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27 February 2009

The New Musketeers



  • Chris Bowers
The history of French tennis – and a big chapter in Davis Cup history – began with the four ‘Musketeers’ of the late 1920s. Now France has a new generation of musketeers, and they play together in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas for the first time.

They were the players who put French men’s tennis on the map, and they were responsible for the Roland Garros stadium, the men’s trophy at the French Open, and much else in global tennis. They were the Musketeers – Henri Cochet, René Lacoste, Jean Borotra and Jacques ‘Toto’ Brugnon – and they won every Davis Cup between 1927 and 1932, a total of six not added to until Yannick Noah’s team won in 1991.

Now there is a new generation of players who the French media have taken to calling the ‘New Musketeers’. France has been a prominent nation in the past two decades, and its national training centre at Roland Garros has been the envy of tennis fans around the world. But the country has never delivered a crop of players all at the top at the same time – at least not until now.

In October, French tennis achieved something unprecedented since computer rankings began in 1973. It had four players in the top 20: Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Gilles Simon and Jo Wilfried Tsonga. There had been plenty of French greats hunting in pairs – Marcel Bernard and Yvon Petra in 1946, Yannick Noah and Christophe Roger-Vasselin in 1983, Guy Forget and Henri Leconte who won the ecstatic Davis Cup final of 1991, Cedric Pioline and Nicolas Escudé in 1998, and Sebastien Grosjean and Arnaud Clement in 2001. But as the French sports daily L’Equipe noted, “there was seldom a trio and never a quartet”.

At least not since the Musketeers, so in celebration of the new strength at the top of French tennis, L’Equipe clothed the four in 1920s outfits, had them photographed for its preview of the BNP Paribas Masters, and dubbed them ‘the New Musketeers’.

Gasquet was the first of the four to come to prominence. Labelled the future of French tennis by France’s Tennis Magazine when he was just nine, he reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2007. When, within a year, Tsonga had reached the Australian Open final and Monfils the French Open semis, France had enjoyed its most successful run at the majors since, yes, the musketeers in the early 1930s. With all four having reached the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open and Simon having made his first major quarterfinal, the ‘New Musketeers’ epithet is looking increasingly justified.

With timing reminiscent of a Lacoste backhand or a Tsonga serve, a new book on the musketeers came out in France last year. >i>La Saga des Mousquetaires by Fabrice Abgrall and François Thomazeau charts what it calls “the beautiful era of French tennis”. In an amateur era, the four musketeers followed in the footsteps of the balletic Suzanne Lenglen, who had popularised tennis and made the French hungry for success.

The term ‘musketeers’ was first coined by the former US doubles champion Henry Slocum. With Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Three Musketeers having been made into a Hollywood movie in 1921 starring Douglas Fairbanks, Slocum had some knowledge of French literary history when speaking at the dinner on the eve of the 1926 Davis Cup final. When Paul Champ, a columnist for Le Figaro newspaper, used it on 23 July 1927 in his report of France’s victory over Denmark in the European zone final of the Davis Cup, it stuck, and was soon a recognised term in tennis.

When the musketeers went on to win the 1927 Davis Cup, the French federation agreed to build them a stadium on the western edge of Paris in which to defend their title the following year. They named it after Roland Garros, an aviator who had died in the last days of the first world war, and named the trophy the men play for at the French championships the ‘Coupe des Mousquetaires’. The French didn’t lose at Roland Garros until the 1933 final.

Fabrice Abgrall, a journalist with the radio station Radio France Inter, says there are distinct personality parallels between the original musketeers and the new generation. “Gasquet’s parallel is Henri Cochet, known as the magician of the quartet,” says Abgrall. “Tsonga is Jean Borotra, who was nicknamed ‘the bounding Basque’. Monfils resembles René Lacoste, who turned his nickname, the crocodile, into a logo for his world renown clothing brand that Gasquet wears today. And Simon would be Jacques Brugnon, the doubles specialist who was known as the wise one of the four.”

Like Brugnon, Simon is the oldest of the quartet, but not by as much as Brugnon was. ‘Toto’, as he was known, was 32 when France won its first title in 1927, more than four years older than the next oldest, Borotra. Simon turned 24 in December, Tsonga is still 23, while Gasquet and Monfils are babies at 22. There is a potentially a full decade ahead for the new musketeers.

And now they are playing in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas for the first time as a foursome. Guy Forget, who has worked some magic over the years as the captain of teams that have somehow been more than the sum of their parts, suddenly has a pool of true quality at his disposal, in fact almost an embarrassment of riches. Who does he select for singles? And who in doubles? His best doubles team is probably Tsonga and Gasquet, who won the Sydney title last year beating Bob and Mike Bryan in the final, but if Simon and Tsonga play singles, maybe he puts Gasquet and Monfils together. We will see.

It’s a different era now than it was in the 1920s, but France could be on the verge of something special with its new foursome. The era of the new musketeers begins in Ivan Lendl’s native city of Ostrava against the Czechs.

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