French connection for foreign players

Svitolina, Thiem, Serena among those whose French links make them feel at home at RG.

Elina Svitolina watches Gael Monfils in action© Antoine Couvercelle / FFT
 - Kate Battersby

As the incomparable Audrey Hepburn once put it with delicious simplicity: “Paris is always a good idea.” It is not just the French who love the City of Light, or only French players who have a special feeling for Roland-Garros. Some overseas players have their own unique links to France, meaning they feel even more at home at this most special of Grand Slam events. Whether their French connection is romantic or professional, for all it is heartfelt.

Elina Svitolina

The 24-year-old Ukrainian and Paris-born Gael Monfils went officially public with their relationship in January last year by creating a joint Instagram account called – “G.E.M.S.” representing their intertwined initials. The name has caught on. When they posted a joint selfie video from Dubai in February, a grinning Roger Federer photo-bombed it, leaning in between them to announce that he was “just finding out how it’s going with the gems”.

Svitolina told with a smile: “Hopefully I will get a little bit more support being with Gael although maybe also because of my game! It’s going to be a special one for sure, for both of us. I’ve always loved playing here. When the French players are on court, the crowd are always really loud for them, and I always get a warm welcome here. Hopefully Gael and I will be able to watch each other here, although as it’s a Grand Slam of course you have to focus on your own matches. But if we’re not watching each other from the stands, then for sure on TV.”

Dominic Thiem

It was at Roland-Garros 2017 that photographs first documented France’s beloved Kristina Mladenovic in Thiem’s player box, during his run to the semi-finals that year. Since then the couple have talked about their relationship with increasing happiness, and their countless mutual selfies on social media leave no doubt about their feelings. “I have eyes only for him… #myonenonly” wrote Mladenovic, beneath a photograph of the duo on Wimbledon’s player balcony last summer.

Earlier this month Thiem was asked in Madrid if he felt that his popularity at Roland-Garros is boosted still further by the fact that he is dating Mladenovic. “Yes, I think it does have a little effect because of course people know that I’m together with her,” he acknowledged. “I think they really love her there so they take me in their heart also, I hope so. Last year [when Thiem was runner-up to Rafael Nadal] was a very good atmosphere every time I played there, no matter on which court, and if the French people are for me in the matches, it’s for sure a big bonus, I would say.” 

Serena Williams

The three-time Roland-Garros champion has long made her adoration of France as evident as can be. It’s not only that she owns an apartment in the city, or that she makes a point of conducting her on-court post-match television interviews in French – or even that the nation’s coaching titan Patrick Mouratoglou has been in her corner since 2012. Now Williams is teaching her 20-month-old daughter Alexis Olympia to speak French, documenting on video her instruction to “lave t'es mains” (wash your hands), and then exclaiming “oh la la” when the infant obliged by placing her hands in the family dog’s water bowl.

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Apprendre français!

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Sweetly, a recent picture shows mother and daughter reading one of the iconic Petit Ours Brun (Little Brown Bear) books together. The mini-adventures of Petit Ours Brun have been part and parcel of all French childhoods since illustrator Danièle Bour created the character in 1975.

Daniil Medvedev

The 6ft 6in Russian speaks French with an impeccable accent, and is an out-and-out Francophile. As an 18-year-old living in his native Moscow, his parents encouraged him to live abroad; and as his older sister Elena had already been living in Nice for six years, it made the south of France the natural choice for him too. Five years on, his professional focus remains here. Throughout that time his coach, the Frenchman Gilles Cervara, has hugely influenced Medvedev’s holistic approach to tennis, and he earned his very first professional title at the Saint-Remy-de-Provence Challenger in 2016.

Hsieh Su-Wei

For the last two years, Chinese Taipei’s world No.19 – who captured the 2014 doubles crown at Roland-Garros with Shuai Peng – has not only had a French boyfriend but also a French travelling coach… not least because the man in question holds both roles. Frederic Aniere grew up near Roland-Garros, and has seen Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”) score big wins over the likes of Garbine Muguruza since he started travelling with her. The couple first met in Paris, and now live there together too. Moreover, the city has other attractions. “I do love the food here,” she laughs. “I’m very happy in France.”