By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
No Frenchman has won a Grand Slam since Yannick Noah won the French Open in 1983. Of course, that had paled in comparison to Great Britian’s Grand Slam drought before Andy Murray won the US Open last year. Now, though, with Murray having got that out of the way, much of the focus of the tennis world will be upon when the French can finally break that streak.
As long as we are in the “Big 4 era”, that won’t even be a question. It is impossible to even mention anyone other than the top 4 as being a potential Grand Slam champion. Saying anyone else, with the rare exception of Juan Martin Del Potro, is met with scoffing and incredulity. And for good reason. Aside from Del Potro’s 2009 US Open title, no one outside the Big 4 has won a Slam since Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open.
Someday, though, when the dominance of the top 4 is broken, the world will turn and ask when the next great French champion will arrive. And he won’t even need to reach World #1 or win multiple Slams. One Slam will do to break this streak.
Luckily for us (and maybe unluckily for the French, depending on how you look at it), two of their potential candidates are meeting in the fourth round here in Melbourne. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet play drastically different styles of tennis, but they do share the fact that they both fly under the French flag and that both of them probably have Grand Slam potential if they can play at their peaks for extended periods of time.
Tsonga probably has the better chance of the two to win a Slam. He plays a game that is raw power. His massive serve is tough to break and he can hit huge groundstrokes from really just about anywhere on the court. The courts here in Australia suit him best (though grass comes close) and he did reach the final here five years ago in 2008 (l. to Djokovic). Tsonga can be beaten consistently by better players, but his powerful game and strong serve mean that he can stay close in a lot of matches, even when his ground game is not at its best.
Gasquet is a different story. He has pop on his shots, but he really is a finesse player. He works his way around in rallies until he finds a way to just fit the ball past his opponent, usually with the backhand. Gasquet has the best (and the prettiest; it’s just gorgeous to watch) backhand in the world. Honestly, with the way he hits that one-hander, Gasquet’s backhand is more effective than a lot of players’ forehands.
The one real critique of Gasquet is that he plays far too far behind the baseline. He runs around a lot to play defensively. It works for him, but it gets him into a lot of trouble against the other top players, who won’t get worn down or leave balls short in rallies. Gasquet can attack but he just doesn’t like to. He needs to change that tendency, though, against players who the defensive game doesn’t bother. Gasquet has one of the most technically perfect forms in the game. It really is just a shame that he can’t always utilize it due to staying an ineffective distance behind the baseline.
So who has the advantage in this head-to-head matchup? It’s really tough to say. The two have been pretty even their entire careers and both have looked impressive, though not unbeatable, throughout this tournament. Gasquet is the more battle-tested of the two in Melbourne and seems to have been slightly more consistent in the first week, but it really pretty much is a toss-up. What he do know is that if the winner of this match can upset Roger Federer in the quarterfinals (assuming that Milos Raonic doesn’t miraculously upset him first), then a Frenchman will be just 2 wins away from an improbable Slam victory and will put the Australians and Americans on watch with their respective decade-long Grand Slam droughts.