Young Black Players in Paris and an Untimely Death

Why does France have so many good young black players? Italian player Federico Luzzi dies of leukemia at age 28.

France is one of the more successful countries when it comes to developing young black tennis players. Why is that? I can think of two reasons. Lack of competing sports: France has soccer, tennis, and basketball, but the U.S., for instance, has football and baseball on top of that and then, of course, there’s the expense – learning soccer and basketball is a whole lot cheaper than private tennis lessons. Lots of countries fit into that same category, though, and private tennis lessons are expensive everywhere, so what else explains it? The National Sports Institute, as it says on Josselin Ouanna‘s French language Wiki page, “identifies and integrates” young players and develops them.

Since I’m not good in French, I used a google translation of Ouanna’s Wiki page and the translation was rather amusing. It referred to the “blackteam” of Ouanna, Gael Monfils, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – three black French tennis players, and uses the following incredibly poetic phrasing to describe Ouanna’s current ranking of 173: “his body left to the quiet that allows it to integrate the 173rd place after his victory on 14 October 2008 to challenger tournament in Rennes.” I can almost hear Ouanna take a big breath, relax his shoulders, and lazily think to himself, “Aaaaah, thank heavens my body is now resting in ranking place number 173.”

Love his first name by the way, Josselin. Reminds me of Phedre’s consort Joscelin Verreuil in the wonderful historical fantasy trilogy, Kushiels’s Legacy. If you like sex, fantasy, and history, and who doesn’t, you’ll be entranced by these three books.

Ouanna and Monfils are both 6ft 4in (193cm) and Ouanna and Tsonga both go 200lb (90kg). I’m guessing the National Sports Institute doesn’t identify and integrate short kids.

Ouanna showed good touch around the net in his match with Robin Soderling today in Paris, and excuse me for typecasting, but Ouanna’s got that artistic thing we associate with the French and it’s not just his one-handed backhand. Maybe it was all the more noticeable because his Soderling is so dogged and stern in his personality and his tennis. Soderling serves the ball hard but it’s almost like he’s hitting against his body because there’s so little shoulder rotation. His forehand reminds me of Lleyton Hewitt: he brings the racket back way behind him and hits with a lot of arm. I’d like to send him to my sports trainer guy and familiarize him with the concept of the kinetic chain: the idea that strength is best served by all parts of the body working in sequence instead of isolating one’s arm, say, and using it to bludgeon the hell out of the ball.

Having said that, Soderling’s doggedness serves him well. As of Tuesday, he was ranked number 17 but he’s still in contention for a place in the year end championships. And though I discounted Tsonga when I first saw him at the French Open – I thought he was too slow which tells you how good I am at spotting talent – it doesn’t look like Ouanna has enough skills to force his game on anyone. He performed pretty well, losing by the not too bad score of 6-3, 6-4, but most of his success came from hanging in the point until his opponent made an error, and while there are plenty of retrievers at the top level, most of them have more power than Ouanna does.

I watched the Monfils – Juan Monaco match because I wanted to know what Roger Rasheed has that Monfils’ millions of other coaches didn’t have. Monfils changes coaches on a whim but Rasheed, Llleyton Hewitt’s former coach and now Monfils’ coach, has Monfils moving up the rankings while Monfils’ many other coaches couldn’t do anything with him. How do you get a player to focus, stop eating junk food, and probably hardest of all, play aggressive tennis when you’re style is fundamentally defensive?

Before I get to that though, I noticed that Monfils’ opponent in Paris, Juan Monaco, was wearing a black ribbon. I assume that’s in honor of Federico Luzzi, the 28 year old Italian player who died of Leukemia last week. Luzzi was ranked in the 400’s but he did make it into the top 100 at one point in his career.

I got to thinking about that because a dear friend of mine died in a car accident last month and when I try to play tennis, sometimes it’s just ridiculous. The ball bounces off the side of my racket and yesterday I caught a ball that was served to me even though it landed in the service box. I just can’t function properly and you can’t anticipate the path of grieving because it has a mind of its own.

I find it hard to imagine flying off the Paris and playing a top level event while grieving the loss of a friend. All of which is to say that covering tennis these past five years has given me a huge appreciation for the high level of tennis I see day after day in some pretty trying circumstances.

Looking at the beginning of Monfils’ match with Monaco, it didn’t look like Rasheed has done anything to make Monfils more aggressive. Monfils went down 3-0 to Monaco in the first set pretty quickly. In the next game, however, Monfils started off with three straight aces and followed that up by breaking Monaco, but not because he was aggressive, Monaco was the aggressor, but because he took advantage of Monaco’s aggression. Same thing on the first point in the next game – Monfils was now on serve at 2-3. Monaco had Monfils running corner to corner but when Monaco got to the net, he nicked a passing shot with his racket that was going long and Monfils won the point.

I gotta say that even though Monfils is defensive, he’s the most entertaining defensive player I’ve even seen. He had two break points on Monaco at 4-4 in the first set and Monaco started him off with a serve wide followed up with a backhand to the opposite corner, naturally. Monfils retrieved the ball with a lob and then returned Monaco’s overhead with a leaping ballet-like forehand that landed in the far corner of the court. As magical as that was, here’s the problem: he drove Monaco to the baseline then let him back into the point and Monaco finished it off with a forehand winner. That is Gael Monfils in full.

And maybe that’s enough. Monfils got the break on the next point then served out to take the first set by winning six of the last seven games. And after trading breaks at the beginning of the second set, Monfils broke again and won the match, 6-4, 6-3. All that and he’s ranked number 16 and climbing. Rasheed must be doing something right.

I didn’t stay on the match between Radek Stepanek and Marc Gicquel very long but I did catch a classic point between these two players who depend on their brains as much as their physical skills. Gicquel was serving at deuce at the beginning of the second set after Stepanek had won the first set. At one point in the rally, Gicquel and Stepanek hit nine straight crosscourt slices between them before Gicquel directed one of his slices down the line. After another yet another slicefest, Stepanek snuck into the net, scooped up a sliced passing shot down the line, and followed that up with backhand flick of a shot that went crosscourt at a wicked angle. Stepanek ran back to the baseline to pick up Gicquel’s response – a slice, of course – and tried to pass Gicquel who met the ball with his own wickedly angled drop shot that was so soft the ball just died on the green-colored court.

Keep in mind that this entire point took place on a fast indoor court. I don’t think there’s a statistical category for slices but if there were, this match would have challenged the world record for a fast court. Stepanek lost that second set but won the match, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Before I end the day, I just want to look at Roger Federer for a minute. I’ve been wondering if his mono is turning into schizophrenia. Here is a selection of recent quotes from Rog:

That’s not what my life’s about anymore [rankings]. It’s about winning titles and that’s what I’m really excited about.

Often you’re on the tour and you go week by week and you’re like, `Oh my god, I’ve got quarter-final points to defend from last year’, but now when I come into a Grand Slam I don’t care if I have 1000 points to defend or 50.

I served well and played aggressively so I couldn’t ask for more today. It really hasn’t been too bad a year. Next year I want to get the No. 1 spot and maybe win a few more Masters Series events but otherwise I’ll be happy to stay at generally the same level.

I know we’ve been talking about this recently on Tennis Diary and maybe that’s because we don’t know what Roger’s going to do because he doesn’t know. Whaddya think? Will he try to get the number one ranking back or focus on those slams next year?