake (cocaine kiss, my shoe), but his one-hand backhand is a thing of majestic beauty. I've seen few athletes more formidable in women's tennis than Amelie Mauresmo, who had great courage and humility to match. In an era of dreadfully tedious baseliners, she played the game in the manner it was designed: with imagination, with a sense of risk, and with pure elegance. Fabrice Santoro, who recently retired from the men's tour, had roughly 16 shot variations at his disposal each time he addressed the ball; such was the endless well of his arsenal. And we should never forget Michael Llodra, a whimsical sort (he once climbed naked into Ivan Ljubicic's locker, just for the delightful element of surprise) whose serve-and-volley attack was such a refreshing tonic to baseline monotony all year.
Monfils definitely belongs in a French category all his own. He attempts shots that are clearly beyond reason. He contorts his body into positions that leave him more stifled than a mummy. But as we watch him, we see the work in progress: the wild colt being tamed, the brazen rebel gaining a sense of purpose. There aren't many players who combine world-class serving and baseline power with imagination and defensive brilliance, and that's what carried Monfils to his 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 victory over Federer last Saturday, fighting off five match points in the process.
In the end, the Paris Masters' chief storyline may have been Federer, trapped in a year-long (if sporadic) malaise of botched forehands and blown match points. It was the rugged endurance of Soderling, and the fact that Monfils, standing on the precipice of a career moment, simply ran out of steam. Ask the Parisians, though, what this tournament was about. It was about a long, lanky, wild-haired local favorite, a man whose creative performances represented the essence of French tennis and its great tradition. Such memories tend to linger.