The French know their tennis. Or, at the very least, they think they do. At Roland Garros, the crowds feel free to cheer and boo and whistle and stomp and chant as if they own the place -- no audience enjoys getting in the middle of a match and affecting it as much as they do.
And they're right, they do know their tennis in France. The country is an historic Davis Cup power, Paris is the only city with a Grand Slam and a Masters event, and the FFT, its well-funded national federation, has developed dozens of stylish, successful pros over the last 40 years. They have a wide set of grass roots to draw from. One reason the fans at Roland Garros think they know the game is that a high percentage of them actually play it.
As aggravating as that mob of Parisian know-it-alls can be, their country has provided the rest of us who love the sport with a steady flow of highly watchable tennis over the years. From the bizarre, backward-looking strokes of Francois Durr, to the joyful athleticism of Yannick Noah and his descendants Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils, to the sweeping one-handed backhands of Amelie Mauresmo and Richard Gasquet, to the magic tricks of Fabrice Santoro, French players seem to have only one thing in common -- they're unique.
Well, make that two things. Noah's and Mauresmo's Grand Slam wins aside, the French are most famous not for their style, but for the various ways they find to make style trump substance. A friend once Tweeted the question, "Why do announcers always use the word 'talented' when they introduce a French player?" My answer was that they had to fill the space where other players were having their Grand Slam titles listed.
It's been a good couple of weeks for French tennis followers, filled with all of the usual brilliance and subsequent let down. First Monfils split with his coach, Roger Rasheed, and immediately began to play more freely. He reached the final in D.C. and entertained the pro-French crowd in Montreal with a three-set win over Viktor Troicki. Then, when that crowd came out the next night to support him against Novak Djokovic, Monfils threw in a head-scratching clunker, losing 2 and 1 even as he preened for the Jumbotron until the end.
The same went for his friend Tsonga. First, Jo-Willy thrilled the Canadian crowd with his second straight win over Roger Federer; it seemed, after his Wimbledon semifinal run, that he might be ready to make that long-awaited breakthrough into the upper reaches of the sport. Then, against Djokovic in Montreal, Tsonga quit in the middle of the second set with a "dead arm," an arm that miraculously came back to life a couple of days later during his first round win in Cincinnati.
The thing about French tennis players isn't just that they disappoint you. It's that they always come back a few months later looking even more brilliant and full of flair than ever, so brilliant that you forget about the last letdown and begin to believe again -- "Could this, finally, be the moment . . . ?" And then they hit the ball between their legs even as they're losing or they call it quits in the middle of a set and you know you've been had again.
So, the pattern never ends; the Gallic rollercoaster of expectations is as dependable a part of the tennis season as a Rafael Nadal -- he's Spanish, not French, naturally -- win at Roland Garros. Even after the dual disappointments of Montreal, I could feel it starting again in Cincy, when I watched the recently improved Gasquet win his first-round match. "What if he becomes a contender . . .?" I found myself thinking, against all of my better judgment.
Maybe it's appropriate that the French themselves coined a phrase for this phenomenon: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." The more things change, the more they stay the same.