The French have rarely had a problem developing elite tennis players. There are, for example, 10 men inside the top 100, tied for the most alongside another grand slam nation, the U.S.
But the country still awaits the ultimate breakthrough, as the last two home hopes were knocked out at the French Open on a day that began with promise for Les Bleus.
It means Yannick Noah remains the last Frenchman to win a major, achieving the feat on the red clay of Roland Garros in 1983. He could hold the distinction for a few years longer since a transition period appears on the way.
After Benoit Paire fell in a thrilling five-set contest against marathon man Kei Nishikori 6-2 6-7 (8) 6-2 6-7 (8) 7-5, Gael Monfils departed in much tamer fashion against last year’s finalist Dominic Thiem 6-4 6-4 6-2.
The locals on Philippe Chatrier court desperately wanted a Monfils victory but even they had to applaud when the Austrian pulled off one of the shots of the tournament, a winning tweener in the third set from the baseline with his back to the net.
’A big highlight’
“It was the only choice I had,” said Thiem. “I was so far off the ball and couldn’t play it any different way. And if that ball goes in it’s always a big highlight.”
Rafael Nadal is the player who usually makes history at the French Open given his 11 titles but rival Novak Djokovic got his name into the record books too when he swept past Jan-Lennard Struff 6-3 6-2 6-2.
Serbian world No. 1 Djokovic – who awaits Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals – became the first man to make 10 straight French Open quarterfinals. Nadal likely would have matched him had he not been forced to pull out in the third round in 2016 with a wrist injury.
In another milestone, 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova became the youngest female quarterfinalist at the French Open since Martina Hingis in 1998 after topping Spanish qualifier Aliona Bolsova 6-3 6-0.
Up next is defending champion Simona Halep, who advanced in similar fashion, 6-1 6-0 in 45 minutes over 18-year-old Wimbledon junior champion Iga Swiatek.
Showman Monfils has admittedly become more focused towards the latter stages of his career, realizing that at 32 time is indeed running out.
And unusually for him at a grand slam, he didn’t drop any sets through three rounds. There was plenty of energy left on the eve of the much anticipated clash with Thiem.
Thiem, however, grabbed a commanding 5-1 lead in about 20 minutes and a rattled Monfils never really recovered.
Perhaps Monfils trailing Thiem 4-0 in their head-to-head duels contributed to the Frenchman’s shaky start.
“I didn’t start the match well indeed. I don’t have any explanation,” said Monfils. “I had two double faults in the first game. I made a lot of mistakes, a lot of errors very fast. I wanted to be aggressive but maybe too aggressive.”
The quick lead for Thiem quietened the crowd and Monfils himself admitted to being more muted than usual.
“Of course we are used to seeing me using the audience a bit more, but with the coach, we decided to do some things differently, to try something else,” he said.
Having dropped a set in each of his first three rounds, progressing in under two hours was exactly what Thiem sought with bigger tests ahead. Djokovic sits in Thiem’s half of the draw, meaning a possible semifinal showdown.
Thiem might be relieved his next challenger isn’t Juan Martin del Potro, given the Argentine won all four of their tussles. Instead he will tangle with maiden grand slam quarterfinalist Karen Khachanov, a 7-5 6-3 3-6 6-3 winner over the 2009 US Open titlist.
Del Potro and Khachanov, by contrast, had no problems getting the crowd involved.
They traded mammoth forehands for more than three hours, with Khachanov crucially doing better converting break points.
The Russian saved two at 5-5 in the first, then broke. Reeling, del Potro buckled in his first service game of the second to trail 2-0. And in the fourth, Khachanov saved a pair of break points in the first game, immediately breaking thereafter.
Frustrated, the animated del Potro struck his head with his racket and on another occasion took a swipe at the courtside flowers.
But ever a crowd favorite, he left the court to a rousing reception.
Earlier on Suzanne Lenglen court, the 38th-ranked Paire almost engineered a huge comeback against 2014 US Open finalist Nishikori.
Resuming down two sets to one after darkness halted proceedings Sunday, Paire saved two match points in the gripping fourth-set tiebreak and led 4-1 and 5-3 in the final set.
But Nishikori is one tough customer in deciders. He improved to 23-6 in fifth sets and has bagged 11 of his last 12. In the previous round against Laslo Djere the Japanese baseliner rallied from 3-0 down – two breaks.
“I should have lost it in three or four sets but I should have won it in the fifth set,” summed up Paire.
Nishikori’s reward after contesting those lengthy battles?
Only a well-rested Nadal on Tuesday.
“Not gonna be easy,” Nishikori said.
Still a success for Paire
Nevertheless, the tournament proved a success for Paire, as it did for countrymen Nicolas Mahut, 23-year-old Antoine Hoang and 20-year-old Corentin Moutet.
Pierre Hugues Herbert, Mahut’s former doubles partner now focusing on singles, pulled off a two-set comeback like Mahut and subsequently battled bravely against Paire in an epic five-setter.
Considered a huge talent with a tremendous backhand and touch, Paire has admitted to struggling with motivation in the past and has gone walkabout in matches.
The 30-year-old, though, seems to have turned a corner.
“I want to live more emotions like that, and I want to continue doing better for the rest of the season,” he said.
In other action in the women’s draw – where no French players made the third round for the first time since 1986 – Ashleigh Barty earned back-to-back grand slam quarterfinals by ousting Serena Williams’ conqueror, Sofia Kenin, 6-3 3-6 6-0.
She will face another player used to appearing in the second week of majors, Madison Keys. The American defeated Katerina Siniakova – who eliminated world No. 1 Naomi Osaka Saturday – 6-2 6-4.