For French tennis, this Open feels like 'the end of an era'

Gael Monfils lost to Sweden's Mikael Ymer in the second round on Thursday. For the first time since 1968, no French players, men or women, have reached the third round. AP Photo/Christophe Ena

PARIS -- Roland Garros conjures up nostalgic images -- the warmth of the city in the spring, packed restaurants and a crowd going wild as a home player fights back for a heroic victory.

This year, the restaurants are full and the weather has been good, but the sight of victorious French players has been almost nonexistent.

For the first time since 1968, when tennis turned professional, no French players, men or women, have reached the third round, from a total of 29.

The front page of L'Equipe, the French sports newspaper, told the sorry tale on Friday: "There are no more French in the first week," read the headline, with the word "second" crossed out.

The decline of French women's tennis, since the retirement of Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce, has been well-documented. Now it seems the men are slipping away.

"Of course it's the end of an era," said Richard Gasquet, who was beaten by 13-time champion Rafael Nadal on Thursday. "I'm 35. [Jo-Wilfried] Tsonga is 36, [Gilles] Simon is 36, and Gael [Monfils] is 34.

"For us, it's even great to be there [at Roland Garros]. Of course we are a great generation. I hope it will be the same for the French future. Now's a little bit difficult, but we have to see who's coming and I hope many players will come in the future."

For a nation with a rich tennis history, from Suzanne Lenglen to the four Musketeers -- Jean Borotra, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon -- to Yannik Noah, Pierce and Mauresmo, it is undeniably a low moment.

Noah was the last French man to win any Grand Slam singles title, when he beat Mats Wilander in 1983, and Pierce was the last French winner at Roland Garros in 2000.

On the men's side, France has enjoyed something of a golden generation, even if they never quite managed to hit the ultimate heights of Grand Slam glory.

Tsonga reached the Australian Open final in 2008, while Monfils and Gasquet have made the semifinals of at least one Grand Slam event, not to mention winning numerous titles on the ATP Tour. In 2017, France won the Davis Cup for the first time since 2001.

France has 11 men in the ATP Tour top 100 and four women in the top 100 on the WTA Tour, numbers that most countries would be proud of.

"Today, there are not many countries that could boast of being really ahead of us," said Tsonga, who missed almost all of 2020 with a back injury. "Of course, there are a few. There are a few Grand Slam winners, but ... we're not the last. If tomorrow, we had to make a ranking ... as we could see with the Davis Cup, we were always among the top nations in the world.

"The Japanese, they're looking for a champion, the Chinese, too. Everybody is looking for a champion. Today, in France, we are looking for one."

France's fate contrasts with that of the United States (four men in the third round) and Italy (five).

Gasquet suggested that the pandemic, and the subsequent restrictions on freedom players have accepted to play, has played a role. But more than anything, it seems there is a big gap between the old and new generations.

"We were in the top 10 or 20, we were very often in the [last 16], the quarters," Gasquet said. "There were guys who were in the semifinals. We didn't ask ourselves the question [about French tennis then].

"Now ... apart from Gaël, even if he lost today, I think he has more seasons [left] than we have, but when there are four players who start to get a bit tired, it's up to the new generation to take over. I hope that happens as soon as possible."

Some of it is cyclical, but this moment has been coming. Only one Frenchman and three French women made the third round in 2020; in 2019, it was five men and no women and in 2018, it was five men and two women.

But while the women have some youngsters to look forward to -- former junior world No. 1 Clara Burel is just 20 years old, but ranked inside the top 150 -- the cupboard on the men's side looks relatively empty.

Gasquet said the country has talent and that he and the other older players need to assist.

"I think there are some very good players behind," he said. "I think we have to try to push them, that the old help them a little bit. We know that this is a difficult time for everyone. We have to try to help everyone so that there is a good generation that is coming up in French tennis. It's important for everyone.

"We will always have players in the 50, that's not the problem. We need players in the top 10, like we've had for 30 or 40 years. I hope that it will happen. You have to believe in it and push everyone to the top, it's important."

Tsonga said the French Tennis Federation needs to work for everyone, not just those based at the national tennis center in Paris.

"It is necessary for everyone to get into this state of mind, be it the Federation or anyone else, the small clubs in the departments, in the regions," Tsonga said.

"The Federation must also give them the means to express themselves and to be able to follow their young people as well as possible, that the players are accompanied, no matter where they are, in Lille, Nice or Paris."