When player development types look around for benchmarks, shining examples of nations that have developed a knack for churning out elite players, they eventually touch on Spain and France. The Euro powers seem to have created a cohesive, centralized, on-message environment the players buy into. Similar strokes, similar work regimens, similar goals. As of Jan. 31, Spain had three players in the top 10, and 10 in the top 50 — No. 1 Nadal, Aussie Open semifinalist Ferrer, Verdasco, Almagro, Montanes, Ferrero, Garcia-Lopez, Lopez, Robredo and Granollers. Like their neighbors to the south, the French can boast a pretty deep bench themselves. While no Frenchman currently sits inside the top 10, there are six in the top 50, and 10 in the top 100, led by Monfils, Tsonga, Llodra, Gasquet, Simon, Chardy, Benneteau, Mannarino, Serra and Mathieu. (Compare that to the U.S., which has just five players in the top 100.)
What’s puzzling is that, while Spain has become all but dynastic in Davis Cup and is regularly a factor at the majors (Rafa’s record speaks for itself, and Ferrer, Verdasco, Ferrero and Robredo have all reached a GS quarterfinal or better over the past two years), the French haven’t been able to break through at the Slams. World No. 12 Gael Monfils puts it down to the sheer dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who’ve collectively accounted for 24 of the last 29 Grand Slam titles.
“Two legendary players. Legendary like Roger Federer,” said Monfils, who was winless against the Swiss until finally getting over him in Paris last November. “He is the number one [reason], and then Rafael. He is also for sure one of the best players ever. Then you have Novak as well, or Andy Murray. I think it’s really hard for us to break through.”
But as Mr. Djokivic showed us on Sunday at Rod Laver Arena, the field may just be opening up.
“The last few years, it was only Rafa and Roger dominating and winning the Slams, so it was really hard to have a little space,” continued Monfils, who is set to face Hall of Famer Pete Sampras in a Feb. 7 exo in San Jose, Calif. “When you get the space, like Novak did, you have to grab it…I think it will come soon, but we need to work harder and still believe that we can win a Slam. We’re not bad, but to be better, we just have to keep working and believe in ourselves.”
In Melbourne, Monfils erased a two-set deficit for the first time in his career to topple Thiemo de Bakker 6-7(5), 2-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-1, later accusing the Dutchman of tanking the fourth set. But two rounds later he was gone, a 7-6(4), 6-2, 6-3 loser to Stan Wawrinka. It’s the kind of match the wildly athletic Frenchman will need to start winning if he wants to bring a Slam trophy back to his homeland for the first time since Yannick Noah captured Roland Garros in ’83. Maybe he needs to revisit that supposed coming-of-age win over Federer, in which he valiantly fought off five match points to prevail 7-6(7), 6-7(1), 7-6(4).
“I grew up a bit,” Monfils told Inside Tennis. “I was definitely ready to beat him that day…[It was] a little bit like, ‘Damn, I beat a legend. Damn, I made it.’ It’s something you’re very proud of.”