French pin hopes on home contenders
Rolandgarros.com examines the chances of five players best placed to deliver at their home Grand Slam event.
Few tennis crowds ride the wave of emotions with as much fervour as the French. So with each passing year, as the wait grows for the next Yannick Noah or Mary Pierce, the hype begins to swirl more vigorously around Roland-Garros.
Rolandgarros.com takes a look at the five best hopes of ending the drought for Les Bleus this year, with French sport journalist Myrtille Rambion giving her thoughts on who could excel, and why.
The world No.14 has weaved together some impressive results during the clay-court swing leading in. Barring an opening-round upset to Julia Goerges in Rome, she ended Maria Sharapova’s comeback tournament en route to the Stuttgart final, before falling to surprise champion Laura Siegemund. She went on to push Simona Halep to three sets in the Madrid final. After three straight third-round showings at her home Grand Slam – including an gallant defeat to Serena Williams last year – the 24-year-old looks finally ready to reach the second week in Paris for the first time. She opens against American Jennifer Brady.
“She’s playing so well, she improved a lot physically,” Rambion said. “It’s been a crazy five or six months this year. The thing is she’s one of the favourites for the title so now you have to wait for how she’s handling the pressure. She’s the best chance of all the French.”
The 23-year-old world No.17 came from nowhere last season to reach back-to-back Grand Slam quarterfinals at Wimbledon – where beat comeback king Juan Martin del Potro – and the US Open. It was his five-set triumph over Rafael Nadal in New York that announced his presence as a serious threat. His season hasn’t ignited quite the same way as yet in 2017; the Frenchman arrives in Paris with a 17-10 record. But he did land his first title of the season, on clay, in Budapest this month to elevate him to a career-high world No.13. The Frenchman has not passed the first round in five previous appearances and will open against veteran countryman Julien Benneteau.
“He’s the best all-round French player at the moment,” Rambion said. “He was playing good on clay but he had a virus. He played well in Monte-Carlo, he played very well in Budapest – he won the title there. But then he was kind of stuck because of the virus. He would need to avoid tough opponents early in the draw. The mental side would be most important – whether he can handle the pressure because he’s well known in France now.”
Always in the mix when healthy and confident, there are murmurs questioning whether the 32-year-old’s chances of shedding the tag as one of the best players never to have won a major are beginning to slip away. After capturing his first clay-court title in Lyon on Saturday, there are signs the rejuvenated new father may mount his best challenge yet in Paris, where he is a two-time Roland-Garros semi-finalist.
“He always has a chance here,” Rambion said. “He’s just won the final in Lyon so he’s playing well on clay. He became a father so now he’s more calm, more relaxed. It’s not that he doesn’t care about tennis, but maybe he can relax this way. He already knows what it takes to make the semis here.”
Like Tsonga, La Monf has been considered a perennial shot at snapping the French drought at Roland-Garros for more years than he’d care to remember. Injury and inconsistency have always been the flashy 30-year-old’s greatest hurdles, however. A first US Open semi-final helped qualify Monfils for his World Tour Finals debut at season’s end in 2016, but the world No.16 has been sidelined for more than a month this year with an Achilles tendon injury suffered at Indian Wells. He twisted his ankle in his only clay-court match of the season in a first-round defeat to countryman Gilles Simon in Madrid, which prompted his withdrawal from Rome. Yet with a boisterous Chatrier crowd in his corner, he can never be ruled out.
“Gael didn’t play well (in Madrid). He got injured but with him you never know what to expect, especially here, at the French, with all his family and friends in the crowd,” Rambion said. “He can lose first round but he can go all the way, why not?”
The 23-year-old has made no secret of her struggles playing at home, with requests to shun the attention of a raucous Philippe-Chatrier Court for the lowly back courts. Two notable results from last season may hint that she is beginning to mature handling the big moments on home turf – she won the women’s doubles at Roland-Garros with countrywoman Mladenovic, before winning both singles rubbers in a losing Fed Cup final against the Czechs in Strasbourg. Despite early defeats in Madrid and Rome leading in she reached the semi-finals as defending champion in Strasbourg this week.
“It’s been a tough year so far for her. She used to be the best French player, especially on clay, last year. This year I don’t think so,” Rambion said. “Pressure again is the big issue. With all that’s going on in the Fed Cup and elsewhere it was tough mentally for her. She has back problems, so it’s both physical and mental. If she plays well first round and second round, maybe she can go deeper.”