A Certain Gallic Aplomb

The tale of the first week of the 2012 Asian Swing – ‘swing’ is still a term I employ only grudgingly – has been that one Frenchman won his seventh ATP title, while another still hasn’t won any from seven attempts. It’s the kind of coincidental symmetry that makes for a nice opening sentence, but probably reveals little beyond that. I suppose it does reinforce the more commonly-held perceptions of the men involved, and therefore rebuts those who take pride in refuting those perceptions. There’s always some value in that: sometimes it’s nice when truisms are true. Maybe that’s a complicated point, or maybe it’s just a complicated way of putting it.

Bangkok, Final

(2) Gasquet d. (4) Simon, 6/2 6/1

Richard Gasquet, who yesterday won his seventh title in a refurbished barn in Thailand, has always laboured beneath the onus of excessive national expectations. I suspect that’s why his shoulders now slope so sharply downward. His story is well enough known, and among those who know it well the standard line is that all the hype was really overhype. Based on Gasquet’s performances at Major (or even Masters) level, it is a hard point to refute. He was heralded as a world-beater, and by that standard he has certainly underperformed. If the world has been beaten, it wasn’t by Gasquet. He has never won a Masters, and, most problematically, he has only once been past the fourth round at a Slam. Without question he has underperformed, but I’m not convinced it has been by all that much. He doesn’t have much of a serve, his forehand is patchy and his remote court positioning is invariably exposed by quality opponents willing to exploit it. But, still, he has won seven titles, which is more than most players manage. Is the problem with Gasquet, or with poorly calibrated expectations?

Nationalism, which we call patriotism when we want to be nice about it, is useful for some things, but helping you maintain a sense of perspective isn’t one of them, and it always obscures more than it reveals. In Gasquet’s defence, I don’t recall him declaring he’d beat the world. He isn’t Bernard Tomic. The problem, partly, is that when he wins well, he wins very well. He wins so well that you find yourself wondering why he doesn’t do it more often, and wishing he would. Fitness is part of the answer. Mental fortitude is another part. There are technical and tactical deficiencies, but all of these don’t quite add up to a whole. I suspect this true for every player when we look close enough, that in each case we’ll search vainly for that thing that makes them win or lose more than they should. But in the case of French players we look especially close, determined to uncover that common issue that has seen them claim only one Slam in the Open Era.

The cliché is that the best French male players are flashy stylists who lack sufficient substance to apply themselves through an entire Major event, and that in a crucial moment or match they will find a way to blow it. It is so obvious a generalisation and so blatantly reductive that I’m offended when it is continually proved accurate. Long-time readers are doubtless aware that I’m resistant to casual generalisation at the best of times, even as I admit that there’s something seductive about a reality that conforms to our easy assumptions. But I refuse to shake the feeling that it must be more complicated than that, that the continual failure of French men to win big titles resides more in the specificity of each man and each moment than in any airy national set of characteristics. Even the idea of the typical French stylist breaks down under scrutiny. Leconte, Pioline, Grosjean and Gasquet are all undoubtedly stylish tennis players, but if they weren’t all French would we even think to connect them? Throw in Santoro and Tsonga if you like. Even Escude had his moments. Then you have Gilles Simon, who surely isn’t considered a stylist even by his most ardent supporters.

Gasquet struggled all week in Bangkok, having to stage desperate and therefore uncharacteristic recoveries against Grigor Dimitrov and Jarkko Nieminen, yet he roundly trounced a sup-par Simon in the final. For some (unfathomably Gallic) reason Gasquet’s head-to-head with Simon is 6-0 in his favour. It was one of those notorious days when Gasquet could do no wrong. He’s already in Beijing, where he may find a way to lose dispiritedly Matthew Ebden in the first round. If that eventuates we could say that both performances were typically French. But I think it’s fairer to say that both would be typically Gasquet, and leave it at that. He’s won seven titles, though. That’s not bad.

Kuala Lumpur, Final

(2) Monaco d. (7) Benneteau, 7/5 4/6 6/3

Julien Benneteau, if he was homicidally inclined, would surely kill for just one title. There’s no telling what he’d do for seven of them. Perhaps he’d beat the world. Nothing earth-shattering was ever really expected of Benneteau, and not only by John McEnroe, who proved not a whit abashed at not knowing who the Frenchman was. Even among those who have heard of Benneteau – anyone with a passing interest in men’s tennis outside of the Majors – there is a sense that even reaching seven finals is commendable. Of course, far worse players than Benneteau have won titles, and so I don’t want to imply that he doesn’t deserve one. I’d be delighted if he did. I’m just not surprised that he hasn’t, and will remain unsurprised if he never does, despite the fact that I have a lot of time for him as a player.

Being likeable, he is well-liked, but he has never been held in the same lofted regard as his ostensibly more talented compatriots, such as Gasquet, Tsonga, Monfils or even Simon. But for all that I try to reject the notion of a typical French player, I have to confess that I appreciate Benneteau precisely because he doesn’t seem typically French to me, except facially, and in his taste for awful Lacoste shirts. (I admit that is inconsistent.) He can be imposing without being demonstrative and aggressive without being flashy. But when the pressure is greatest, or the heat turned up the highest, he is prone to losing his shape. We could say that this is a French tendency, but then we’d have to award Fernando Verdasco the Légion d’honneur. Really the capacity to lose form in the crucible of a tour final merely makes Benneteau a world citizen.

Benneteau was never likely to break any records, and so learning that he holds the Open Era record for most lost finals without claiming a title (7) was a pleasant discovery. I suppose if he was ever to insinuate himself into the history books, I think that was a reasonable accolade to aim for – difficult and obscure, yet achievable, despite a genuine risk that he’d beat Nieminen in a low-grade decider in Sydney earlier this year. (The Finn’s record in finals is nearly as poor as Benneteau’s.) Yesterday in Kuala Lumpur against a handsomely shorn Juan Monaco there was also some danger that the record might slip away – especially since Benneteau had been so marvellous in beating David Ferrer in the semifinals – but fading fitness and a surging opponent did for him in the end.

Indeed, it was nice to see this pair battling it out in a decent final in Malaysia, given the last time they’d been mentioned in the same space was when they’d been stretchered from the Monte Carlo centre court, each having injudiciously trod in a cunningly concealed pothole. That was many months ago, and they’ve had their individual moments since, in what has amounted to a career year for both. Monaco has won four titles. Benneteau, by continuing to win none, may well have secured his place in history.

 

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