Friday, December 5, 2008

The French Connection

So back to BlackRock before I embark upon more of my hits and misses of 2008!

I saw that Cedric Pioline took out John McEnroe in straights today and is set to play Pete Sampras, the guy that blasted him in his two Slam final appearances, next. Seeing old Ced still going at it and playing well doesn't surprise me because in his day, he was definitely one of the better ball strikers out there and could compete on any surface.

This got me thinking, though: What is it with the French men?

For the third year in a row, they've led the way as a nation on the ATP's top 100 rankings, this year placing 14 among the most successful. They're often the most versatile—finding success on any surface—and can hit any shot in the book. It's something, though: No one's had the career that Pioline has had and you can't automatically say the young guys (like Jo-Willie Tsonga, Rich Gasquet and Gael Monfils) even will, for sure.

See, even though he only won five titles while on tour, I think you can make a case for Pioline (who made the top 5) being the second-most successful French player of the Open era. (You have to give the top spot to Yannick Noah because he's the only one with a Major.) There have been a couple of other Slam finalists and numerous top tenners, but no multiple Slam runner-ups from France. If you wanted to put more weight on the Majors, then maybe you give Pioline the nod.

I'm gonna compare him, though, to some French top 10 players over the years, excluding Noah:

• Henri Leconte
Best Slam finish: Runner-up at the '88 French.
Career-high ranking: 5
Number of titles won: 9
Biggest title: German Open (1986)
The nod goes to: Pioline. Sure, Leconte won more titles, but one Slam final? With his game?

• Guy Forget
Best Slam finish: Two quarters at Wimbledon and one in the Australian.
Career-high ranking: 4
Number of titles won: 11
Biggest titles: Cincinatti, Paris (both in 1991)
The nod goes to: Pioline. Forget had great doubles results, but underachieved in singles for years before turning it around. Not even a Slam semi. Tsk, tsk.

• Arnaud Clement
Best Slam finish: Aussie Open runner-up (2001)
Career-high ranking: 10
Number of titles won: 4
Biggest title: Washington (2006)
The nod goes to: Pioline. It looked like Clement was on to big things after that Aussie final, but such was not the case. He's still going at it and is a threat on faster surfaces, but is no more than a top 50 player at this point.

• Sebastian Grosjean
Best Slam finish: Aussie, French and Wimbledon semifinalist (multiple years)
Career-high ranking: 4
Number of titles won: 4
Biggest title: Paris (2001)
The nod goes to: Pioline. Grosjean's career has been as solid as they come, but no Slam finals? That's pretty weak for his results.

• Richard Gasquet
Best Slam finish: Wimbledon semis (2007)
Career-high ranking: 7
Number of titles won: 5
Biggest title: Gstaad (2006); he has made two Masters series finals, though
The nod goes to: Pioline. What can you say about Gasquet? Probably one of the best players on tour, but if he makes a Slam final, everyone will be surprised because he's so mentally fragile.

• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Best Slam finish: Aussie finals (2008)
Career-high ranking: 6
Number of titles won: 2
Biggest title: Paris (2008)
The nod goes to: Pioline. But not for long—finally, someone that will break the Pioline era of dominance! Barring injury, Tsonga has the best bet at becoming the most successful French player of the Open era.

So, I guess the point I was trying to make here is that it's kind of wild for such a prominent tennis nation to be led by a guy that's only picked up five titles. Come on, young French guys: Allez!

(Photo: Getty Images)

UPDATE: Pioline won the BlackRock title over Greg Rusedski, further adding to his "legacy"!


TopSpin said...

Hi Van...

I was really impressed with Pioline's game this past week (I was pretty much in awe of the tantalizing display of single handed backhands all round, but that's another story). It seemed to be a contained, patient as well as a highly skilled game that enabled his victory.

I can understand why he had the record he had and also why you place him where you do.

Having said that, I sometimes get really surprised at the disparity shown by the current generation of French stars. It makes no sense for a nation with such an abundant pool of talent to have had such little impact at the Slams. I don't just mean Tsonga and Gasquet - I sometimes get amazed at the shots that Mathieu is able to pull off.

Their common problem appears to be lack of belief or appetite - at least that's how I figure it.