In the Open era, French tennis had never experienced this. The 2021 season will remain as an “annus horribilis” since no tricolor representative, neither the female side nor the male side, has managed to reach the second week in the Grand Slam. This sad record materialized a major trend, feared for some time by attentive observers of the circuit, that of a transition and a generational “hole” supported by another statistic: in three of the last four seasons (2018, 2020 , 2021), there has not been a single Major quarter-final for the men either. So in 2022, are our Blues condemned to these lean cows or can they hope for better?
As a preamble, one thing is clear: for a good ten or even fifteen years, France was able to count on the quartet made up of Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gaël Monfils and Gilles Simon to carry its colors high in the four of the most prestigious tournaments in world tennis. All aged 35 or over, they are now reaching a stage in their career where their physical condition becomes an obstacle to performance on the long five-set format. Should we therefore resolve to turn their (beautiful) page? Largely yes, but not totally according to Arnaud Clément.
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“In Grand Slam, very honestly, I think the only one who would still be able to do something is Gaël. For the others, physically, it seems to be hard. It’s all the more complicated since they were all, for a very long time, protected by a well-deserved seeded status. This is no longer the case, except for Gaël“, notes the former Davis Cup captain and now consultant for Eurosport. Neither Tsonga nor Simon were thus well enough classified to directly integrate the main draw of the Australian Open, the second bowing from the start. qualifications which could not even claim the first (current 260th in the world).
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As for Gasquet, regularly subject to injuries, he is also finding it increasingly difficult to follow up and could not play a single match before starting in Melbourne because of the recently contracted Covid-19. So there remains the case of Monfils, whose state of form seems to contrast radically with that of his three friends, despite a cervical alert on Wednesday. He thus ideally launched his 2022 season with a title in Adelaide without losing a single set, displaying some objectives for the coming season, such as “the desire to win a first Masters 1000”.
Looking at his Australian Open roster, he could legitimately aim for the knockout stages, possibly against Novak Djokovic if the latter is cleared to play. It would already be better than the tricolor balance sheet in 2021. “Gaël is very ambitious, and he knows that to achieve his goals, you have to beat the Top 20 and Top 10. Grand Slam matches are always a cut above. You have to see how he strings together best-of-five matches. Of course it would already be very nice if he broke this dynamic of French tennis, there are encouraging signs but we have to go slowly“, warns Arnaud Clément.
Rinderknech, Bonzi and Gaston: a positive momentum to be confirmed
However, everything cannot rest on the shoulders of the current tricolor number 1, because he too is not eternal. If they probably do not have the strengths of their predecessor, the new generations have shown qualities on the circuit in recent months. Three names stand out from a recent performance perspective: Arthur Rinderknech (26 and a first-time career runner-up in Adelaide this week), Benjamin Bonzi (25) and Hugo Gaston have all made remarkable breakthroughs in the Top 100 in which they are now well established, respectively at 58th, 65th and 67th places in the world.
Arthur Rinderknech eliminated Corentin Moutet in half in Adelaide and goes to play his first final on the ATP circuit
Credit: Getty Images
However, the Grand Slam main draws and the ATP circuit in general, which will now be their daily life, represent a major challenge to be met. Will they be able to rise to the task by 2022? “It’s a different rhythm. When you play a lot of Challengers successfully and the dynamics are good, what can be difficult afterwards is the permanent passage on the big circuit. We face players who are sometimes better ranked from the first rounds. We can go from 65% of victories on the Challenger circuit to a much more difficult record on the main circuit. Some get used to it pretty quickly, for others it’s more complicated“, observes our consultant.
Hugo Gaston is the one of the three who has gone the furthest in a Grand Slam so far with this famous round of 16 at Roland-Garros in 2020. His epic at the end of last season at Bercy (quarter-final after qualifying) tends to show that it was not just a flash in the pan, and that the big occasions transcend it, at least at home. It is now up to him to be more regular everywhere else, before reviving the Porte d’Auteuil next spring, why not.
Expected at Wimbledon in particular, Humbert has everything to revive
Another asset in the sleeve of French tennis and not the least: Ugo Humbert. Admittedly, the 2021 season did not live up to the expectations of Messin, who was expected to take up the torch left by a Monfils in full doubt. But at 23, the left-hander still has plenty of time to show his full potential and his attacking game has lost none of its appeal. The proof: for his comeback after more than three months without a single match, he allowed himself to dominate Daniil Medvedev in an unbreathable match during the ATP Cup (6-7, 7-5, 7-6). If he subsequently lost against Matteo Berrettini, then Alex de Minaur, the matches were very tight each time.
Ugo Humbert in Sydney for the ATP Cup 2022
Credit: Getty Images
“Ugo has undoubtedly learned a lot from this year 2021 in the management of his program. With the results he has had over the past two years, we can hope to see him even more consistent at Major level.“, considers Arnaud Clément. Humbert could also find Medvedev in the 3rd round in Melbourne next week, and has a round of 16 Grand Slam reached in 2019 at Wimbledon to his credit. On grass, he had elsewhere imposed in Halle last season, before having the misfortune to come across Nick Kyrgios on joining the All England Club.However, he represents an undeniable asset on this surface in Major.
Paire and Pouille still at a standstill
For others, it must be admitted, doubts and skepticism are in order. Starting with Benoît Paire, who is coming out of two very difficult seasons, he who has not been able to adapt to the health crisis and to tennis “under a bubble”. Despite the stated desire to relaunch in 2022, a positive test for Covid-19 and a new quarantine have, for the moment, got the better of its resolutions. In lack of preparation and in physical difficulty, he still seems far from a possible rebound.
Benoît Paire, beaten by Thanasi Kokkinakis in Adelaide – 01/11/2022
Credit: Getty Images
Less than a click… which Lucas Pouille is also looking for. His right elbow injury behind him, the Northerner, invited to the Australian Open and who will challenge his compatriot Corentin Moutet (semi-finalist in Adelaide) in the 1st round, is motivated by the idea of recovering the level which had given him allowed to be a Grand Slam semi-finalist. But the road will be long for the 159th in the world, who lost his first two matches of the year in qualifying in Melbourne, then Sydney.
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On the female side, the picture is just as murky. If the awakening of Caroline Garcia and Kristina Mladenovic remains possible – they are after all only 28 years old -, it has now been several years since they have evolved to the level of Top 10 which was for a (short) moment theirs, their last Grand Slam quarter-final dating back to Roland-Garros in 2017. Fiona Ferro, who has an eighth on Parisian clay (2020), as well as the young Diane Parry and Clara Burel are hoped to replace them.
“They made good progress last year and they could do great things. We see, on the women’s circuit, that the newcomers who play without complex, it works pretty well! Why wouldn’t it be a Frenchwoman? There is talent: with good preparation and self-confidence, there is room on the women’s circuit which is not closed. There are even openings very regularly, and on big tournaments“said the former Blues captain, referring to Emma Raducanu’s epic at the last US Open.
But from any angle, the ambition of regaining a Grand Slam title in the short term seems unattainable. So what to expect in 2022? A quarter-final in a Major would be a great achievement given the trend of recent years. As for seeing a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman again in the second week, it is a minimum objective to set, even if none of our representatives is currently among the top 16 in the world. History of turning the page 2021, so that it remains exceptional, in the bad sense of the term.
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