french tennis

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Marion, Misunderstood

Marion Bartoli will be playing her first Fed Cup tie since 2004 this weekend.

The year was 2004. Cesar Millan was yet to be called “The Dog Whisperer.” Ridiculously successful sequels Shrek 2, Spiderman 2 and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban were dominating the box office. The Red Sox were winning playoff games and the Russians were winning slams.

And Marion Bartoli was playing Fed Cup.

As a 19-year-old, Bartoli partnered Emilie Loit in doubles in two separate ties that year; the pairing won their doubles match in a 5-0 semifinal win against Spain, but lost the deciding rubber to the Russian duo of Anastasia Myskina and Vera Zvonareva in the finals. 2004 marked the only time that Bartoli had competed in the national ITF team event in her career.

Until now.

New French Fed Cup captain Amelie Mauresmo announced on Wednesday that Bartoli, along with Alize Cornet, Kristina Mladenovic and Virginie Razzano will be the French squad that will take on Germany in a World Group II first round tie on February 9-10 in Limoges.

Bartoli’s previous point of contention with the French Tennis Federation came from the role, or lack thereof, of her father in Fed Cup ties. Previous Fed Cup captains Loic Courteau and Nicolas Escude, as well as the federation itself, took issue with the fact that Bartoli wanted to be coached by her father during the ties, rather than practice together with the team. The parties involved also questioned the nature of Marion’s relationship with her father.

“In France, they think our relationship is, so to speak, fake, and that in public it’s big smiles and behind the scenes I’m getting pushed around every day,” she once said. “When I try to explain to them that is not the case, they have a hard time to understand.”

More than just the French public and tennis administration have had a hard time understanding the Bartolis. To say that they have gone outside the box in their approach to Marion’s tennis training is putting it mildly. One of the WTA’s more colorful characters, Bartoli’s shadow swings between every point have become her trademark, and she (allegedly) boasts an IQ of 175. She and her antics are always a spectacle on the WTA, no matter where she plays; nonetheless, these things are what endear her to her fans.

Due to her Fed Cup absence, Bartoli was ruled ineligible to compete at the Olympic Games. Three Games have come and gone since Bartoli made a name for herself on the circuit, but it was perhaps the last snub that hurt her the most and may have contributed to this reconciliation. The 2012 London Olympics were held at the site of Bartoli’s greatest career successes, on the lawns of the All-England Club. Without Bartoli, Cornet required an special invitation to compete, as she did not make the cut by ranking; she won a match before falling tamely to Daniela Hantuchova in the second round. Many argued that Bartoli would have been an outside, but no less legitimate, medal contender on the surface.

So the question remains: after nine years, 17 ties and a boatload of conflict, why now? Some detractors will state Bartoli’s chances to represent her country in the Olympics have come and gone; she’ll be 32 when the Olympics in Rio come around in 2016. Others would say she’s selfish for making the concessions, and is only looking to repair her image at home after the 2012 debacle. Both parties remained stubborn throughout this saga, and each holds a share of the blame.

No one can question Marion Bartoli’s patriotism. Despite all the quirks, the results don’t lie; a Wimbledon finalist with wins, among others, over Serena Williams, Justine Henin, Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters in her career, Bartoli’s made the most of what she has. With the crowd behind her, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2011, the best performance at that event by a Frenchwoman since Mary Pierce won the title there in 2000 and reached the final again in 2005. All of that success has come with her father by her side, with little support from the national federation.

However, for this tie, Walter Bartoli will not be on site to help Marion prepare for her matches; he will be allowed to attend, but only as a family member. While we may not ever know what was said between Mauresmo and Bartoli over the past weeks, one thing is certain; someone finally understood.

The Next French Grand Slam Champion?

Richard Gasquet in action

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.

Standout Performances by Federer, Ferrer, Tsonga; Yannick Noah Should be Punished – The Friday Five

Tsonga celebrates after defeating Nadal

by Maud Watson

Say What?!

Despite the enthralling tennis that has been taking place in London, one of the biggest stories of the week has been Yannick Noah’s accusations that Spanish athletes are doping.  Put bluntly, Noah’s comments couldn’t have been more idiotic for a multitude of reasons.  First, if you’re going to accuse someone of doping, have some semblance of concrete evidence, because suggesting that other athletes suddenly appear stronger and able to significantly dominate out of nowhere is not going to cut it.  Not to mention, has he taken a look at Tsonga or Monfils?  They’ve no doubt achieved their builds fair and square, but there are many players who don’t cut as imposing of a figure as those two.  Second, Noah put his own countrymen in an awkward position.  Kudos to Llodra and Tsonga who took the high road and apologized to their fellow Spanish competitors for Noah’s comments.  Finally, Noah’s solution to the problem was appalling.  Rather than suggesting that authorities clean up the alleged abuse, he supports letting French athletes dope, ignoring the long-term health effects it could have on those athletes.  The French Tennis Federation has condemned his comments, but they should also suspend him from any involvement with their Davis and Fed Cup teams as well as any media obligations.  He cannot go unpunished.

Standout Performers

There has been more than one upset this week in London, and there have also been some spectacular efforts from three individuals in particular.  Props need to be given to Federer.  True, he’d probably trade in his results this week for a major title, but he’s the only one of the Big Four who’s proven there’s still plenty left in the tank (and check out his total matches for 2011 vs. the other three, and you’ll see he’s played nearly as much).  Then a big congrats to David Ferrer.  He’s a bit like Davydenko in that he always seems to be overlooked.  He’s played breathtaking tennis in London, however, and if this is any indication that he’s starting to find the belief against the biggest names in the game, watch out for him in 2012.  Finally, hats off to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  After losing to Federer in three to start his campaign this year, he then produced top-notch tennis against Fish before taking it to Nadal when the chips were down to secure his semifinal berth.  If they keep playing like this, we’re in for an exciting end to the last tournament of the season.

Valiant Effort

His overall match results at the ATP World Tour Finals may say otherwise, but Mardy Fish was one of the feel-good stories of the week.  He said he was approaching the tournament with the attitude that he was just happy to be there, and that’s been evident in his whole demeanor.  You can see how much it meant to him to qualify for this prestigious event, and the fact that he played that third round robin match, knowing he was already out of the running and carrying an injury, is nothing short of admirable.  He also put together some fine tennis and had his preparation not been hampered by the injury, you can’t help but wonder if he might have won a few more of the key points and found his way to the semis.  It’s hard to know whether or not Fish is capable of backing up his 2011 season next year, but it’s hard not to root for him to have another crack at London.

Awards Are In

The ATP Awards were announced at the front part of the week, and there were no real surprises.  Djokovic took home honors for finishing No. 1 while Nadal received the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian Award for his work with his foundation.  Bogomolov Jr. was named the Most Improved by his peers, while standout Raonic was voted the Newcomer of the Year.  But the most telling awards were perhaps those that were given to Roger Federer.  Despite falling to No. 4 in the rankings and not winning a major for the first time in nearly a decade, fans still voted him their favorite player for the ninth consecutive time, a testament to the enduring quality of the brand of tennis he plays.  He was also named the recipient of the Stefan Edberg Sportsmanship Award, as voted on by his peers, for the seventh time in eight years.  For sure, Federer has had some less-than-classy moments in interviews following tough losses, but it’s nice to see that the sportsmanship award went to the top player who doesn’t feel the need to wear every emotion on his sleeve and doesn’t violate the time or coaching rules.

Lighten Up

That’s what Roger Draper and the LTA are asking the British Government to do when it comes to their tax laws regarding athletes competing in Britain.  Currently, athletes are taxed on prize money, appearance fees, and worldwide endorsements.  While taking taxes out for prize money and even the appearance fees doesn’t seem unreasonable (though they are high), the tax on the endorsements does.  Nadal, who brought the issue to a head earlier in the year, and any other athlete is right to complain and can’t be blamed for choosing to play at another venue that will allow them to take home more of their hard-earned money.  The question is if the government will budge, or if they think that they can continue to get away with it.  They’ve already granted some exemptions, such as to those competing in the 2012 Olympics, but it’s hard to imagine tennis players boycotting Wimbledon or possibly even the ATP World Tour Finals if not given exemptions just because of the tax laws.  Fingers crossed Draper and the LTA can get the government to do the right thing in this scenario.

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