PARIS, May 23 — When Yannick Noah beat Mats Wilander in the 1983 French Open final to end the hosts’ 37-year wait for a men’s singles champion, few home fans would have thought the next 35 years wouldn’t produce another.
The other three Grand Slam hosts have seen similar struggles in recent years, with Andy Roddick the last American man to win the US Open in 2003, while Mark Edmondson was the most recent Australian winner at Melbourne Park back in 1976.
Andy Murray ended the longest wait of the lot five years ago by becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon for 77 years.
Unlike Britain, France has not had any problem in producing players near the top of the world game, but too many have failed in big moments.
Ten-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal regarded Richard Gasquet as the best player he faced as a junior, but the now-31-year-old has never reached a major final.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga looked a certain future Grand Slam champion when he burst onto the scene by beating both Murray and Nadal en route to an Australian Open final defeat by Novak Djokovic in 2008, but he has never scaled such heights again since.
Gael Monfils has also threatened to make a serious breakthrough on numerous occasions, while Lucas Pouille appears to just be the latest talented Frenchman lacking the killer instinct needed to reach the very top.
‘They let it go mentally’
Henri Leconte, France’s last men’s finalist at Roland Garros three decades ago, thinks that the French players of recent years simply haven’t had the mentality or work-rate needed to lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
“We haven’t had someone really prepared and determined to do something at Roland Garros — to say it is one thing, to actually do it is another,” he told AFP.
“It’s a chance to have this tournament at home. Some players use it to improve themselves, for others there is too much pressure. There are always risks, injuries, but every year the same thing happens again.
“You need to listen to your body, have a long-term vision and have a ravenous hunger to devour the ball.
“They (the French players) can’t analyse, they let it go more mentally than physically.”
The four Grand Slam countries have still won more Davis Cup titles than any others, with France level with Britain on 10 behind Australia and the US.
Americans at least don’t have to look too far back to remember Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi dominating men’s tennis, while the Williams sisters have ensured plenty of US success since.
But France hasn’t even seen its women make up for the failure of the men, with Mary Pierce the only Frenchwoman to win at Roland Garros in the Open era.
The best chance of a French men’s finalist since Leconte lost to Wilander in 1988 was when Tsonga cruised past Roger Federer in straight sets, only to be dumped out by David Ferrer in the 2013 semi-finals.
“When Jo (Tsonga) was facing David, I really thought he could win,” added Leconte.
“When you see a player like Ferrer, who does not have a massive advantage and not a very powerful groundstroke, do so well on clay, it’s about hard work.
“As long as the French players don’t understand that, they won’t win Roland Garros.”
Tsonga, Monfils and Gasquet are all now ranked outside the world’s top 30, with Pouille the French number one at 16th.
France, with Noah as captain, ended a 16-year wait for a Davis Cup title last year, but the French Open drought looks unlikely to be broken any time soon. — AFP