With the start of the clay court season, talk always focuses on the many Spanish players in the top 30 of the ATP tour, each of which has a good chance of doing well in the coming months. Less noticed, but by no means should they be overlooked, are the growing number of French players in the top ranks as well. During today's early round action at the Rolex Monte-Carlo Masters, a possible shift in the French guard may have been cemented as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, earned a tough, yet impressive win while Richard Gasquet, who once laid claim to being the highest ranked Frenchmen, crashed out in under an hour to Tomas Berdych.
For awhile it looked like Tsonga, with his physical prowess and fan-favorite persona, would play second fiddle to his countrymen Gilles Simon, who was as high as No. 6 last year, and Gael Monfils, the flashy yet injury-proned star who got to the French Open semifinals two years ago. Yet injuries to both Simon and Monfils has limited their action this year allowing Tsonga, with his semifinal run at the Australian Open, to pass them both. With his 7-6(5), 7-5 win over Nicolas Almagro today in Monte-Carlo, Tsonga proved that despite his so-so results last year in clay, this year might be a different story. The question for him will be can he be patient enough on the red clay to use his game to its full advantage, or will he let his sometimes shaky mental resolve get in the way.
For Gasquet, 2010 is so far not the momentum building year he'd hoped for. Despite hitting some fine shots, he was clearly overmatched by the uber-confident Berdych who took out Gasquet 6-2, 6-0. Although Gasquet returned to the game last September after being briefly suspended, one would think by now he would have found his game to climb back into the top 30 where he was this time last year. Technically his shots look fine, but whatever mental toll the suspension and resulting media coverage Gasquet endured has stayed with him.
Although he's been on tour awhile, Gasquet is only 23 years old, so he's still got plenty of time to return to the top tier. But one gets the feeling he needs to make a move now to do so. Will the clay courts be his place to do that? Maybe. But I wouldn't be surprised if he makes his move late in the year on the hard courts. As for Tsonga, despite title wins at the Paris Indoors and Tokyo, many have been waiting for him to really step up and challenge for a Slam as he did in Australia a few years ago. It's hard to say if this year's French Open is the place for that, but considering how long the French have waited for another winner since Yannick Noah back in 1983, Tsonga could be their best bet. And with the rest of the French guard either nursing physical or mental injuries like Gasquet, Tsonga will need to get used to being the head of the French guard for quite some time to come.
Erik Gudris is a writer and media consultant based in Los Angles. He manages the tennis news site Adjustingthenet.com