How to save French tennis?

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on the Suzanne-Lenglen, June 1, 2021. – MARTIN BUREAU / AFP

  • Only three French players qualified for the second round, barely more for women, the worst record in modern history in the Parisian Grand Slam.
  • Long copied and admired abroad, the French system must reinvent itself.
  • The federation is looking for solutions, and in particular will repatriate Louis Borfiga, who worked miracles in Canada.

At Roland-Garros,

We saw it coming as big as a forehand lasso from King Rafa, but after four days of Roland Garros, French tennis woke up with a hell of a hangover. Three boys qualified in the men in the second round, perhaps only one in the third, never had the Blues been so weakly represented at this stage since tennis turned professional. What makes a good pay. Note that we had already come close to the tragedy in 2020, with four survivors after the first round, but an improbable Gaston hype had allowed us to hide the dust under the carpet for six months.

The end of a generation

Here we are again in the same place, growing behind the old Monfils and Gasquet glories, the last vine leaves of our dignity. The Musketeers will slip away, and we will quickly hear the noise that happiness makes when leaving, given the generational gap to follow: “2,000 games won between us four, Ritchie recalls, great tennis seasons for France”. Beautiful seasons already yellowed. Winter is coming, whatever the French federation may say, which does not say much. The change in governance in January caused the usual game of musical chairs (Escudé DTN, Paul-Henri Mathieu responsible for the high level) but at least we can recognize the new president for not bringing it back to a delicate subject, when his predecessor recovered for him the least convincing result of a junior at Pointe-à-Pitre.

“Our communication on immediate results will be different,” explains Arnaud Clément, advisor to the new team. The overall performance starved, that’s for sure, but it was a bit expected, and since the time that we speak of this generational hollow, maybe that’s it we are in it. For the rest, it’s not in three months that you build a champion, so you need time to put things in place. I’m not more worried than that ”.

Gilles Moretton based part of his electoral campaign on an old-fashioned high-level vision: overcoming elitist silos and early centralization of high potentials in Paris. It is now a question of broadening the base of practitioners without asking them to bring results internationally to 10-12 years old. After all, the French system
does not differ too much from Italian, who has been fishing for a new champion every morning for breakfast lately: quality coaches in charge of a long-term project (example: Barber with Gaston, Piatti with Sinner), and an important territorial network of tournaments challengers allowing to harden on the secondary circuit without having to invest too much money.

The return of the savior Borfiga

But Team Moretton’s lethal weapon is an alien agent finally brought home. Louis Borfiga, known as Luigi, the man who rebuilt Canadian tennis from the sewers at the end of the 2000s: “Leave me ten years and you will see”. Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime, Andreescu, we saw. As we had seen his results at Insep, when he snagged the adolescence of Grosjean, Tsonga, Monfils, or Benneteau, before going to earn his crust elsewhere, for lack of promotion at the federation.

“We often say the iron fist in a taste of velvet, but Luigi, that’s exactly it, enthuses the former DTN Patrice Hagelauer, a close friend. There are the structures, and there are the men to animate them. He knew how to surround himself with the right skills and had understood everything with the players. When to let go, when to question… And then he’s someone who doesn’t count his time. How many weekends did he spend on the other side of France to follow a young person of 14, 15 years? I am delighted to see the new federal team call on their talents ”. The previous one had tried, already, but Borfiga wanted to finish his lease in Montreal before retirement and this new role of luxury consultant, requested, for example, upon the appointment of Escudé at the DTN post.

“Of course his return is great news, he has been one of the main trainers in recent years in the world, abounds Tsonga. If you speak with a lot of the best French players, he had them in his hands at one point. I had him, he was a very humanly, very benevolent person and that is very important. But we must not forget all the others either, because at the end of the day, we all had trainers and maybe those too are good. At some point, you just have to get the best to work and work with the best. I am sure that there are many people who could contribute a little bit to the edifice ”.

“Transmit with benevolence”

Starting with the experience sharing of the players themselves. Tsonga, Gasquet, Pierce, Mauresmo, Grosjean must tell each other interesting things when they are put around a table. “Of course I want to pass on. But with kindness, continues Tsonga. The objective is to push young people to the top, and precisely not to do like us, we had the impression that we were being pulled down a bit. I think we have to help them believe in themselves, to be able to work healthily and give the best of themselves, and especially not to have a brake or an elastic in the back which, permanently, slows us down ”.

Before overthrowing Giudicelli, Moretton had spoken with all the gratin of French tennis. He concluded that a greater openness of mind was required concerning the private academies which are spreading all over Europe. “Mouratoglou has a camp, Ferrero has a camp, Ascione has a camp, and it works, Judge Hagelauer. Everything is good to take as long as we manage to recreate a collective dynamic. The key is not to put the children in cotton wool, each in their own corner. The group is emulation, it is learning to compete and take responsibility. When Checchinato arrives in the semi-finals of Roland Garros, it inspires all the Italian players who train with him and who arrive now ”.

The new management team must also restore the mental performance department of the FFT, which has been deprived of a manager for several months: the psychological approach, the eternal shortcoming of a French team copied everywhere but unable to produce a winner of Grand Slam since who you know. “It’s not just the forehand or the physical, says Amélie Mauresmo in the Parisian. There is also this ability to roam all year round and get out of this jungle on the secondary circuit, she continues. Technically, we are well trained but perhaps we did not put enough emphasis on the mind. The Rublev, Sinner, Osaka are scheduled. We have little or no that side. You have to rub shoulders with others to harden yourself. “

The psychological pitfall

Malik Chamalidis, founding father of the mental department before being also sacrificed in 2019 for nebulous reasons, is no longer interested. But the sports psychologist has a few ideas. “When I was at the federation, we set up regular interviews, a personalized mental progression plan, mentors in mental preparation in each region, but we have to take the next step. “Do I assume to become professional, am I comfortable with requests, do I give meaning to my presence, how I mark my path, what are my priorities, is – what am I listening to the last one who spoke or am I building a solid entourage… “. These are questions that must be addressed in the training so as not to be blocked later. “

, for example, chose very early on to work with Chamalidis, while Hugo Gaston is also accompanied by a mental trainer. Without future guarantee, however. “You can help build the champion, philosopher a federal framework dedicated to training, but at one point, he’s the one who flies away. ” Or not.

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