The Future of French Tennis Is About to Pass to the Next Generation
The history of French tennis begins with Suzanne Lenglen and the Four Musketeers — Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste — all of whom dominated the sport in the 1920s and ’30s.
For the last 20 years, the game in France has been ruled by four men who could easily be called the New Musketeers. Gaël Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gilles Simon may have not achieved the success of their predecessors, but they are celebrated for their longevity, camaraderie and talent.
They have grown up and competed against each other since they were juniors. Now in their mid-30s with their careers winding down, both they, and French tennis, are realizing just how valuable they have been to the game and just how perilous the future might be when they are gone.
“Those guys have been huge for French tennis,” Sebastien Grosjean, the French Davis Cup captain, said by phone. “They all ranked in the Top 10 and played on every big stage for 20 years. Sometimes they were criticized for not winning a slam, but they happened to come along when three guys [Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic] won 20 slams and one [Pete Sampras] won 14. It’s hard to compete with that. But what they did do is amazing.”
French tennis has a storied past. Lenglen, the first world No. 1 and a six-time Wimbledon singles champion from 1919 to 1925, won 83 singles titles during her short career.
Between them, the Four Musketeers captured 20 major singles titles, including the French championships 10 times from 1922 to ’32. Together they won the Davis Cup six straight years, from 1927 to ’32.
Since then, only two Frenchmen, Yvon Petra and Yannick Noah, have won major championships. Petra won Wimbledon in 1946 and Noah captivated the nation during his run to the French Open title in 1983.
Monfils, Tsonga, Gasquet and Simon have not risen to that level, and time is running out.
Tsonga and Simon are both 36 (Simon turns 37 in December), and Monfils and Gasquet are 35. They met as top junior players and often trained and traveled together.
“I’ve known these guys since I was 11 or 12 years old,” Tsonga said by phone from his home in Switzerland. “We grew up together. We shared hotel rooms, school, training at the federation center. I remember playing Gilles in an under-12 tournament. What I remember most was that he was half my size and older than me. And I still think that I lost love and love.”
All four were, at one time, ranked within the world’s Top 10 on the ATP Tour. Tsonga reached a career-high No. 5 in 2012 and was runner-up to Djokovic at the 2008 Australian Open. He also reached the semifinals there in 2010, as well as the semifinals twice at Wimbledon and twice at the French Open. He has 18 career ATP titles. Hindered by illness and injuries, including a fight with sickle cell anemia that saps his energy, Tsonga has limited his play this year.
Monfils continues to entertain crowds with his acrobatic play, which features leaps into the air, balls hit through his legs and a smile that radiates across stadiums. A two-time runner-up at the Paris Masters, Monfils was ranked No. 6 in 2016. He has reached the final of an ATP tournament in each of the last 17 years. For him, being the best athlete was not always enough.
“Maybe I’m stronger physically, but tennis is so much more,” Monfils said. “Mentally it’s tougher. I’ve been No. 6 in the world. Those five guys in front of me were stronger than me mentally, but I’ve been stronger than millions of other people.”
Simon hit a career-high No. 6 in 2009, but is currently ranked just outside the Top 100. He reached the quarterfinals in Moscow two weeks ago and has played in the Paris Masters every year since 2006 and reached the semifinals in 2012.
A former semifinalist at Wimbledon and the United States Open, Gasquet has ended the year in the world’s Top 10 four times. Once ranked No. 7, he reached the semis at the Paris Masters in 2007.
Gasquet and Simon first met at a tournament for 10-year-olds. Gasquet was 8 and Simon was 9. They battled for three hours, and when Gasquet finally won he was so exhausted that he could not move and lost his next match. A few years later, he teamed up with Tsonga.
“Jo was a little younger, and I was really winning everything at the time,” Gasquet said by phone. “Jo wanted to emulate me. Then we played doubles together in Davis Cup, and it was so much fun. I have so many great memories of the four of us. We always pushed each other to be better.”
All four men lament that they never won a major, even though they came close and each has amassed more than $15 million in career prize money. They all point to Noah, the last Frenchman to win a major, as a catalyst.
“Yannick is a big name in French tennis, and an inspiration to all of us,” Monfils said. “To see that he made it, how he made it, how he fought through his career, that is very important.”
In ways, the historical greatness has resulted in unfair expectations from French fans.
“I never liked the comparison of these guys to the Four Musketeers because it just creates more pressure,” Grosjean said. “When you’re an athlete, you have to deal with pressure; that’s the way it is. We are a nation with a slam. There are only four of them. But to have a full stadium behind you is better than to have them against you.”
Regardless of when these four players retire, there is some hope for the next generation.
Ugo Humbert, 23, is ranked in the Top 30 and has had wins over Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. He won a title in Halle, Germany, in June, beating Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev. Hugo Gaston, 21, sits just outside the Top 100. And there are six French junior boys ranked in the top 20 by the International Tennis Federation. Luca Van Assche, 17, won the French Open junior title this year, beating Arthur Fils, 17, in the final.
“There was a gap between generations after the Four Musketeers, and there may be a gap after these guys leave,” Grosjean said. “We have some young players with potential, but it takes time to transition from the juniors to the seniors.”
Tsonga knows that you can never predict the future.
“I’ve been around too many years to know that you never know what will happen,” he said. “No one thought that we would be that good. But I’m proud of what we did as players, of the passion that we had playing for the same flag and the special friendship that we all shared. It has been a privilege to play for France.”