'Social game' can learn from French system for success

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The Independent Online

There is a certain je ne sais quoi about the robust health of French tennis. Sebastien Grosjean, for example, the 23-year-old world No 8, arrived at Wimbledon with 15 events this year already behind him. It has been a long, tough season, including five semi-final appearances, two of them in the years other Grand Slams, but he still found the joie de vivre to brush aside Michel Kratochvil, of Switzerland, in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4.

"I'm tired from the first half of the year and I could use a break," Grosjean said afterwards. "But this is a Grand Slam and if I want to get the Masters Cup at the end of the year, I need to be performing. I'm happy with the way I played today but I'll take it one game at a time."

There were plenty of other Gallic triumphs. Nathalie Tauziat, the feisty 33-year-old bonne vivante of the women's circuit, who showed she can still mix with the best of them by winning at Edgbaston this month, skipped through her opener, seeing off Indonesia's Wynne Prakusya 6-2, 6-2.

There was also Stéphane Huet's win against Markus Hipfl, of Austria. It might not grab the headlines here, or even in France, but the 30-year-old's victory was a bigger giant-killing, in rankings terms, than the win by the Briton Jamie Delgado over Andrei Medvedev. Huet also exhibited no lack of sang froid as he came from two sets down to nick it.

There was a more direct Britain versus France comparison when Hannah Collin faced Emilie Loit. The girl from across the Channel eased through 6-4, 6-2. It was only one match, perhaps, but there is no doubt that Loit and her contemporaries – from Arnaud Clement to Nicolas Escude, from Amelie Mauresmo to Anne-Gaelle Sidot – are boulevards ahead of their neighbours from across La Manche.

If you want statistics, look at the rankings. There are nine Frenchmen in the world's top 100 (two British men) and eight French women (no Britons). At Wimbledon yesterday there were 13 French players in action (all appearing on merit, via rankings or qualifying) and six Britons (all wild cards).

The reason, says Philippe Bouin, the chief tennis writer on the French sports daily, L'Equipe, is obvious. "Tennis is a sport in France," he says. "In England it's a social game." France, he adds, has been working since the 1970s on a system to produce players, while Britain has not.

"In France it goes back to Yannick Noah, Henri Leconte, Guy Forget, these were all products," says Bouin. "And then onto Pioline, his contemporaries, and the new players coming through."

Patrice Hagelauer, the Lawn Tennis Association's performance director, told Bouin during a recent tête-à-tête that he was angered that tennis was not seen as a competitive sport here.

"He told me there are 2,000 clubs in Britain and only a few of them have tennis schools," Bouin said. "In France there are 10,000 clubs and nearly every one has a tennis school. And most games are competition orientated. The numbers tell you everything." France has around one million registered adult players, to Britain's 100,000, and 500,000 active juniors, to Britain's 6,000. Laissez-faire would be an understatement.

"Britain is living in the 1940s, pre-occupied with the Second World War and fixated with nostalgia," Bouin says. Zut alors! Anything else? "Tennis is a professional sport these days and Britain doesn't seem to have realised. It's not about gentlemen shaking hands and then having drinks. What Hagelauer is trying to do is import the kind of thing that exists in France. And he's up against a different society, not just sport." Fait accompli, then.