Garcia left to carry French hopes

 - Dan Imhoff

While a tournament-leading seven French contenders reached the third round, only Caroline Garcia advanced.

Caroline Garcia, Roland Garros 2018, Simple Dames, 3eme Tour©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Complacency does not sit well with Yannick Noah.

Desperate to break what he deemed a “losing culture” that had gripped French ranks, he returned to the Davis Cup captaincy three years ago.

So when Noah proudly guided Les Bleus through their first title run in 16 years last November, French hopes inevitably turned to the Grand Slam stages.

Three runner-up showings between Davis Cup trophies led the team’s captain to lament how “everybody got used to defeat”.

“That losing culture, it was destroying me,” Noah said at the time.

In a nation where talent and depth in numbers in the men’s and women’s fields have rarely waned, could that same shift in mindset transfer to carrying a prospective singles champion all the way at Roland-Garros in 2018?

After six of a tournament-leading seven French players in third-round action had fallen by Saturday, only one woman – Caroline Garcia – stands to find out.

The firm grip Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have held on Grand Slam trophies has undoubtedly contributed to the dearth in Frenchmen becoming the first since Noah 35 years ago to share in the spoils, a fate Richard Gasquet knows only too well.

“Like in Australia, I wasn't very successful playing Federer over there and Nadal here. Same thing. I managed to get to the third round, but then I have to play the best players in history,” he said after falling to 10-time champion Nadal before a packed Court-Philippe-Chatrier on Saturday.

The world No.1 had just claimed his 25th of 27 sets against Frenchmen at the majors with another straight-sets routing of Gasquet, It was his 16th win against the Frenchman in as many meetings.

Lucas Pouille troisième tour Roland-Garros 2018©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

The man who delivered the winning rubber over Belgium last November, Lucas Pouille, was considered the strongest hope of ending Noah’s long reign.

Returning to complete his match with 22-year-old Russian Karen Khachanov, who had led before the rain came on Saturday, 15th seed Pouille lasted just eight more games in a 6-3 7-5 6-3 defeat.

“I don't think that makes any difference over two years, and the exact reason, I don't really know,” Pouille said of juggling the added expectations being the French No.1.

“I think that I'm putting on a lot of pressure, and it's hard for me to actually unfold my game. But I don't have a true explanation.”

With Jo-Wilfried Tsonga missing this year’s Roland-Garros due to injury, three of the four once dubbed the “New Musketeers” – Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon – reached the third round.

A decade after bursting through for his maiden Grand Slam semi-final in Paris as a flamboyant, athletic 21-year-old ranked No.59, Monfils was still whipping a French crowd into a frenzy as fervently as ever in his showdown with eighth-seeded Belgian David Goffin.

Roland-Garros 2018, 3e tour, Gael Monfils©Pauline Ballet / FFT

Friday's rain on Court-Suzanne-Lenglen had thrown Monfils a lifeline. The overnight reprieve revived his cause as he reeled off the third set and went on to hold four match points, only for Goffin to survive and advance 6-7(6) 6-3 4-6 7-5 6-3.

“I'm first to be disappointed for myself, disappointed for my team, my family, my friends, and for the public, of course,” Monfils said of the near-four-hour match.

Hunched between long points, quitting was never an option.

“Never. I'm at Roland Garros. I come to the court even if I'm diminished,” he said. “Here I have this capacity to surpass myself, to go beyond pain.”

Former world No.6 Simon was the first of the five Frenchmen to fall in the third round. The 33-year-old had a tough time of it in a 6-3 6-1 6-3 defeat to Japan’s 19th seed Kei Nishikori on Friday. It came after his upset of 12th seed Sam Querrey in the second round snapped a four-match losing streak against top 20 players.

World No.87 Pierre-Hugues Herbert was the last of the five to fall on Saturday. The 27-year-old, better known for a pair of Grand Slam doubles titles than for his singles prowess on clay, had outlasted countryman Jeremy Chardy in a mammoth second-round tussle. A stirring Court 18 rendition of La Marseillaise lifted the Frenchman for the third set before ninth seed John Isner had his number 7-6(1) 6-4 7-6(4).

While Frenchwomen, too, have fallen in three Fed Cup finals since their last team triumph 15 years ago, there is much less a Grand Slam hoodoo bearing down, with Mary Pierce, Amelie Mauresmo and Marion Bartoli sharing five majors between them from 1995 to 2013.

Barring Pierce’s runner-up showing in 2005 and Bartoli reaching the semi-finals in 2011, however, no other Frenchwoman has passed the quarter-finals at Roland-Garros since Pierce fulfilled her dream on Court-Philippe-Chatrier 18 years ago.

Journeywoman Pauline Parmentier was one of two Frenchwomen, along with Garcia, hoping to change that ahead of the third round.

But on a rainy Friday, the 32-year-old quickly found herself trailing 6-0 5-0 against Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki. The Chatrier crowd spurred on the world No.74 to snatch three games on the cusp of defeat before the Dane put a stop to her wet-weather charge. Would this be a final farewell for the Parisian?

“I don't know. I don't think so,” Parmentier said. “But if I have a physical problem that drags me down, I won't come back. When I left the court, I was cheered and they actually shouted out my name. Maybe I won't come back, but I'd like to again next year.”

And so home hopes came to rest solely on the shoulders of Garcia. It is a hefty burden the at-times brittle but brilliant 24-year-old must now carry.

“If you’re going to talk to me, I can talk about the next match but no further,” she offered deflectively after her second-round win on Thursday.

The pressure on the home prospect to deliver at Roland-Garros can be suffocating, but after a 6-1 6-3 triumph over Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu on Saturday, Garcia hoped the experience of last year’s quarter-final appearance would hold her in good stead.

“Last year it was the same, because Kristina [Mladenovic] played and then she lost, and I was the last French player,” Garcia said ahead of her next match against two-time major winner Angelique Kerber. “I don't think it's going to put much pressure on me.

“Sometimes you're luckier than others [French players], but I think that everyone really played well, and they will have to think about what went wrong.”

It is not for Garcia to rue compatriots’ missed opportunities. She’s upholding her end of the bargain resurrecting that French winning culture.