The Future of French Tennis

By Nick Carter

The future of French tennis is not a subject often covered by English speaking media. This is for obvious reasons, our focus is usually on our home players, be they American, Canadian, British or Australian. Everyone has been raving about the Spanish tennis system for years now due to them consistently producing top ten level talents, and of course superstars such as Rafael Nadal and Garbiñe Muguruza. Italian tennis has been talked about more in recent years thanks to the emergence of big talents such as Matteo Berrettini, Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti. Usually around Roland Garros, the topic of French tennis usually comes up.

For many years, British tennis was seen as in the poorest state out of the nations that hosted major championships. The players produced by the LTA system didn’t really set the tennis world on fire. Then, Andy Murray came along and whilst he and his mother didn’t take the route through the official British system, they inspired the tennis establishment to get their act together. Now, Emma Raducanu has emerged as a super talent nurtured by the LTA with Jack Draper waiting in the wings to emerge in the men’s game. Cameron Norrie and Dan Evans have had a late boost to their careers, with Norrie in particular demonstrating himself as a solid top twenty player and a man who can compete with the best in the world. Harriet Dart also seems to be about to show how good she really is. Then of course, we have the British men’s doubles players, with Joe Salisbury, Neal Skupski and Jamie Murray all ranked as amongst the very best in the discipline. 

Today’s results at Roland-Garros mostly demonstrated this. Whilst it wasn’t a good day for Dart or main-draw fixture Heather Watson, there were wins for Raducanu, Norrie and Evans. All these victories were positive from a British perspective. Norrie and Evans won straightforwardly, and though Raducanu had more of a battle, the way she dug herself out of the hole of being a set and a break down to the fiery talent of Linda Noskova was another important piece of experience for her. Speaking of the future of tennis, Noskova’s performance in that two hour, 37-minute epic will have her on most tennis fans’ radar for the next few years. Raducanu wasn’t the only player to pull off an epic comeback, as other former U.S. Open champions Bianca Andreescu and Angelique Kerber came from a set down to reach the second round. Kerber was arguably the most impressive as she saved match points in her battle with Magdalena Fręch, one with a cold-blooded drop shot winner. It was Kerber’s second marathon three setter in as many days, following her triumph in the Strasbourg final (I suspect Owen may end up writing something about her at some point). 

Back to the French – with a recent Australian champion in Melbourne (Ash Barty this year), a British champion in London (Andy Murray in 2013 and 2016), and an American champion in New York (Sloane Stephens in 2017), France is the nation with the longest wait for a home major champion. By contrast, the last French women’s singles champion at Roland-Garros was Mary Pierce in 2000. On the ATP side, you have to go back to 1983, when Yannick Noah won his only title. Even if you take slams as a whole, the most recent Australian, British and American singles champions all came this decade. It’s been nearly nine years since Marion Bartoli won Wimbledon. The French have had recent doubles success with Nicolas Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert but no one seems to be ready to follow in their footsteps. In women’s doubles they only have two players ranked in the top 100 (although Britain has a similar record and a much longer wait for major success in women’s doubles by comparison). 

This is a conversation that French tennis is revisiting as their ‘Golden Generation’ in the men’s game are set to retire. Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon all reached the top ten in their careers, and three of them reached major semifinals. Tsonga was the closest to actually lifting a major trophy as he reached the 2008 Australian Open final and showed he had the talent when he won the 2014 Toronto Masters, but he didn’t manage to quite produce the required level on the biggest stage. Baseline Media did an excellent video about how their relative underperformance (relative by comparison to the old ‘Big Four’ of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray) and the issues that this highlights for French tennis.

That being said, the French still produce a great breadth of talent, with 27 players taking part in the singles main draws at Roland-Garros this year. This is far more than the British have been able to get into Wimbledon in years. As of day two, with half of the first round still left to be played, half of those French players that have taken to the court have won. The French system produces talented players, but when will it produce its next world beater?

It’s been thought that they might find big success in the women’s game. In 2017 Kristina Mladenovic and Caroline Garcia got some big results but couldn’t sustain such form beyond that season. Fiona Ferro caught many people’s eyes at Roland-Garros in 2020 but has faded a bit since. In the men’s game, whilst players like Benjamin Bonzi and Corentin Moutet have raised eyebrows with some decent showings on the challenger level, they are not setting the world alight despite being in their prime. Hugo Gaston, another French player who made a big splash in 2020, is probably France’s big ‘NextGen’ talent, but is proving to be woefully inconsistent despite his spectacular highs. He’s certainly paling in comparison to Carlos Alcaraz (though he did beat the freak of nature in Paris last year), who, along with Sinner, looks to be the only player with the potential to be anywhere close to the talent of Djokovic and Nadal. Both these former champions won today, and comfortably in the end despite some challenges in their opening sets. 

Today at Roland-Garros, there might be a glimmer of hope that French tennis has two stars of the future in the women’s game. Two nineteen-year-olds managed to get some big wins. Elsa Jacquemot took down the experienced Heather Watson in straight sets, which is a significant moment for the wildcard currently ranked outside the top 200. The bigger headline was Diane Parry, who upset the number two seed and defending champion Barbora Krejčíková. Some could say that this wasn’t that impressive given this was the Czech’s first match back since February, but that doesn’t do justice to what happened in the match. Krejčíková started way better than Parry, winning the first set 6-1 and seemingly confirming she belonged on the list of top contenders for the tournament. Owen even sent this now-unfortunate tweet. However, Parry steadied herself and came from a break down in the second set to level the match. Krejčíková fought hard but became increasingly erratic, her match rustiness coming into play by the end. Parry never counted herself out and wowed many with her powerful forehand and single-handed backhand, a shot noticeably absent from the top of the women’s game apart from Viktorija Golubic. Krejčíková’s exit wasn’t the only shock today though, as Anett Kontaveit (currently at number two in the live rankings) also went out at the hands of Ajla Tomljanovic in two close sets. It means that the bottom quarter of the draw does not have any top ten players left, with Victoria Azarenka now the highest seed, with a ranking of 15.

Diane Parry celebrates an upset win over defending champion Krejčíková. Screenshot: Roland-Garros

Parry and Jacquemot have their work cut out in the next round. Jacquemot is facing Kerber, who is in form (though also fatigued). Parry faces fellow young talent Camila Osorio, who is also on an injury comeback and is only nine months older. It’s a bit early to get too excited about these young players; they’re still growing into their tennis. We have to include them as ones to watch alongside players like Osorio, Clara Tauson and Marta Kostyuk. If they’re still in the tournament this time next week, we can start talking about them on the same terms as Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez and Amanda Anisimova. Of course, we’re still waiting to see who can emerge as a rival to Iga Świątek, who continued her awesome form today by winning her opening round, only dropping two games. The world number one is clearly enjoying being in Paris, and is handling her status as overwhelming favourite well so far. 

We won’t be able to make a full assessment as to the full French field until after tomorrow at the earliest as ten men and four women need to compete their matches. The real test will be to see if any make the second week. For now, French fans can make the most of the glimmers of hope they are seeing in their home players. The rest of the tennis fandom can readily get excited as well, because any new talent is always worth celebrating no matter where they hail from.

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