Tommy Robredo and Fernando Gonzalez needed good results here to get one of the three remaining spots in Shanghai and they had to go through a French player to keep their hopes alive.

I had heard of the Spanish Armada, a fleet of ships that picked a fight with England in 1588, and there’s even a tennis Spanish Armada which refers to the recent load of successful Spanish tennis players such as Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya. But I didn’t know there was also a French Armada.

Two hundred and ten years ago, a French Armada consisting of forty-seven ships carrying 15, 000 troops sailed to Ireland in order to end British rule and establish an independent Irish Republic. It didn’t succeed. Ten ships went down in a bad storm that made ship-to-ship communication difficult – they didn’t have cell phones back then – and the remaining ships limped home.

This week at the Paris Masters tournament, we have a new French Armada. Half of the twelve matches at the Paris Masters on Wednesday featured a French player. Two more matches featured players from France’s neighbor, Belgium. Tommy Robredo and Fernando Gonzalez needed good results here to get one of the three remaining spots in Shanghai and they had to go through a French player to keep their hopes alive.

The French crowd can be brutal and the French players can also be difficult. Sebastien Grosjean staged a nine minute delay of game in a match with Rafael Nadal at the 2005 French Open. Grosjean stopped play after the chair umpire refused to come onto the court and look at a ball mark. He walked around the baseline with an impish smile on his face as the crowd booed and yelled.

Grosjean behaved well on Wednesday but he must have felt like beheading the nearest person. He won the first set and was serving for the match at 5-2 in the second set when the trouble started. Grosjean couldn’t get his serve in – his first serve percentage dropped from 81% to 53% – and Robredo won the next five games to take the second set.

Grosjean could have been tired, it’s the last tournament of the year after all, but as hard as it can be for foreign players in Paris, it’s not so easy for French players either. They face tremendous pressure to perform well on French soil. Only two French players have won this tournament in its thirty-one year history – Grosjean won it in 2001, and only one French player has won at Roland Garros in the Open Era – Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983. Grosjean must have felt the pressure as the games slipped away.

In the first game of the third set, Grosjean had break point when he pulled off the shot of the tournament. Robredo hit a drop shot and Grosjean came in and tapped the ball barely over the net. Robredo responded with a lob but Grosjean got back to the baseline, spun completely around and smacked a passing shot past a stunned Robredo.

It was short lived. Grosjean continued to lose his serve and Robredo took the match, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. This was a huge win for Robredo because he’s barely holding onto the eighth position and only eight players go to Shanghai. Still, Robredo didn’t win the match as much as Grosjean lost it.

Gonzalez is sitting in ninth place in the standings and had to go through Julien Benneteau who didn’t behave so well. Everything went right for Gonzalez in the first set so Benneteau tried something different in the second set. He served and volleyed a little and came up with his own version of delay tactics. He repeatedly called time out or wiped himself off with his towel during Gonzalez’ serve.

With the score at 3-3 in the third set, Gonzalez had had enough. Benneteau came to the net and hit a sitter as hard as he could. Gonzalez sent it back twice as hard then yelled at Benneteau as if the say, “Take that, you @#$%%@@!!! Gonzalez now had triple break point and the enmity of the French crowd. But Benneteau thrilled the crowd by getting to game point and now Gonzalez was so annoyed he sent a ball to the top of the stands. Amazingly, a ball boy retrieved it and Benneteau won the game

With Gonzalez serving to stay in the set at 5-6, Benneteaul broke him and won the match, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5. Gonzalez must be bitterly disappointed. He’d dragged himself into ninth place in the 2006 Race rankings with three straight final appearances, one of them at the Madrid Masters. Since working with his part-time coach, Larry Stefanki, Fernando has developed some touch to go along with the sledgehammer ground strokes. Maybe he should have hired Stefanki a week or two earlier.

As always happens in Paris, the players who’ve already qualified for Shanghai stayed home because there’s no reason to risk injury. And even though I had a Nadal, a Ljubicic and a Roddick left to play on my ATP fantasy league team, I don’t mind because the matches are more thrilling without the big guys.

Look at this for instance: yet another French guy in the mix, Paul-Henri Mathieu, beat Novak Djokovic, 7-6(11), 7-6(4). Long live the French.

See also: 2006 ATP Fantasy Tennis: Paris Masters

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