being French at the French Open: Gasquet, Mauresmo and Tsonga

Early ESPN broadcasts of the French Open start with an ode to the beauty and timelessness of Paris. Images of the city float by as a voice wonders how you could ever hold onto something timeless or “capture the soul of the city of lights.” In my one extended stay in Paris, Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha had just opened and there was a citywide exhibit of Hokusai’s work. At first I thought it was the work of an entire era of Japanese art. I was astounded to find out that it was the work of one artist. I was so transformed by the experience that I started to write my signature with the Japanese characters for my name. After one too many forms returned with the complaint that it was unsigned, I returned to my usual Roman alphabet signature.

Being an athlete in the city of lights and copper red clay comes at a price. With the possible exception of a British tennis player at Wimbledon, the pressure on a French player to win at Roland Garros is greater and starts earlier than for any other Slam. There are huge posters of Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils on the grounds even though they are both teenagers and Monfils has played in a total of twenty ATP matches. Gasquet won the world junior title at age sixteen then toiled in challenger events for a few years before he finally sought the help of a psychologist to deal with the pressure of his country’s expectations.

Monfils and the third member of the promise land trio, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, also carry the responsibility of having immigrant parents in a country still coming to term with its multiculturalism. Monfils’ parents are from Guadeloupe and Martinique and Tsonga’s father is from the Congo. Zinedine Zidane’s two goals in the France’s 1998 World Cup victory over Brazil was a watershed moment in the lives of immigrants in France. Zidane, the son of an Algerian family, became a symbol for the new pluralism in French society. Being a symbol of pride in French sports is pressure enough without having to represent over four million immigrants.

With the possible exception of a British tennis player at Wimbledon, the pressure on a French player to win at Roland Garros is greater and starts earlier than for any other slam.

Yannick Noah, whose father was from Cameroon, was the last French player to win the French Open. He is sitting in the player’s box with Amelie Mauresmo’s coach this year because Mauresmo has recently hired him to help her win a grand slam. She has come close, she reached the Australian Open in 1999, but she seems to lose her nerve at critical points. The farthest she has gone here is the quarterfinals.

Hard to believe that this is Mauresmo’s eleventh French open. In the first round her opponent is Australian Evie Dominikovic. There might be close to ten hours of coverage a day but that doesn’t stop ESPN2 from skipping over to Agassi’s match. That’s because Mauresmo trounces her opponent, 6-1, 6-2, in less than an hour. Mauresmo goes for big first serves, she even gets an ace off a second serve, and comes to the net often. She finishes with 22 winners against 16 unforced errors. It’s a good thing to get the first match out of the way.

Gasquet is probably headed to a third round showdown with the other hot 18 year old of the moment, Rafael Nadal. So let’s look at Tsonga’s game while we have the chance since his first round opponent is Andy Roddick.

Tsonga has a big forehand and can hit a 130 mph serve but he insists on coming in on weak shots and doesn’t move that well. He’s also reckless which makes for some interesting points but not good results. In the fourth game of the first set, Tsonga hits a backhand approach followed by a cross court volley that Roddick tracks down and hits down the line. Tsonga gets to it and flicks it just over the net but Roddick gets to the ball again and hits it behind Tsonga who swings at it but can’t keep it in the court.

Twice while returning serve Tsonga runs around his backhand so far that he almost runs into a line judge. On another occasion he tries to hit an inside out forehand while running backwards. It’s not all bad. In the third set hits a gorgeous running passing shot after Roddick pulled him wide on an approach shot. If Tsonga could get into shape and learn to make smart decisions on the court, he has possibilities. He already has victories over Carlos Moya and Mario Ancic so there is hope.

Other players are feeling different kinds of pressure here. Anastasia Myskina is famous for looking into the stands and railing at her poor coach when she is not playing well. It’s embarrassing and fascinating at the same time. A kind of co-dependent tennis relationship. But Myskina’s mother is very ill and Myskina’s is so upset about it that she could barely muster a fierce look or two at her coach. I’m sympathetic and upset along with her. She loses in the first round.

I’m also sympathetic with Andre Agassi. Early this week I developed a slight case of sciatica. Time is catching up to Andre. He is 35 years old now and he has had a problem with sciatica all year. He’s already had one cortisone shot. If you haven’t been here before, I’ve told you more than enough times that a structural problem is not going to go away with a magic pill. I’m sure he’s getting physical therapy and lots of it but it it would have been wise to skip the clay court season and address the problem that is causing the sciatica. From everything I know and respect about Andre, the only reason he is out here is to win another major and it could happen. If he could have avoided Federer, he had a chance to win the Australian Open. But playing on this beautiful red clay is sometimes like slogging through mud. Not the best thing for an inflamed sciatica nerve.

Pressure will only mount as the tournament continues. Stay tuned for round three.