On a wall outside the southeast corner of Court Philippe Chatrier there lies a large black-and-white photo of Yannick Noah, Noah brought to his knees by what he had just accomplished: winning the 1983 Roland Garros men’s singles championship.
Noah remains the last French man to win the title here – or, for that matter, the singles at any of the majors. Later today, inside Chatrier, a pair of Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, will play one another. In theory, each is in pursuit of that Holy Grail, each hoping to grasp this tournament by throat the way Noah did 34 years ago.
And yet, really, truly, honestly, candidly, emphatically, what is it that by now makes it hard to think that can really happen? At one level, certainly, a major obstacle in the path of Gasquet and Monfils has been the clay court excellence of their lifelong peer, Rafael Nadal. But even then, it’s sadly revealing that Gasquet and Monfils, in 23 combined appearances at Roland Garros, have collectively reached the semis here just once, Monfils getting to the final four back in 2008.
Each frustrates for different reasons. Gasquet has long drawn oohs and aahs with his luscious one-handed backhand, a long, fluid, rip of a swing capable of winners from just about anywhere on the court. But for all the sizzlers he’s cooked off that side, Gasquet’s forehand – cluttered by a hitch-laced backswing – can betray him in key moments. There is also something beguiling about Gasquet’s level of competitive engagement, a subtle but cumulative brand of passivity that finds matches not necessarily slipping through his fingers, but instead gently being grabbed away by more ardent opponents.
What I say next about Monfils might incur the wrath of many, but I have felt this for a long time: I’m tired of the cult of his alleged athleticism. Unquestionably, Monfils’ physical prowess can impress, his speed most of all, his strength surfacing at unusual but occasionally engaging moments. But whither his sustainability? What is it in Monfils’ technique and footwork – tennis’ alpha and omega – that lead him to constantly getting injured? In 2016, Monfils took a big step forward, finishing a year in the top ten for the first time in his career. But once again, this spring, injuries surfaced; two, in fact, to his knee and heel. Also, like Gasquet, a passivity frequently infects Monfils’ game, the Frenchman more willing to react than initiate.
Yannick Noah won this event less with technique and more with his own brand of passion, often willing himself to one win over another. Somehow, for two golden weeks, Noah was able to do something that will likely continue to elude Gasquet and Monfils at their homeland Slam: compete not just as a lover, but also a fighter.
Read more articles by Joel Drucker
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