The Toss: France vs. Britain -- which country will win its Slam next?
Roland Garros has come and gone without a title for a Frenchman or Frenchwoman. Now it's Great Britain's turn to hope for a home Grand Slam victory. Which is more likely to happen first? New York Times tennis blogger and prolific tweeter Ben Rothenberg joins to debate the chances of local favorites winning either of those majors.
Today’s Toss: Who is going to win its Grand Slam tournament next: France or Great Britain?
Courtney Nguyen: Once again, many thanks for joining me for this week's Toss, Ben. I think we can both agree that on the whole, the home nation had a pretty strong showing at the French Open. The French dominated the headlines during the first week, what with their newly acquired taste for upsetting top Americans and using Court Philippe Chatrier as a dramatic stage for their flair and crowd-pleasing brand of tennis. From Virginie Razzano to Paul-Henri Mathieu to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, France had a tournament to remember.
I confess that I do enjoy watching the French play tennis. While their games differ greatly (Nicolas Mahut’s serving-and-volleying, Gael Monfils' athletic defense, Marion Bartoli's two-handed striking), it's the pure drama -- self-inflicted drama, most of the time -- that makes it fun. The muttering, the primal "allez"-ing, the inevitable face-palming -- tennis matches involving French players are the best unscripted drama since Temptation Island (I promise that's a compliment ... maybe).
But after all those upsets and inspired, high-quality play that made you believe in the hype, it all amounted to, at least in the cruel tennis world, nothing. Two days after beating Serena Williams, Razzano crashed out to Arantxa Rus. After raising his level to finish off Brian Baker in five sets, Gilles Simon played an awful third-round match to lose to Stanislas Wawrinka. And Jo. Oh, Jo. He comes within a point of upsetting Novak Djokovic four times and he simply can't close the deal, losing in five sets. Just like that, all the pomp went poof. The French walked away without a French Open title, a 29-year stretch for the men (Yannick Noah won in 1983) and 12-year run for the women (Mary Pierce won in 2000).
So I'm taking Britain. And it's not just because I prefer a pint of lager over a smooth but robust Châteauneuf-du-Pape. When I say I'm backing Britain, it basically means I'm backing Andy Murray over the French army. Not that I really have any other choice. The No. 2 British man, James Ward, is 167 ranking spots behind Murray, and as for the ladies, let's just say the Queen is going to have to wait a bit before she decides to put all her eggs in either Heather Watson’s or Laura Robson's basket.
Murray's desire to win Wimbledon is unquestionable and his quality is undeniable. He enjoys playing on grass and appreciates what he can do on it, and his results have demonstrated that. He's made the Wimbledon semifinals the last three years, losing to Rafael Nadal in the last two. Which means his obstacle there is no different from that at any other Slam: the Big Three. Obviously that's a significant hurdle, but as his Australian Open semifinal against Djokovic showed, he's getting closer.
On the other side of the coin, you have a number of French players who are full of talent but the needle flips to empty when it comes to belief. Tsonga is the only Frenchman of his generation to even make a major final (Australian Open 2008) and, as he told L'Equipe before the French Open, even he doesn't believe the French can win Roland Garros. And that's coming from their best guy! Murray believes he can do it; he just hasn't figured out how yet. He's already one step ahead.
Ben Rothenberg: Thank you for inviting me into your lovely home once again, Courtney. It is a pleasure to join you in any post, much less one that mentions the seminal television moment that was Temptation Island. I always contend that Flavor of Love 2 was the best television program ever made, but that's a Toss to be had another time.
I think you have underestimated the French army somewhat. Namely, that it's an army, whereas the British just have one Scottish guy fighting for them (though that did work well when Sean Connery was James Bond). The British have two men in the top 200, the French have 23. I repeat, 23 to 2. That's just silly.
The French also get so many more players into the top 10 and top 20 than the British do, by several orders of magnitude. In the last 15 years, the British have had just Murray, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski make it that far. The French list includes Tsonga, Monfils, Simon, Richard Gasquet, Cedric Pioline, Arnaud Clement, Nicolas Escude, Sebastien Grosjean and Fabrice Santoro on the men’s side; and Amelie Mauresmo, Pierce, Tatiana Golovin, Nathalie Dechy, Sandrine Testud, Alize Cornet, Razzano and Nathalie Tauziat. In some ways, it's remarkable how little crap the French give themselves for not winning more considering how many players they've had come close. The French make more contenders and seem poised to keep up that trend for the foreseeable future.
But I also think that, ignoring raw quantity, there's an argument to be made that the top French dog has a better shot than the best British bet. Tsonga has made fewer runs to the very end of Slams than Murray, true, but he's had more big wins at majors than Murray in far fewer opportunities. Tsonga has beaten each of Roger Federer, Djokovic and Nadal at a Slam, whereas Murray has no Slam wins against Djokovic or Federer. Tsonga has never beaten one of the three at Roland Garros, but he came veryveryvery close to doing so against Djokovic. Tsonga feeds off the home crowd's energy arguably better (or at least more visibly) than Murray, though I think that's sort of an unimportant factor for players whose names don't rhyme with Kamatha Kosur.
That said, the French player I actually think has the best shot of winning Roland Garros in the near future is Monfils. The dude is all upside. In terms of raw talent, I think he's the only other player in the ATP right now who belongs in the same sentence as Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. Obviously his results don't match up with that trio's very well so far, but I think all he needs is for the right coach to finally get through to him and he could be unstoppable. He's said before that he feels like he uses only 2 percent of his tennis ability, and I believe that. He schedules poorly and sometimes seems to play for show rather than for victory, but those seem like curable flaws.
The present and future on the women's side both seem to be tilted strongly in favor of the French as well. The French have a current top-10er in Bartoli who has shown herself capable of playing some of her best tennis at Roland Garros despite her discomfort on the surface. That semifinal run she made in 2011 was truly remarkable, and looking back at who she would've had to have beaten to take the title (Francesca Schiavone and Li Na), it could be said that she'll probably never get as easy of a road again. The French also have Caroline Garcia, a young (albeit slumping) talent whom Britain's own Andy Murray pegged as a future No. 1.
But my main point, again, is the numbers. Though I think Robson has an incredible amount of raw talent, right now Murray really is Britain's only realistic bet to even make the second week of a Grand Slam. The French have about eight times that. And if big names start to fall at a Slam (and they're going to have to for anyone outside the top three to make a real push anytime soon), there are simply more French guys available to sneak through the cracks.
Nguyen: Wow. You are really drinking Le Kool-Aid on Monsieur Monfils, even if he's the only Frenchman to make the semifinals at Roland Garros since 2001 (he did it in 2008). Monfils can amaze and I agree that he has the most raw talent out there (more than Nadal and Djokovic, in my opinion), but that alone will not win a Slam, especially one that's played on clay. Monfils has proved time and time again that he lacks the consistent ability to out-compete his opponents. Grinding out seven matches in two weeks on clay just doesn't seem in the stars for the 25-year-old, who reliably gets himself involved in five-set drama-fests in the early rounds. He's gotten by for a long time now with his whimsical game and I'm not convinced he's willing (or able) to rein it in and play focused, disciplined tennis in exchange for a Slam title.
That's the thing with the French players. Apart from Bartoli, they seem content with "a beautiful loss." The tennis court isn't a battleground. It's a stage upon which to showcase their artistry, creativity and athleticism. That's precisely why they're so fun to watch, and one reason why they struggle to break through at majors.
As for the "strength-in-numbers" argument on the French side: Yes, the stat on the number of British players vs. French players in the top 200 is laughable, but flooding the field with good but not great talent doesn't guarantee anything. Besides, unlike Alan Garner, being a one-man wolf pack seems to suit Murray just fine. You're right, if the big names go down and the draw breaks open, there are more Frenchies to slip through. But that also means the draw breaks open for Murray, who has already made more Slam finals than all of the current Frenchmen.
One thing going for the Brits is that grass is still very much a unique surface. The players are on hard courts for at least half the year. Most Europeans and South Americans grow up on clay and spend two-plus months a year playing on it. The familiarity with those two surfaces is pervasive throughout the tour, which means there's really no home-surface advantage when the French get to Paris, or the Australians get to Melbourne, or the Americans get to New York. But the Brits have the luxury (if they want it) to be grass-court specialists. They grow up playing on it more than anyone and they can learn how to build their games to be effective there.
Look at Robson's success at junior Wimbledon. Do you think it's a coincidence that it just so happens that she can walk to the All England Club from her house? Based on surface alone, the Brits have a huge home-court advantage when the season turns to grass.
Rothenberg: I agree with you that winning a Grand Slam tournament does not take a village, at least in the sense of Murray's needing another Brit in the top 100 to accomplish the feat. But I do think that there is something to be said for littering a draw sheet with "FRA"s instead of just a few scattered "GBR"s. That's an awful lot of (Cadbury) eggs in Murray's basket.
I would contest your assertion that grass gives the Brits a significant home-field advantage. They're one of the only countries that has it, but their results at Wimbledon aren't any better than their results elsewhere. I do think Murray will win a major, but the three Grand Slam finals he's reached were all on hard courts. Wimbledon resident Robson's best surface probably is grass (seriously, how good does her victory against Angelique Kerber at Wimbledon last year look 11 months later?), but plenty of players excel on grass without growing up on it. There were no grass courts for Federer in Switzerland, and he's done OK on the stuff. Same goes for Venus Williams and Pete Sampras. The grass learning curve is nowhere near as steep as the clay learning curve.
But let's say that the droughts are prolonged, and no current British player wins Wimbledon and no French player wins Roland Garros. Whose next generation do we trust more? Based on the legions of French contenders I listed in my previous rebuttal, I'd have to think you'd agree with me that it's France. Great Britain has facilities and funding like almost no other country, but its conversion rate on prospects is pitiful.