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French still haunted by claims of style over substance

By Simon Cambers

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - It is a long-standing cliché in men's tennis that French players have an abundance of flair but would rather look good than get results.

Joie de vivre? Tick. Style over substance? Tick. Grand slam singles titles. No tick.

It is almost 30 years since Yannick Noah won the French Open, a victory that many hoped would open the floodgates for a generation of French grand slam champions.

But since then, the country that provided 13 men in this year's Australian Open singles, second only to Spain (16), has failed to win any grand slam singles titles.

Amelie Mauresmo and Mary Pierce won two grand slams each but despite a generation of outstanding players, Frenchmen have come up short.

Since Noah's triumph, France have had four men reach five grand slam singles finals. Australian Open quarter-finalists Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Jeremy Chardy will be hoping to make it six in Melbourne on Sunday.

Guy Forget, the former France Davis Cup captain and now tournament director of the Paris Masters, believes the reason for the lack of success has nothing to do with clichés.

"I think you're born a champion," Forget told Reuters. "I don't think any program in the world will make you win a grand slam, otherwise China would have won a few majors already.

"I have lived in Switzerland for more than 20 years now and they have a good program, but you don't say that because of that programRoger Federer was the best player that ever lived.

"I think if Federer was born in Cape Town or Buenos Aires, he would have won. If he was Argentinian, people would have said they had the best program in the world. Roger was born a champion, he was born and raised to become that incredible player."

FLAIR

France is not alone. Andy Murray's U.S. Open victory last September gave Britain a first male grand slam champion for 76 years. Australia dominated the sport in the 1960s and 1970s but has won just five titles since 1983. Andy Roddick was the last American man to win a grand slam, the U.S. Open in 2003.

Murray has won 45 of his past 49 matches against French players and faces another, Chardy, in the quarter-finals in Melbourne on Wednesday. He believes there is a French stereotype.

"They have all got a lot of flair," the Briton said. "They can normally play some drop shots, slice and are good athletes but they can make mistakes.

"Because I play solid all of the time against them, I think that is why my game has matched up pretty well against them."

Many have suggested that it is a French trait that their players are content to play well but are not driven by the desire to win. Forget disagreed.

"We've had gold medalists in the Olympics, we won the World Cup in soccer, we have a great rugby team, we have world champions in every sport, in swimming and in track and field," he said.

"Probably in 10 years down the road, we'll be speaking to each other and we'll have maybe three of the top five, one guy will win a few majors and people will try to analyze and say ‘what's so special about French food?'

"We would say: ‘the food is the same, the program is the same, but we have these incredible players'.

"Although we like to complain, although we like to be on strike and although French are very different people, that's not the reason why we don't produce any grand slam winners."

TALENT

In 2004, France had renewed hope that they had found a future champion when Gael Monfils won three of the four junior grand slams and was junior world number one.

But though he has reached one grand slam semi-final and been ranked as high as seventh, Monfils has been affected by injuries throughout his career and his attitude has been in question.

"At this stage, I don't think Gael has the maturity to win a grand slam," said Fabrice Santoro, who won two grand slam doubles titles.

"He has the talent and if he works hard for the next year, two years then maybe he could do something in Paris, but right now, I don't think he is ready."

Forget said Monfils had the talent to win one but whether he does or not has nothing to do with the French Federation or the fact of being French.

"He has to dig deep within himself and make that commitment. I think he's trying but he hasn't found the right answers yet.

"Roger probably does it very easily and doesn't know why. Mozart was composing operas when he was eight years old and it's not because his father taught him how to play the piano.

"He was born that way and hopefully one of the French guys will win a major sometime soon."

(Editing by Patrick Johnston)

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