Philippe Bouin was 27 years old in 1979, when he left his job as an engineer to work as a rewrite man on the tennis desk of L’Équipe, a daily sports newspaper in Paris. Four years later, he sat in the press box at Roland Garros and watched Yannick Noah become the first Frenchman in 37 years to win the nation’s tennis championship. “I was doing statistics and had to take notes on each point,” Bouin said last week, smoking a cigarette in a café in the French Open press center. “It was very exciting, and if you look at the picture in L’Équipe, I’m the only one at match point who is not jumping out of his seat. I was still putting my little tick on the paper.” That photo ran the following day along with a front-page ad, paid for by FILA, that read, “Bravo Yannick, et Merci!”
It’s been almost 30 years since that day, and Bouin is now retired and still waiting for another chance to leap from his chair. France has not produced another men’s champion at its Grand Slam championship, let alone at any of the other three. Only two French women, Amélie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce (who was born in Canada and raised in the United States, but has a French father), have since won Grand Slams. Women’s tennis also matters significantly less in France. (“Maybe because we’re all chauvinists,” one French tennis fan suggested to me.) The tournament media guide has a page listing “Best Years for French Tennis,” and only one of them, Noah’s 1983 victory, occurred after 1950.
Through this, France has managed, however, to produce some of the more entertaining players in the game. Bouin recalled one player who, for no apparent reason, occasionally hit volleys with the side of his racket. Noah looked nothing like an average Frenchman, or the average tennis player, with his caramel skin and dreadlocks, and he has since become more famous as a singer than an athlete. The current generation has produced a particularly strong cast of characters. One of them has said, of his persistent mental fluctuations, “I want to keep my craziness.” Another never misses an opportunity to turn an easy shot into a difficult, acrobatic one. A third, considered the most gifted, was once suspended for testing positive for cocaine, which he said must have gotten into his system through kissing.
And the most successful of them all, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, recently declared — publicly and without reservation — that he and all the other French players had no chance of winning the French Open this year. It was shocking to hear, even if he was right. Tsonga met Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals earlier this week, where he lost in five grueling sets. French television switched to the news midway through the final set, with Tsonga down two breaks. He was the last remaining French player of either gender in the tournament, and perhaps network executives didn’t think their audience was ready for more heartbreak. Or perhaps they simply didn’t care. “The problem in France is that ambition is not a compliment,” Bouin told me, between drags. “It’s almost a bad word. ‘Ha, look, he’s ambitious.’ So that’s a very difficult situation for an athlete: As soon as you try to be ambitious you have people mocking you. For instance, we would never have made the war in Iraq. On the other hand, we may never win anything.”
If American tennis’s Golden Age was in the 1990s, Australia’s in the ’60s, and Spain’s around now, France had the decade extending five years before and after 1930. Prior to that, the country hadn’t shown much interest in tennis or spectator sports of any kind. The concerns of the citizenry were, in no particular order, food, sex, and the German threat. Then, in 1927, after two near misses in Davis Cup competition, René Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, and Jacques Brugnon — collectively, “Les Quatre Mousquetaires” — beat Bill Tilden and the Americans at the Germantown Club in Philadelphia. “Le sport, which before the war had been considered a form of eccentricity, was now taken seriously,” A.J. Liebling wrote in The New Yorker, upon arriving in Paris shortly after the Davis Cup victory. “The sensation was greater than when Lindbergh completed his transatlantic flight.”
A rematch was scheduled for the following July, in France, which at the time had no venue to hold the increased attendance that would presumably result from increased attention. The Stade Français, a rugby club, offered to donate seven acres for the construction of a new stadium under one condition: It must be named after Roland Garros, a deceased member of the club. Garros was, among other preoccupations, a rugby player, pianist, and auto mechanic, who, at the age of 22, gave up all that to become a pilot. In 1913, he became the first man to cross the Mediterranean by air. He joined the French Air Force during World War I, part of the prestigious “Cigognes” squadron, became the first pilot to to shoot bullets through the gaps in his moving propeller (by synchronizing the gun and the propeller), and survived multiple crashes behind enemy lines. In October 1918, a month before the Armistice, Garros crashed for the final time outside of Vouziers, a northern French town near Belgium. He is buried there, having, as far as we know, seldom spent much time with a tennis racket at all.
It is fitting, perhaps, that the home of the French Open site be named after a polymath rather than a specialist. “The style of French tennis is not to have a style,” Bouin told me, as we sat watching a match between John Isner, whose style — big, booming everything — was very American, and Paul-Henri Matheiu, a Frenchman. “‘Tunnel vision’ in America is often positive,” he went on. “In France we would translate that as wearing blinders. It’s bad, ’cause you’re not open. You’re too focused. I don’t think we would like having a style. We would be bored.” He then quoted Antoine Houdar De La Motte, an 18th century French writer and playwright: “Boredom was born from uniformity.”
When I mentioned to a French reporter in Paris that I was writing a story about his country’s players, he recommended that I find a way to watch Benoit Paire. He was considered one of the country’s best young talents, but I didn’t know much about him when I arrived at Court 1 for his second-round match against Spaniard David Ferrer, the sixth-ranked player in the world. According to his official tournament biography, Paire is 23 years old, ranked 69th in the world, from Avignon, and he’s nicknamed “La Tige,” or “The Stalk,” because he’s tall and thin. He was featured on the front cover of that morning’s Quotidien, the Open’s daily newspaper, under the headline “Benoit Paire Est Unique.” Inside, the article added more context. “Whimsical and dramatic, the Frenchman rarely does things like anyone else, to the great delight of the public,” the story read, before describing Paire as “a crazy but talented dog in the process of domestication.” Steve Tignor, of Tennis magazine, described Paire as one of a handful of players in the “Fun to Watch” category, and noted that “many of these wayward artistes over the years have been French.”
Once Paire walked on court — many minutes late, owing, he said, to several rackets that needed to be restrung — I realized he was also one of only a few players I could recall on tour with a full lumberjack beard. He had several strange quirks. Where many top players bounce the ball dozens of times before serving, Paire’s routine is different. He receives the ball from a ball boy, turns, bounces it once, then serves. It’s as if he has better things to do. He also prefers to hit backhands rather than forehands. When young tennis players learn the game, they’re taught to run around their forehands: If the ball is heading toward your backhand side, but you have enough time to move in position for a forehand, do it. Instead, Paire often runs around his backhand. On the match, Paire let loose more than 30 drop shots, sometimes on back-to-back points, and at least once on back-to-back-to-back points. He took one of the shots from five feet behind the baseline, which, if you don’t understand tennis well, would be similar in degree of difficulty and foolhardiness to shooting a 3-pointer from 30 feet on a five-on-one fast break, while using your off hand; or, in golf, going low through the trees from 150 yards, over a sand trap, and rolling the ball onto the green. On this particular point, Ferrer hardly moved, as if in disbelief that Paire had even tried such a shot. Paire then lost the next three points, and the set, and eventually the match.
The tradition of the French tennis eccentric — the kinder word is artiste — goes back to the nation’s first great champion, Suzanne Lenglen. She drank brandy during matches and would cry on the court after bad games, all of which combined with her flamboyant and elegant play to earn her the nickname La Divine. Even the original Mousquetaires were eccentrics in their own way. Borotra wore a beret while playing. Lacoste, known as “The Crocodile” — hence the logo — had invented the ball machine, a device that allowed him to practice his shots over and over, so that when he played, each one was like the last, in complete uniformity.
It is quite possible that in his eight-year career, Gaël Monfils, currently ranked 14th in the world, has yet to hit two shots exactly alike. His specialty is leaping in the air, then swinging his racket between his legs or behind his back or with his weaker hand, and occasionally some combination of all those. As Bouin put it, Monfils “prefers to be seen as an exciting showman than as a dull winner.” Were he ever to focus on winning, he is seen as the Frenchman with the best chance of someday becoming a champion at Roland Garros. This year, he was out with a tweaked knee. “Monfils would be my favorite player if he ever played,” Bouin added. “I’m almost convinced he has no confidence, no deep confidence in himself. So I think he escapes by doing all the crazy things he does. And I think sometimes he escapes by having injuries.”
Monfils was one of four members of a French generation — along with Tsonga, Gilles Simon, and Richard Gasquet — who earned the name “Les Nouveaux Mousquetaires” before they had done much of anything to earn comparison to the originals. Each player had his own quirks, but together, all four were expected to bring French tennis back to a Nouveaux Golden Era. “Tennis was the hyped sport in the ’80s,” Bouin said, before offering a lesson in Western European history. Europe had gone through an economic surge in the decades after World War II, and by the ’80s tennis had become a symbol of ascension into the bourgeoisie. Philippe Chatrier, after whom Roland Garros’s main court is named, aided the process by offering coverage of the French Open to the biggest channel in France, practically for free. “When I was young there were very few sports on TV,” Bouin said. “In a soccer match, you saw little people running far away on a gray screen and they didn’t have faces. Tennis was the first sport where you had the faces of the champions in your home. They were on court for hours, and soon everyone knew Björn Borg, Ilie Nastase, [Jimmy] Connors, [John] McEnroe, [Ivan] Lendl, and then, of course, Noah.”
Noah’s victory raised interest in tennis to new heights. Money was spent, courts were built, and soon everyone wanted a racket. A generation of players born at the crest of this wave finally began to arrive in the professional ranks in the mid-2000s, including “Les Nouveaux Mousquetaires.”
Of the four, the greatest expectations were placed on Richard Gasquet, who appeared on the cover of a French tennis magazine at age 9, won the French Open junior title at age 17, and beat Roger Federer at 19. “The expectations were too much, too early, as usual,” Bouin said. Gasquet was so young when he beat Federer that he missed part of the season with chicken pox. Four years later, he missed part of another season for more adult concerns: He was suspended for cocaine use. (Last week, in a presumably unrelated incident, Gasquet played a 38-shot point in his second-round match against Grigor Dimitrov, and when it was all over, promptly bent over and vomited on the court.) He has never quite overcome that suspension or lived up to the grand expectations for him, and the incident became something of a joke among French tennis fans, partly because Gasquet explained that he had ingested the cocaine orally while kissing a woman. Bouin said Gasquet’s cocaine use was less disappointing to the French public than his inability to win a major. “It was more that nobody could believe it,” Bouin said. “He had such bad results, he was such a bad fighter, and so weak physically, that nobody could suppose he was on drugs. They thought, If he’s taking drugs, they’re not very good. If Monfils would have been taking something, then we would be like, ‘Ah, he’s taking something that works.’”
By all reasonable measures, the quartet and their countrymen have succeeded wildly. Ten French players rank in the top 100, and all four of Les Nouveaux Mousquetaires are among the world’s top 20. On both counts, only Spain has more: 13 in the top 100 and five of the top 20. But by the one measure that counts — Grand Slam singles titles — they have quadruple-faulted.
There’s a good reason for that. “We have this famous race, the Tour de France,” Guy Forget, the former French Davis Cup captain, told me. “And basically before the race starts you know who’s going to win it. It’s between three or four riders, and if you’re not in that group, you have no chance of winning the Tour. That’s what tennis has become.” I suggested to Philippe Bouin that combining each of the best qualities from Les Nouveaux Mousquetaires might result in a Grand Slam champion for France, and he replied: “Just call him Federer.”
The presence of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer at the top of the tennis pecking order has provoked a degree of fatalism, especially in France, where this generation of dominant stars has overshadowed the country’s most talented group of players in decades. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the country’s top-ranked player, fifth in the world, and considered to be one of the sport’s most athletic players. In truth, Tsonga is no more athletic than Djokovic or Nadal or many others on tour, but he has darker skin, which allows the lazy stereotype of his athleticism to be one of his defining traits.
Tsonga bears a striking resemblance to a young Cassius Clay, and he’s the only French player to reach a Grand Slam final in the past decade. Despite his success, however, Tsonga made this announcement before the Open: “Let’s be clear — today, there is no chance that a Frenchman will win Roland Garros.” (The French refer to the Grand Slam they host by its location; I greatly confused a French acquaintance when I informed her I would be in Paris for the French Open.) When reporters asked Tsonga to clarify his remarks, he did not back down: “At the moment, no one would place a bet on one of us winning a Grand Slam tournament tomorrow.” It was a decidedly logical assessment, but one that did not sit well with a populace faced not only with decline in its tennis success but a broader decline in its position in the world. Regardless, it seemed poor form from a prospective champion when Tsonga leapt in the air and pumped his fist after a second-round win. Was reaching the third round reason enough for a top-10 player to celebrate victory over an unranked opponent? Perhaps: On 10 different occasions, no Frenchman has reached the fourth round at Roland Garros. After his loss to Djokovic in the quarterfinals, Tsonga said, “Next year we’ll have the same question and we’ll have the same answers. As long as none of us wins it, we won’t be able to claim we can win it. That’s all.”
When asked to identify the most prominent French athlete of the moment, Bouin paused, then frowned. He couldn’t quite pick one. Five years ago it would have been one of the French soccer players, but their meltdown at the 2010 World Cup sullied the team’s reputation. There are no stars from rugby or Formula One, and Tony Parker plays an ocean away. Golf is not especially popular. (Jean Van de Velde’s collapse was a minor affaire.) Many of the top stars no longer play their sports at all. Zinedine Zidane is still popular, despite his ignominious end. So is Yannick Noah, who has been named the country’s top celebrity by a national poll several times in recent years, but that had more to do with his pop music than his athletic achievements. Bouin considered the nation’s handball team as a possible no. 1 — “They are humble, and they win” — before finally settling on Teddy Riner, a judo fighter. “In short: “There is room at the moment for someone to rise up.”
The museum at Roland Garros has a propeller from one of Garros’s planes, on which an inscription reads: “Victory belongs to the most tenacious.” This, in brief, describes what it takes to win at the French Open — defensive players who are willing to grind out long matches tend to prevail. And “tenacious” is an adjective rarely ascribed to French players of this or any generation. “The problem with the French players, generally, is that they are good players, very gifted, but not fighters,” Philippe Bouin said. “Spanish players, for instance, have not been really appreciated by the French not because they are Spaniards, but because of their style of play. They are fighters. The French crowd prefers attacking players, gifted players, for sure. But they would rather have a guy who could win, at least once.”
As fans, would we rather be entertained or victorious? My favorite match at the Open was between Arnaud Clément, of France, and David Goffin, of Belgium, which is basically France. It lasted all of five minutes, or the second part of it did, after the match was suspended due to darkness with Goffin four points from victory. The restarted match featured a moment of supreme sportsmanship. Clément overruled a line judge’s call in his favor by informing the umpire that one of Goffin’s balls had actually landed in. Two points later, Clément, who had announced that this would be his final French Open, had lost. If there is a more eccentric move from a professional athlete than rejecting a referee’s favorable call, it could only be the fact that Clément wears a different headband for each set (in this match: blue, red, white, green, and finally, lavender). I had noticed this habit before and once asked Clément about it:
Is there a reason you wear a different style of headband each set?
Guy Forget, the former top-10 player and French Davis Cup captain, had made a pledge to watch each of Clément’s last matches at the tournament. I approached him to ask if he and his countrymen were disappointed by their lack of big-time success since Noah’s victory. “Well, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with the American players, you know?” he said, turning the question around. “Since Andy Roddick you guys are gonna wait a while. You are a bigger country, and you have more players, and hopefully you will have another one soon, but there’s not a rule that you will. Why does Switzerland produce someone as good as Roger? Basically, you’re born a champion, and no matter where you live, if you happen to have all the skills, basically you’ll make it one day, whether you’re born in Santa Barbara or Paris or Belgrade. Your country’s history doesn’t make you a champion.”
In large part, French tennis fans seem to have accepted the fact that this generation may be ceded to Spain, Switzerland, and Serbia, so they may as well enjoy the ride. “The French attitude toward any crisis is not to soldier through it but just to pretend that it isn’t happening,” Adam Gopnik wrote in Paris to the Moon, his memoir of living in France. “It was in Paris, after all, that Picasso and Sartre sat in a café for four years pretending that the Germans weren’t there.” There is not much of the hand-wringing that exists among American tennis fans, who are more eager for a return to prominence. The French have four enjoyable players to watch, and if they don’t win a major, so be it. When each of them takes the court, you have no idea what you will get. Clement was asked in the press conference if he was pleased with his career. He thought for a moment, then offered this, which seemed a reasonable motto for French tennis: “Each time I was there I enjoyed it. All the time, almost.”
Correction: An earlier published version of this story stated that Mary Pierce was the only French tennis player since Yannick Noah to win a Grand Slam. That is incorrect. Amélie Mauresmo, who is also French, won the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006.
Reeves Wiedeman is a member of the editorial staff of The New Yorker, and writes the magazine’s Sporting Scene blog.