La Croix: Why do French players fail to reach the last four of a Grand Slam tournament?
Patrice Hagelaeur: On the men’s side, for a few years, we simply haven’t had players who are at the level to win Grand Slams. Since the Tsonga-Gasquet-Monfils generation, the French reservoir has fluctuated around 40e place in the ATP ranking, which explains why we do not find French players in the last four of a Grand Slam, or even in the round of 16.
Some players like Lucas Pouille or Ugo Humbert had to deal with certain injuries, even though they showed great promise. They are far from competing with the top 10 in the world. France is in a dip, but it will be interesting to scrutinize the next generation. Very young players like Luca Van Assche (18) or Gabriel Debru (17) have real potential.
In women, the problem is a little different. Caroline Garcia is world number four, and we feel that the problem is elsewhere.
In mental preparation in particular?
pH: All coaches will tell you the same thing: you play with your body, your technique and your physique. These are the necessary basics. But all that is insufficient if you don’t have the mind and the “heart”. If you are unable to control your emotions, you cannot win. We play to win, not not to lose. When we start to tense up, to feel frustrated, doubt sets in, confidence disappears. It makes the difference.
During his press conference after his loss at the Australian Open (in the round of 16, Monday January 23, editor’s note), Caroline Garcia herself admitted not having a good handle on her feelings. Yet she has the tennis to win a Grand Slam. All of this is working. It is still necessary that the players choose the right people to accompany them. This question is not new. Yannick Noah already had a mental trainer in addition to valuable support from Arthur Ashe, who really helped him become aware of the issues.
We have often spoken of the “golden generation” in French tennis, but none has converted hopes. Do we tend to see ourselves as “too handsome” in France?
pH: I think that we have above all tended to be too severe with this generation of players who are Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gaël Monfils or Gilles Simon. In twenty years, or 80 Grand Slam tournaments, more than three quarters have been won by three men: Federer, Djokovic and Nadal. The French arrived at the peak of their career at a time when the unbeatable dominated. Same for women with Serena Williams. Which did not prevent Marion Bartoli, or before her Amélie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce, from winning.
I believe that the French public loved this generation enormously, to the point of being too demanding. In 2014, when France lost the Davis Cup against Switzerland, the players were taken down and the media and popular judgment was really harsh. It is quickly forgotten that they lost to Roger Federer, who was then world number two, and Stanislas Wawrinka, who was number four. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
When France lost the Football World Cup against Argentina, the players were welcomed as heroes, but the tennis players weren’t. It’s a bit hard.
A country coeven Spain has fewer licensees than France. Still, the Spaniards have won more than 20 Grand Slam titles. Is the French formation failing?
pH: At the start, we had a lot of academies in France with a large pool of players who combined studies, training, medical follow-up, and who went to competition every week. But for obscure political reasons, this completely crumbled in the 2000s.
However, destroying a well-functioning system is much faster than rebuilding one. Today, apart from Insep (National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance) and some academies in the south of France, it is complicated for some parents to offer their children who dream of becoming champions adequate training, close to home.
You mention Spain. Among our neighbours, the mental contribution we were talking about earlier is done via former great players who participate fully in the emergence of new talents. Current world number one Carlos Alcaraz plays under former champion Juan Carlos Ferrero. This transmission must also exist in France.
It’s a paradox because tennis is an individual sport, but I’m convinced that the victory of a French player in the Grand Slam will go through collective cohesion.