French success forces Brits to eat humble pie

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The Independent Online

They were not playing La Marseillaise as the players went on court, or filling the water bottles with Evian rather than Buxton, but Court 13 was all but turned into France's 97th département here yesterday.

The three singles matches on the All England club's most remote show court all featured French players. Richard Gasquet, at 19 one of the world's most promising youngsters, beat Gilles Elseneer, a Belgian qualifier, in four sets, while Sebastian Grosjean, the world No 27, needed one set fewer to knock out Romania's Victor Hanescu. Serbia's 17-year-old Ana Ivanovic was the only player to lower the tricolore, beating Stephanie Foretz, the world No 116, 6-4, 6-3.

The proliferation, not to mention the excellence, of French players here can be seen as a major indictment of British tennis. Twelve Frenchmen have featured in the main singles draw, while there have been nine French women. Without wild cards, Britain would have had just three men and no women in the singles events.

The Lawn Tennis Association was so envious of France's record in producing good players that in 1999 it appointed a Frenchman, Patrice Hagelauer, as performance director, though he returned, somewhat disillusioned, to a senior post in his home country two years ago. There is only so much you can do when, in comparison with France and many other countries, there is such little investment by local and national government.

The talent of Gasquet has long been recognised. At the age of nine he featured on the front cover of a leading tennis magazine under the headline: "The champion of France awaits."

At 15 he became the youngest player to qualify for a Masters event and in April this year he ended Roger Federer's 25-match unbeaten run when he beat the Wimbledon champion in Monte Carlo.

The world No 20's quality was there for all to see as he beat Elseneer 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 6-2 with beautifully crafted ground strokes, particularly a cleverly disguised crosscourt forehand, a flowing serve (18 aces and only three double faults), a readiness to volley when the opportunity arose and, above all, an icy temperament.

Elseneer, a 27-year-old qualifier, provided stronger competition than his world ranking of 191 suggested, though his mistakes at critical stages proved decisive. Two double faults cost Elseneer the first set tie-break, which Gasquet wrapped up with two superb forehands, and another double fault at the end of the second set contributed to the same outcome.

The Belgian held his nerve admirably to break Gasquet twice in the third set tie-break with a backhand winner down the line and an astute lob, but the Frenchman's response was immediate. Gasquet completed victory by winning the fourth set comfortably with breaks of serve - the only breaks in the entire match - in the first and seventh games.

Gasquet's recent progress on grass has been outstanding. Until this summer he had lost his only three previous matches on the surface, but since crossing the Channel at the start of this month he has reached the quarter-finals at Queen's (losing to Radek Stepanek), won the Nottingham tournament and now won both his matches here.

He next plays Gilles Muller and should progress to the last 16, despite the Luxemburg player's outstanding victory over Rafael Nadal yesterday. Although Gasquet discounted any chance of winning the title here this year because of the length of the tournament, he said he enjoyed playing on grass.

"I think French players play better on grass than on clay," Gasquet said. "I know I can play well on grass because I've won a tournament on it. It's a great surface for me.

"On clay you have to play on the baseline. On grass you have to volley, which is something I enjoy. Serving is also more important. You have to serve better and return better."

Gasquet's victory came a day after an excellent win by another highly promising French teenager, Gaël Monfils, who knocked out the No 22 seed, Dominik Hrbaty, and today faces Mario Ancic.

Monfils, who won three of last year's Grand Slam junior tournaments, is already No 83 in the world senior rankings, while Britain's Andrew Murray, who won last year's other junior major in New York, is ranked at No 317.

One of the players the French teenagers most look up to is Grosjean, whose excellent record here includes semi-final appearances in the past two years and a quarter-final victory over Tim Henman in the 2003 quarter-finals. After beating Hanescu yesterday 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, the No 9 seed looks to be on course for a last-eight meeting with Andy Roddick.

Although France's most promising woman player, Tatiana Golovin, who is already in the world's top 20 at the age of 17, was knocked out in the first round, the country is still represented by Amélie Mauresmo, Mary Pierce, Nathalie Dechy and Marion Bartoli.