Commentary

The French want some respect

Updated: October 27, 2013, 3:36 PM ET
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
AP Photo/Petr David JosekJo-Wilfried Tsonga is the only current French top-50 player who has been in a Grand Slam final.
When tennis fans are asked which nation dominates the men's game, the usual response is Spain. And that perception can't be argued with at all.

Surprisingly, however, if calculating strength by manpower, Spain doesn't have exclusive rights on the upper echelon of the sport.

As the 2013 ATP tour season is about to end at the BNP Paribas Masters in Paris this week -- for all but the elite eight who compete at the year-end championships -- a look at the rankings shows that France and Spain both have seven players in the top 50. Spain's representatives are No. 1 Rafael Nadal, No. 3 David Ferrer, No. 13 Nicolas Almagro, No. 19 Tommy Robredo, No. 30 Feliciano Lopez, No. 32 Fernando Verdasco and No. 35 Marcel Granollers. Holding for France are No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, No. 10 Richard Gasquet, No. 16 Gilles Simon, No 26 Benoit Paire, No. 31 Gael Monfils, No. 33 Julien Benneteau and No. 36 Jeremy Chardy.

And while Spain boasts 14 players in the top 100, France is keeping close company by being only one man short of that number.

That comparison asks the question: Why don't we think of France in quite the same influencing fashion as Spain?

At the Shanghai Rolex Masters earlier this month, Tsonga took a stab at explaining why the French tend to be overlooked in terms of commanding attention.

"Of course, I don't have solution," Tsonga said. "But we do everything to change this statistic. [I think it's] we didn't win a lot of Davis Cups and we don't have players in the top five. Maybe we still need time, and [it] is gonna happen."

Tsonga's points are well taken. For instance, while both countries have two players within the elite top 10, Spain has Nadal and Ferrer in the top three, while Tsonga and Gasquet fill out the final two spots of that group. As for Davis Cup, since the turn of the century France has won the Cup once, in 2001, while Spain has been champion five times (2000, '04, '08, '09, '11).

Spain, of course, is also undeniably carried by the reputation of Nadal, one of the greatest of all time with 13 Grand Slam titles. His superstar stature certainly bolsters the reputation of the rest of the Spanish Armada, a close-knit group of friends who thrive on their strong work ethic.

It's also worth noting that Ferrer reached his first Grand Slam final at this year's French Open. In comparison, Tsonga is the only Frenchman of the current crop to compete in a Grand Slam final, doing so at the 2008 Australian Open, as well as appearing in four additional semifinals at the majors. And noticeably, as a group, the French don't possess that best-friends-forever bond that unites the Spanish, an important missing element to the equation.

Rafael Nadal
Emmanuel Dunland/AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal's success has often been translated into Spanish dominance by tennis fans.
"For the moment, we have to work and we have to be all together," Tsonga said. "We have to push each other towards the top or motivate each other towards the top. We have to work together like the Spanish guys did. They always have dinner together. They always spend time together. They discuss a lot. I think it makes Spain, you know, have a really good spirit.

"Yeah, that's it. We are close, but we have to be more close," he added, smiling.

As for Monfils, he doesn't much care as to why the French receive less recognition than the Spaniards for littering the top of the game with players.

"Maybe our country developed more kids," Monfils suggested. "Maybe that's why we have a bit more players. But honestly, I think it's just luck. For some generation there's more, some not. So it's luck, I think."

While Monfils thinks it's lucky that there are so many French players in the top 100, others wonder why the grouping hasn't lived up to its promise.

A number of the French players were superbly successful in the juniors, but that good fortune didn't translate exponentially to the same heights of glory in the pros: Tsonga won the U.S. Open junior title and was ranked a No. 2 junior boy; Gasquet was the No. 1 junior and won the U.S. Open and Roland Garros juniors, and Monfils was also a No. 1 junior having won the Australian, Roland Garros and Wimbledon junior trophies.

Nevertheless, as every player knows there's no guarantee that a junior Grand Slam champion will become a main-draw Grand Slam champion.

"I think it just says how difficult it is to make this transition from junior to the pro tour," said Novak Djokovic. "Even though being the best junior in the world, junior Grand Slam winner, gives you some kind of encouragement for a professional career, but it also gives a lot of people an indication of what you can do and your talent. But it's still not enough.

"Jo was very close a few times. Gael also a few times. He played, as did Richard, semis of the Grand Slams, but never reached the finals. You can see the potential in them. But, it's a very big task. To win a Grand Slam is the pinnacle of this sport, besides being No. 1 of the world. Not many players are able to do that."

While the French talent is not in question, close observers believe they understand the underlying cause for why there hasn't been a male Grand Slam champion since Yannick Noah reigned at Roland Garros in 1983.

"Yes, for sure, it's obvious it's about dedication," said Frederic Bernes, a tennis writer for France's major sports newspaper L'Equipe who thinks it's unfair to compare the French players to Nadal but believes they should perform to Ferrer-type standards. "There is a problem of dedication, education and mental toughness, and also injuries."

Tsonga, however, remains steadfast in believing a future French Grand Slam champion could be in their midst: "Yeah, I think we have the potential to do that. But the potential is not enough; we have to do it."

For France, which can boast some of the greatest tennis fans in the world, there is no choice beyond waiting -- and hoping -- Tsonga's prediction is right.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

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