PARIS (Reuters) - When Yannick Noah sparked joyous celebrations around France in 1983 by hoisting the Musketeers’ Cup, no one in the country would have guessed that the wait to see the next home-grown men’s champion would last at least another 35 years.
As far as Henri Leconte, the last Frenchman to contest a Roland Garros final way back in 1988, is concerned, the chances of that barren run ending in 2018 is almost zero and he planted the blame on the French Tennis Federation (FFT).
During much of the last two decades, there were numerous French men populating the top 100 of the ATP rankings.
But barely any of them came close to winning one of the four majors — with Arnaud Clement (2001 Australian Open) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (2008 Australian Open) being the only ones to reach a major final since 1998.
“I think the French Federation made a mistake going for quantity rather than quality,” Leconte, one of the most flamboyant players of his era, told Reuters.
“The other thing is that I think they need to go and watch what they are doing in Australia, Russia, America or the Czech Republic.
“We think we are the best in the world. We still have the best organization but we are not the best in the world.
“We are not doing the right things, we are going in the wrong direction. Even in the clubs, things are not going well.”
The situation is so bad now, Leconte did not even hold out much hope of a Frenchman reaching the second week of the May 27-June 10 tournament.
Former French number one Tsonga, who reached the last four twice at Roland Garros, has been ruled out injured and the current number one, Lucas Pouille, has not won back-to-back claycourt matches on the ATP Tour this season.
“The best player we have now is maybe Richard Gasquet if he is fit. We would be very lucky if we have a French player in the second week,” Leconte, who lost to Mats Wilander in the 1988 final, said.
Since an injury-prone Gasquet has won only one match on red dirt in his last three tournaments, things are certainly looking bleak.
Leconte, who will commentate on Eurosport during the French Open, believes the local players do not put in the effort required, physically or mentally, to compete with the likes of 10-times champion Rafael Nadal.
“They are afraid. They don’t train as much on clay as much as we used to. They are afraid to play at the French Open. They are always coming with an excuse, saying ‘oh I have a bad back or elbow’,” Leconte explained.
“I think it’s sad because they have the potential to do well on clay. But I think the pressure from the fans and press gets to them. It gets worse and worse.
“I hope Pouille does well at the French Open and does well with the draw but he will have to cross his fingers.
“Besides Pouille, it’s the first French Open where we are not going to have many French players seeded. If we are lucky to have a player in the second week that will be great.”
Gael Monfils might have harbored hopes of going deep into the tournament, just like he did in 2008 when he made it to the last four. But he is just back from a two-month injury layoff and he has yet to reach his best level.
“Right now it’s tough mentally,” said Monfils.
At last year’s U.S. Open, FFT president Bernard Giudicelli had told Reuters it was time for the French to “stop being losers”.
That time has not come yet.
Additional reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar