Europe

The Present and Future of French Tennis

Adrian Mannarino couldn’t stifle his chuckle.

He had just been asked what it meant to him to be the top-ranked men’s tennis player from France.

“Well,” Mannarino said in a video interview from a tournament in Astana, Kazakhstan, in early October, “this is not a good sign for French tennis.”

Mannarino, at 35, is in his 20th year on the ATP Tour. He has never been ranked in the world’s top 20 and has never advanced beyond the round of 16 at a Grand Slam tournament. He did win the championship in Astana, though, his fourth career title and second of the year.

The victory propelled Mannarino’s world ranking to No. 24, just two off from his career-high from March 2018. But, as he heads into the Paris Masters for the 13th time, Mannarino is keenly aware of the void of top talent in France.

“We all knew that whenever Gaël [Monfils], Richard [Gasquet], Gilles [Simon] and Jo [Wilfried Tsonga] would get old, there would be a time when French tennis would be in trouble,” said Mannarino, of four French players who have all been ranked within the top 10 but are now in their late thirties and have either retired or dropped down significantly in the rankings. (Though Monfils did win his 12th career title in Stockholm last week.)

“We’re still waiting for the young players to get to the top. There’s a lot of talent, but it’s taking a little bit of time to get to the top level,” he said.

There are now 13 Frenchmen in the top 100, but only four — Arthur Fils, Luca van Assche, Ugo Humbert and Hugo Gaston — are 25 or younger. Fils has shown the most promise.

At just 19, Fils, a finalist at the French Open junior championship in 2021, began the season ranked outside the top 250 and playing on the lower-level challenger circuit. He is now ranked No. 38.

In February, Fils broke through in his home country, reaching back-to-back semifinals in Montpellier and Marseille, where he beat Stan Wawrinka. He won his first ATP title in Lyon, France, in May, and reached the semifinals in Hamburg, Germany, beating Casper Ruud before falling to the eventual champion, Alexander Zverev. Fils upset Stefanos Tsitsipas en route to the final in Antwerp, Belgium, last week before he went down to Alexander Bublik in the championship match.

Arthur Fils, also a French player, after a successful shot in a match that he ultimately lost to Matteo Arnaldi of Italy at the U.S. Open in August.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Fils also made his Davis Cup debut for France alongside Mannarino in September and then was chosen by Bjorn Borg, captain of Team Europe, to be one of the team’s six representatives at the Laver Cup. He lost his lone singles match there to Ben Shelton.

Fils said he has modeled his game after his countryman Tsonga, a big hitter who was runner-up to Novak Djokovic at the 2008 Australian Open and reached five other major semifinals.

“Tsonga was one of my idols when I was younger,” Fils said. “He had a big serve, some great forehands and was in amazing physical condition. I’m trying to do the same and play a lot with my forehand and try to serve a lot of aces.”

Mannarino’s style of play is nearly the opposite. It is best described as durable and reliable, though he benefits from a left-handed hook serve that draws opponents off court.

“I’m not really powerful, so I’m trying to be a little smarter,” said Mannarino. “I’m moving pretty well and adapting to my opponent’s game most of the time. I’m like a counterpuncher; I use the power of my opponent and just try to be as consistent as I can. And if my opponent can miss some shots, I’m always happy.”

Though only two years younger than Gasquet and Monfils, both of whom have seen their rankings drop out of the top 50, Mannarino is playing some of the best tennis of his life. Last year, he reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open before losing to the eventual winner, Rafael Nadal. This year, he beat Shelton and Hubert Hurkacz at the Miami Open to reach the round of 16 and has wins over Daniil Medvedev and Taylor Fritz. And yet only once, in 2020, has he reached the third round at the Paris Masters.

“I’ve never had great results at Bercy, but I feel like I’m really enjoying my time when I’m playing there,” Mannarino said, referring to the site of the tournament. As a child, he would sit in the top level of the stadium with friends from his local tennis club and cheer on the French players. “It’s always good to have the French crowd supporting you, especially the Parisians, because it’s pretty noisy and a good atmosphere.”

Mannarino after winning a point against Daniil Medvedev of Russia in their second-round match at Wimbledon in July.Credit…Adam Vaughan/EPA, via Shutterstock

France has a rich and vast tennis history. Suzanne Lenglen won Wimbledon six times from 1919 to 1925. Yvon Petra won Wimbledon in 1946, and Yannick Noah became the first Frenchman in 37 years to win at Roland Garros in 1983.

Mary Pierce won the Australian Open in 1995 and the French Open in 2000. Amélie Mauresmo, a former world No. 1, captured both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006. And Marion Bartoli took the Wimbledon title in 2013.

But there are no more revered French players than the Four Musketeers — Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste — who led their nation to the Davis Cup six straight years, from 1927 to 1932.

More recently, though, Mannarino and Fils met during a practice session at France’s national tennis center when Fils was just 15.

“His fitness coach came to me after and said, ‘Oh, Arthur didn’t like it; it was going too fast for him and he could barely keep up,’” Mannarino said. “And then, a few years later he’s almost beating me. He’s improved so fast, and his tennis is really mature for his age.”

Mannarino knows his time left on tour is limited by his age. But, so far, he does not see himself as old.

“I don’t feel old because I don’t feel like my tennis level is dropping yet, even my physical condition,” he said. “I just feel like a kid in my head, and I’m trying to enjoy my life on the tour. As long as my legs can still run, I’m going to keep trying my best.”

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