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French flourishing in Australia

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Glancing at the top half of the men's draw, we could be forgiven for thinking that Melbourne is a small town somewhere in France. OK, that's after ignoring the names of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and a few others.

Of the eight third-round matches, six featured Frenchman. But no, this is, of course, the Australian Open, not Loire Valley.

"We always have good players," said Frenchman Sam Sumyk, the coach of Victoria Azarenka. "But at the moment, we're lucky enough that on the men's side we have a few. There's probably a very healthy competition between all of them, but what I think they're trying to do is to take their destiny in their own hands."

And they have.

There's the charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga; the athletic Gael Monfils, who hasn't yet the hit the heights expected of him; Richard Gasquet, who was supposed to be the next big thing; Julien Benneteau, a player who can trouble the elite on his day; Michael Llodra, winning with a rare serve-and-volley game; and Nicolas Mahut, the famous loser in the longest tennis match of all time.

Llodra, 31, emerged victorious in one of the matches of the day Thursday, downing 32nd seed Alex Bogomolov Jr. in five sets. Llodra led by two sets, then had to do the chasing himself in the fifth when he was behind a break.

"It's great to live that kind of emotion at my age," the eccentric Llodra said. "That's why we play tennis."

Benneteau also won in five sets -- against fellow Frenchman Gilles Simon -- while Monfils and Mahut came back from one-set deficits against Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci and Japanese wild card Tatsuma Ito, respectively.

Tsonga, the 2008 Australian Open finalist and a semifinalist in 2010, and Gasquet advanced in straight sets. In Gasquet's case, opponent Andrey Golubev, coming off a five-hour first-round epic, retired in the third set.

"I play well here all the time, and it's good for me," Tsonga said. "Maybe the conditions are good for me. It's pretty warm."

Why the abundance of Frenchmen? As Sumyk suggested, the French Tennis Federation has a track record of producing quality players. Ten finished in the top 100 at the end of 2011, which was second to Spain's 13. Further, such bursts of success at Slams happen from time to time.

It's a figure U.S. tennis officials would surely like to reach. The U.S. produced nine players in the top 100 to end last season (including the now transplanted Alex Bogomolov Jr.), yet entering play Friday, only one remained in the draw, John Isner.

Would France prefer a few less solid players if it could guarantee a men's Grand Slam winner? Yannick Noah was the last one in 1983.

Sumyk wouldn't make the change.

"I'd take all of them and see if one or more can win a Slam," he said.

Mahut and Llodra's immediate prospects aren't great. Mahut has the unenviable task of facing Djokovic, and Llodra must do battle with Murray.

Tsonga, the sixth seed who surged from the middle of last year onward, must be the leading contender. The good news for him is that he's beaten Murray, Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at majors. The bad is that he'd likely have to oust three of the four in this tournament to be crowned champion.

It's a tough proposition, so French fans should just enjoy the first-week success. With a glass of red, of course.

Milos Raonic (23) versus Lleyton Hewitt

Hewitt caught a significant break Thursday when Andy Roddick's injury woes resurfaced. Hewitt was trailing by a set at that point. Roddick retired after the third set, giving "Rusty" an easier-than-expected entry into the third round. Hewitt's banged-up 30-year-old body wasn't complaining.

But now Hewitt faces someone younger, stronger -- and with a heftier serve and forehand -- in Raonic.

Raonic won a title in Chennai this month. Besides the 21-year-old's serve, his composure is impressive.

It's not a question of if, but when, Raonic cracks the top 10.

"I'll be focusing on my game," Hewitt said.

Ditto for the Canuck, who struggled at times against enigmatic German Philipp Petzschner in the second round.

"Every match it's about imposing myself, whoever I play, taking care of my serve, looking to try to dictate on the return games when I get the opportunities," Raonic said. "I feel the thing I'm doing much better this year is returning, getting a lot more returns in, giving myself that opportunity. Not always converting after it, but it's something I'm still working on."

Given Saturday's forecast calls for hot weather (about 86 degrees), Hewitt is probably happy he's playing the night match. It just might lessen the sting of Raonic's missiles.

Prediction: Raonic in four.

Ana Ivanovic (21) versus Vania King

Serena Williams isn't the only American remaining in the bottom half of the women's draw. King is giving her company.

Known mostly as a doubles specialist, King tends to pop up with good results at majors here and there -- downing, for instance, Samantha Stosur at the 2009 U.S. Open.

The California native did it again Thursday, eliminating 15th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, a battler, in three sets.

Ivanovic presents a different challenge.

Ivanovic hasn't lost to King in three tries and thumped the 22-year-old 6-2, 6-0 at the Australian Open in 2007. She's advanced to the third round with minimal fuss, too, no small achievement for her.

Dare we say that Ivanovic's partnership with Nigel Sears is going well?

"I worked a lot on my game in the offseason," Ivanovic said. "When I'm out there I really know what I have to do, and I stay with it. I'm more persistent and confident in that because I know that's what's going to give me results and help me to play better."

Having Aussie boyfriend Adam Scott by her side in Melbourne likely isn't hurting, either.

Prediction: Ivanovic in two.


London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.