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Thursday, January 22, 2009
French foursome remains fearsome

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

Gael Monfils
Gael Monfils has all the athletic ability in the world but is still trying to harness his game.
MELBOURNE, Australia -- They have been dubbed "Les Nouveaux Mousquetaires": the new musketeers of French tennis.

There's Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the "confident" one. Gael Monfils, the "amazing" one. Gilles Simon, the "smart" one. And Richard Gasquet, the "nice" one.

The French hope that this is the start of a renaissance, a modest throwback to the days when the "Four Musketeers" ruled tennis in the 1920s and early 1930s. The quartet of Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, 23 Grand Slam doubles titles and held the Davis Cup for seven straight years between 1927 and 1933.

The current group might not quite reach those heights, but they packed quite a collective punch on the tennis scene last year, knocking back the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic multiple times, and taking part in many of the season's most memorable moments.

All aged between 22 and 24, the generation came up together on the French and international circuits and name each other among their closest friends on tour.

In addition to his striking resemblance to Muhammad Ali, the 23-year-old Tsonga is the D'Artagnan of the group, a natural leader whose run to the Australian Open final last year may well have helped pave the way for the others' successes. "Since this moment, all the French players played better," Tsonga observed in his still-hesitant English. "So maybe, yeah."

The spokesperson's role falls to the bright and articulate Simon, who is quick to break down their individual personalities. "We've all got different styles," he said. "Jo is very confident, always. That's his strength."

"Gael is so … amazing," said Simon, pausing for an adjective that captures Monfils' spectacular, acrobatic playing style and his zany personality.

"Richard, it's difficult for him because people are waiting for him to do something unbelievable every day. So it's hard for him, but he's a really nice guy," he finishes, putting his finger on the uber-talented but timid Gasquet.

Simon, 24, demurs when it comes to describing himself: "Me? I don't know," but Monfils doesn't miss a beat. "Gilles laughs a lot, plays video games a lot, and he's very smart," Monfils said.

Just like their literary equivalents, however, each has a tragic flaw keeping them from the upper reaches of the game.

Tsonga's hoodoo is injury. He loves the big occasion and has the mindset of a champion, and his all-around attack is capable of annihilating any player, as Nadal discovered in three devastating sets here last year. But Tsonga has rarely enjoyed an extended period of uninterrupted play, being troubled by back injuries early in his career and a knee problem last season that kept him out for three months.

There was another back scare at the Medibank International in Sydney last week, but Tsonga said he has been fine so far at the Australian Open. "I played without pain," he said. "I feel OK."

The magic of last year is still in the air for him. "Exactly the same feeling, yeah," he smiled softly. "I play all the time well on this court. I hope I continue like that."

Tsonga is the only one considered a real shot to win the whole thing, but the other three are more than capable of shaking up the tournament by taking out a top seed. Tsonga is in Andy Murray's quarter of the draw, while Gasquet, Monfils and Simon are in Nadal's section.

Tag both Monfils and Gasquet as dangerous but unpredictable. Their talent holds crowds enthralled, but their tendency to play too far behind the baseline prevents their shots from being as effective as they could. Mentally, too, they are suspect.

Next to Tsonga, Monfils has the biggest following in Melbourne. He is working with Lleyton Hewitt's Australian ex-coach Roger Rasheed, and many still remember his late-night pyrotechnics against Marcos Baghdatis two years ago. Australian television repeatedly replayed the overhead slow-motion shots of Monfils doing the splits while sliding on the baseline.

"This is natural. I'm not, like, force myself to do this, so I'm really happy that most of the people like it," he said.

But the hip-hop-obsessed Monfils, 22, has had trouble harnessing his game. He has gone through a half-dozen coaches in the past two years, none lasting more than six months. He has also been on-again, off-again with Team Lagardere, a French sports academy, which provides its players with access to facilities, coaches, agents, fitness trainers and medical personnel.

With Rasheed now in his corner for six months, the hope is that Monfils has stabilized his team and can start delivering consistent performances.

There is also cautious optimism around Gasquet. After a turbulent Davis Cup tie in April and a miserable clay season during which he struggled to win a match, the 22-year-old split with his longtime coach this spring and is now working with Guillaume Peyre, the former coach of Baghdatis.

"I practice a lot in November and December, I feel sure I can reach the top 10 soon," Gasquet said.

As Simon alluded, Gasquet has faced greater and longer pressure than any of his compatriots on tour. He famously graced the cover of a French tennis magazine at 9 years old, with the accompanying tagline "The champion France is waiting for?"

All the expectations seemed justified when a 15-year-old Gasquet received a wild card into the qualifying of the Monte Carlo Masters and not only qualified for the event but won his first-round match, to boot. The first point Gasquet ever played on international television was a big serve and winning volley against Marat Safin in the second round.

But he struggled with the pressure in subsequent years and was sometimes criticized for being soft. With three more young Frenchmen around to share the burden, perhaps he can now open up his shoulders and strike his magical one-handed backhand without fear.

Gilles Simon
The astute Gilles Simon would rather not share the details of his personal life via Facebook.
As for Simon, his handicap is his size -- a slender 5-foot-11 frame that might be too small for going toe to toe with the game's biggest guns. Still, he was one of only three players to record wins over Federer, Nadal and Djokovic last season, and is capable of keeping his new spot in the top 10 for some months yet.

He is writing a regular column for the French sporting newspaper L'Equipe, "An email from Gilles Simon," published in a computer-screen format complete with emoticons. In his most recent installment, he writes about the Facebook phenomenon that has penetrated the pro circuit as much as any other segment of society.

While there is a person on the Web site pretending to be him, Simon writes, he himself wants no part of it.

"Facebook, what is it?" he wrote. "It's egocentrism. It's a nightclub. It's voyeurism. It's 'Look at my vacation photos,' it's 'This morning I was in a bad mood, just so the whole world knows.' You say all, tell all. It's the pleasure of recounting your life, even at its most mundane.

"… Me, I have no desire to show my vacation photos. Firstly, they're mine. And then, I don't think people are interested. Finally, I don't see what it will add to my image. The newspapers for example asked me for pictures of my girlfriend. I refused. This is an area about which I don't speak.

"I am a tennis player. And I am not on Facebook."

Simon and the rest of the quartet all made it through their second-round matches at the French Open, though clearly you won't hear about it on Simon's Facebook page.

With their wide range of interests and eclectic playing styles, Les Nouveaux Mousquetaires are an appealing mix both on and off the court.

"That's France," said Mats Wilander, who has coached French players Tatiana Golovin and Paul-Henri Mathieu, yet is something of an outside insider in French tennis.

"It's so great for personalities: some outgoing, some serious. That's great, and it's now coming out in their tennis."

And is it really all for one and one for all? Not quite, said Monfils, for tennis is still an individual sport. "We're happy when the other ones are doing good, but we don't watch what he's doing. We all do our own thing and if someone's doing better, we're happy for him."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.