Cornet the perfect antidote to the afflicted French stars

Alizé Cornet is 20-6 on clay courts this season, including reaching the final of Rome last week. AP Photo/Andrew Medichini

PARIS -- Her melodic first name says it all: Alizé, a nautical term bestowed on her by parents who wind surf. Literally, it means a wind that blows from the east. On the French sports landscape, it has recently come to mean a breath of fresh air.

A mere 12 months after winning the junior championship here, sunny, spirited 18-year-old Alizé Cornet is France's favorite daughter at Roland Garros. Her face graces the cover of France's biggest sports magazine this week, her head thrown back in spontaneous laughter. It's a metaphor for how gracefully she seems to be carrying the burden of sudden celebrity.

"When I saw myself where so many stars have been, on the cover of [L'Equipe] magazine, I said to myself, 'That's it, I've made it,'" Cornet said after a center-court win on the tournament's opening day. "It's incredible. The photo is great. It reflects my personality well. That's how I handle life."

Cornet was already on a fast track to prominence when she entered the qualifying rounds at the prestigious Rome tournament earlier in May and reeled off seven straight victories to reach the final, a run she said made her feel as if the famous Foro Italico stadium was "my own tennis club." A loss to Jelena Jankovic didn't dim that rapture.

Journalists who have covered Cornet say she loves pressure. "Her main weapon is her mentality," said Myrtille Rambion, a reporter for Radio RTL-L'Equipe who followed Cornet through the junior ranks. "From the age of 10, she's wanted to be No. 1, and she's believed she would be No. 1. But she's balanced. She has a boyfriend, she has interests away from the court."

Cornet, No. 20 in the WTA rankings this week, has solid ground strokes from both sides, and with her affinity for clay, she is consciously working at improving her topspin forehand. Although she may not yet have a killer shot, the French public loves her for her killer smile and ebullient attitude. Her unaffected confidence stands out in stark contrast to the physical and mental wounds afflicting the rest of the home contingent.

Charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who looked like the personable hero the French have long hungered for, is absent and about to undergo knee surgery. In an equally disheartening development, the country's ostensible top player, Richard Gasquet, abruptly withdrew from the tournament mere hours before he was supposed to play Monday, citing a "blocked" knee.

A tournament doctor said a previously detected cyst on Gasquet's knee had tripled in size since December, making it too painful for him to play. But the timing will add fuel to the bonfire of doubt about Gasquet's competitive psyche.

Amelie Mauresmo's career is in decline and she has traditionally withered under the crushing expectations of this event. Marion Bartoli, the top-ranked French woman at No. 9, was hurt much of the second half of last year and has not won a significant match since her startling upset of Justine Henin in the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals. Expressive Tatiana Golovin, who's in a virtual tie with Cornet in the rankings, is absent here due to injury.

Cornet is the perfect antidote to all this bad news. She's got the perky, wholesome look of a toothpaste model. She openly admits to having developed a schoolgirl's crush on Andy Roddick when he won the 2003 U.S. Open, and named her dog after him.

Yet she's also bright, articulate, mannered and modest, traits nurtured by a strong family in the Mediterranean coastal city of Nice. Her father is a corporate executive; her mother travels with her but stays discreetly in the background; and her brother, a physician, also doubles as her agent.

Cornet completed the requirements for the French baccalaureat degree -- a more rigorous program than the typical American high school diploma -- by correspondence, two years early, and even began some college courses before her schedule became too demanding earlier this season.

"Her parents have always put academics first," Rambion said.

Cornet also has had the same coach, Pierre Bouteyre, for 10 years, and is part of the larger French Tennis Federation training stable. "She's getting better week by week," federation president Christian Bimes said Tuesday. "She's a very steady player with a good offensive game. And she's attractive, which doesn't hurt anything."

French Davis Cup captain Guy Forget said Cornet "has all the basics to be a champion -- she's very talented, very serious, very structured, very professional. But what strikes me most is her attitude and will."

The yearning of Cornet's fellow citizens is palpable, and it emerged again at her postmatch press conference when a French reporter asked her how it felt to be the top French woman. Cornet politely corrected the questioner. "I'm very proud of being No. 2," she said. "As far as being No. 1, I'm going to go carefully and try to get there step by step."

But if she isn't yet officially tops in the charts, she's already made great inroads into French hearts. With characteristic poise, cover girl Cornet summed up where she stands in the current issue of L'Equipe magazine:

    "I've always dreamed of being in the spotlight. When you come to a tournament designated as the French favorite, it's a good sign. It means you've had good results and that people believe in you. After that, it's just a matter of dealing with the media pressure. … I always give myself the right to make a mistake, the right to have a bad match or a bad draw. Roland Garros is winnable for me one day, but not this year. Mentally and physically, it's too soon to be able to manage a tournament like this for an 18-year-old, but I'm learning. Why not next year, or in two years? I can wait five years, 10 years, 20 years -- the important thing is to win it someday. That would be incredible."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.