A sad realisation has dawned on me in the early months of this year. 2021 is the beginning of the end for Gael Monfils and the rest of the old French guard. All the signs are there. It started with Monfils breaking down in tears after his first round loss in the Australian Open. That was the first hint that something significant was happening in the world of men’s tennis. Not long after that, young star Ugo Humbert was the only French player to move past the first round of ATP Montpellier at the end of February. That in itself might not seem significant, but it is when you realise that a Frenchman has won it in eight of the last ten additions. In fact, Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet, and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga account for seven of the last 11 champions of the tournament.
That none of them even featured in the second round is significant. It was in learning that none of the trio will feature in the Miami Open this year that it began to truly dawn on me. 2021 is the beginning of the end for the old French guard in men’s tennis. The closer I looked, the more apparent it became. That talented group of French men is finally fading towards retirement. With that realization comes the answer to one of the biggest questions in men’s tennis of the last decade or more. The question: will one of the many young talents to come out of France in such a short space of time win a Grand Slam? The answer, both emphatically and disappointingly, is no.
A Promising Young Group of Players Revives French Hopes
To understand why so much was expected of this group of French men, we must understand how much promise they showed from a young age. For the sake of this article I am going to limit its scope to Monfils, Tsonga, and Gasquet. Gilles Simon and Benoit Paire could easily be included in the conversation, but those three carried the majority of French hopes for the last ten to fifteen years. The most promising of the three from a young age was undoubtedly Richard Gasquet.
Gasquet won his first Tour-level match at just 15 years old, defeating Franco Squillari in the the first round of the Monte-Carlo Masters in 2002. That same year he won the junior French Open and US Open titles and finished as junior World #1. Amazingly, those results were of little surprise to the tennis world. Gasquet had already been on the cover of a French magazine at the age of nine and was being lauded as the next men’s tennis great. Given the incredible level he played at early in his career, it is easy to understand why.
Amazing Success for Gasquet Before in Early Years
Gasquet made his first ATP Tour final in 2004 at just 18 years old. That same year he won the mixed doubles title at the French Open. In 2005 he gave the first real showcase of just how talented he was. While still 18, Gasquet reached the semifinals of the Monte-Carlo Masters. He upset World #1 Roger Federer in the quarterfinals to get there, becoming the youngest French player ever to beat a World #1. Later that year he reached his first Masters 1000 final in Hamburg, this time losing to Federer in straight sets.
He wasn’t done yet, though, and went on to win his first ATP Tour singles title on his June 18th, which also happens to be his birthday. So, at just 19 years of age, Gasquet had reached his first Masters final, won his first ATP title, and finished 2005 ranked #16 in the world. The talented Frenchman continued his early success the following year. In 2006, Gasquet picked up three more ATP titles on three different surfaces and reached his second Masters 1000 final in Toronto. Gasquet’s early ascension in the men’s game was blisteringly quick. Most assumed it was only a matter of time before he started winning the biggest tournaments on the tour. In 2007, Gasquet appeared to confirm those beliefs with his first Grand Slam semifinal appearance.
2007 Wimbledon Semifinal at 21
Just after his 21st birthday, Gasquet made the second week of Wimbledon. He hit a blistering 93 winners in the quarterfinal to come back from two sets and a break down against Andy Roddick before losing in the semifinal to eventual champion Roger Federer. The result saw him reach a career high ranking of #7. The stage looked set for Gasquet to join the likes of Federer and Nadal as the truly elite of the men’s game. No one would have guessed at the time that the semifinal appearance and #7 ranking would both be the best he achieved throughout his career, but they were.
Gasquet did not make another Grand Slam semifinal until 2013. He has never been ranked higher than #7 in the nearly 14 years since he first reached that spot. After a fifth title in Mumbai in 2007, he won only one trophy on the tour for the next five years. The single-hand backhand star remained amongst the best players on the tour, but he never built on what is undoubtedly one of the brightest starts to a tennis career in recent memory. The question is why?
Injuries, Controversy and a Lack of Mental Fortitude
Injuries and off-court issues have certainly played their part. Gasquet has racked up quite an injury list throughout his career, including several knee issues, a bout with chicken pox, and back issues. He was also temporarily suspended from the ATP Tour for testing positive for cocaine, but was later cleared of any wrongdoing by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. All of these are contributing factors, but the truth is he just doesn’t have the mental fortitude required to make it to the top of the men’s game.
Gasquet has built quite the reputation for blowing leads and choking in matches throughout his career. More than once he has been ahead in the later stages of big tournaments only to falter just short of the finish line. He has often seemed content to rely on the natural talent he clearly possesses rather than working hard to refine and improve his game the way the truly elite in the sport have done. In fact, the same can be said for the other two French stars who have failed to live up to expectations in their illustrious careers.
Monfils’ Career a Familiar Story
Monfils showed equal promise to that of Gasquet at a young age. In 2004, he won three of the four junior Grand Slams and was junior World #1. Like Gasquet, he won his first title in 2005 before his 19th birthday. Monfils also made two ATP finals in his breakout season. The same year he made the fourth round of the Miami Masters and the third round of Wimbledon. The young French star climbed over 200 ranking spots in 2005 alone and finished inside the Top 50.
He took a year longer than Gasquet to make a Grand Slam semifinal. He also took a year longer to break into the top ten in the rankings, doing so in 2008. Nonetheless, the promise was there from an early age again, and again that would be the peak of his career. To Monfils’ credit, he has done a better job of staying among the top players on the tour over his career than Gasquet. The athletic young star has finished inside the top 20 in seven of the 12 years since the end of 2008. However, he has failed to kick on and win big tournaments as expected.
Close but not Quite is Monfils’ Legacy
He has made three Masters 1000 finals but never one won. Nor has he ever gone further than the semifinals of a Grand Slam. Monfils, like Gasquet, has often been accused of relying too much on athletic ability and talent to see him through matches. Both have done little to improve their games since bursting onto the ATP Tour. Both also lack the mental edge needed to rise to the top of the game.
For Monfils, that has never been more apparent than in his loss Novak Djokovic in Dubai last year. Monfils has never beaten Djokovic, but was the better player for most of that match, serving for it twice. Both times he failed to close out and would end up losing in a one-sided third set. That match was a perfect depiction of Monfils’ career. As close as you can get to being the best there is, but not quite good enough to get there.
Monfils and Gasquet are now both 34. Their windows for changing the narrative of what could have been are all but shut. The same can be said for Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, the third of the trio with so many “what ifs” to their names. Just like his fellow countrymen, Tsonga attracted attention early on in his career.
Tsonga Makes it Three
Tsonga too won a junior Grand Slam title. He also enjoyed great success in the early years of his career, more so in fact than his fellow Frenchmen. At 22 years old, Tsonga made his first Grand Slam final at the Australian Open in 2008. The same year he won his first ATP Masters title, something his compatriots have failed to do. He has also made four Grand Slam semifinals and has a career best ranking of world #5.
If you look objectively at the big, bruising Frenchman’s career, objectively it is difficult to say he underachieved. He has made nine Grand Slam quarterfinals, five semifinals, and one final. Tsonga achieved all of that while playing with four of the greatest tennis players we have ever seen. However, Tsonga is one of only two players, the other being David Nalbandian, to beat at least three of the “Big 4” in a single tournament. He did so to win the Canada Masters in 2014. He has also beaten each of the “Big 4” at least once in a Grand Slam.
If the likes of Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, and Juan Martin Del Potro were able to win a Slam in the same period, Tsonga definitely should have at least one. In fairness to Tsonga, his struggles have been more with injuries than a lack of mental toughness. He has struggled with persistent knee issues since 2008 and has had multiple surgeries to address the problem. Nonetheless, he probably should have a Grand Slam to his name regardless.
What Should Have Been Will Likely Never Be
In fact, all three of these French stars should probably have at least one Grand Slam to their names. All of three have 15 or more career titles. Each has made deep runs in big tournaments on a consistent basis throughout their careers. They all rose to top of the game at a young age. For the most part, they all stayed there throughout their careers as well. You’d be hard pressed to find a country with a generation of players as talented as they are. You’d be equally hard pressed to find three players so gifted without a Grand Slam to their name.
Each are likely to finish their careers in the top 50 for ATP Tour match wins in the Open Era. Gilles Simon will likely join the trio on that list when all is said and done. Of that group of 50 players, over 75% won at least one Grand Slam and the majority have multiple Slams to their names. Most of the names on that list are true legends of the game. Multiple Grand Slam Winners who dominated the tour at one time or another.
Every country with multiple names in the top 50 in career wins has at least one Grand Slam winner. Everyone except France. The country has produced four of the 50 most winning men on the tour in the Open Era. All of them part of one generation of tennis, and not one of them a Grand Slam champion. Yet more evidence, if more was needed, that this trio of talent has been somewhat wasted.
Signs are That it is Too Late to Change the Narrative
Gasquet, Monfils, Tsonga, and company have been a joy to watch in their time on the tour. Each plays entertaining, eye-catching tennis. They’ve all won multiple titles and come close to the pinnacle of the men’s game. However, when they lay down their rackets for good, each will do so have underachieved given the talent they possess. They may yet prove me wrong with a miracle run late in their careers. Recent struggles with injury or form suggest otherwise though.
Gasquet seems to withdraw from every second tournament with injury nowadays. Monfils hasn’t won a match since February last year, and Tsonga is once again returning from an injury, or was until he had to retire in Dubai. Both Monfils and Tsonga have withdrawn from the Miami Masters this year. While they are far from the only players to do so, for the pair it feels like a last ditch attempt to right ship for one last dazzling run than a scheduling decision or precautionary measure.
Both know they aren’t at the level needed to play a tournament of that size. It is yet another sign that their stars are fading. However, they are more likely to go out with a puff than a bang. If we’re honest, 2021 looks like the beginning of the end for Monfils, Gasquet, Tsonga, and the old French guard.
Main Photo from Getty.