21 Jul 2017

France's game plan reaping rewards

News Article

By Jamie Renton

France won four of the six trophies on offer at the Young Seniors World Championships

France’s lengthy wait to win one of the most prestigious international team competitions in tennis has been a source of frustration for Les Bleus for well over a decade.

Not since 2001 have they lifted the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas trophy, the silver salad bowl that they have so coveted ever since the famous Four Musketeers embarked on a glorious run of six straight triumphs in the 1920s and 1930s - and have won on just three occasions since then. The Fed Cup, which last made its way to France in 2003, has proved similarly elusive.

Team tennis has long been high on the priority list in France but though the nation hasn’t come up trumps recently in the professional game, their trophy cabinet is anything but threadbare. France has already produced a catalogue of World Team Champions this year, albeit aged 35 and above.

At the ITF Young Seniors World Team Championships in Cape Town, South Africa in March, French teams walked away with four of the six trophies on offer, and finished runner-up in a fifth. Their dominance of the Young Seniors category, which spans the 35-45 age groups, was extraordinary. The men’s team won the 35 Italia Cup and the 40 Tony Trabert Cup before finishing runner-up in the 45 Dubler Cup, while the French women added the 35 Suzanne Lenglen Cup and 40 Young Cup to the nation’s haul.

Never mind Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Kristina Mladenovic, it is the unheralded Caroline Dhenin, Magali Malbet, Alexandre Martinatto and Steeve Noblecourt, amongst others, who have flown the flag for France in team championship triumphs in 2017. And there are still two more World Championships to come in Florida later this year – the Seniors World Championships in Miami in November, after the Super-Seniors event in Lake Nona at the end of October.

“This year our performance in the Young Seniors category was very, very good, but we don’t expect so many titles every time,” admits Julien Borfiga, Director of Competition and Teams at the French Tennis Federation.

“We know we have a lot of good players but, of course, around the world they have good players too. We have two other Seniors World Championships this year, so maybe we won’t have good results there…”

Modesty aside, France’s achievements in Cape Town were significant. So what are the reasons for that success?

It’s a combination of factors, believes Borfiga, spanning everything from the enthusiasm for tennis in France and the nation’s successful club culture, to the diligent approach the FFT takes in preparing all of its teams – juniors, professional or seniors – for international competition.

“We try to take care of every population of players in France – from the very young to the very old,” says Borfiga. “Part of my job is to take care of every French team, from the Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams through to the Seniors teams. We arrange everything from accommodation and airplane tickets to catering, and try to give the best conditions to each team. Of course, the Davis and Fed Cup teams are important, because they are professional, but we think that all the French teams deserve the same kind of organisation and treatment.

“I want my Seniors players to be happy to travel to Florida, and to feel that someone is working for them,” he continued. “I want them to go there and care only about playing, and that’s it.

“Whether it’s a small club in a small city in France or it’s the World Championships, we have the same approach. Maybe that explains why we had such a good performance in Cape Town,” Borfiga adds with a shrug. “But we also had good luck!”

As well as their tailored approach to their players in competition, success on the world stage is usually borne out of significant participation at grass roots level and a healthy competition structure. That’s certainly the case in France, where tennis is the second most popular sport in the country after football.

In 2016 there were over 7,800 tennis clubs operating throughout the country, with 1.04million registered players and almost 380,000 of those competing in organised tournaments across all levels of the game.

While there are fewer tennis clubs in France today than there were 25 years ago – there were over 10,000 back in 1992 – the number of competitive opportunities has increased significantly, with 18,257 tournaments run throughout the country last year, a sum that has more than doubled over the last quarter of a century.

Seniors tennis has a significant part to play amongst those numbers, says Stephane Berrefato, who works alongside Borfiga at the FFT and is responsible for the development of both Seniors and Padel tennis across the country. 

“The goal of the Federation is to increase the number of players in all categories,” Berrefato says. “We are seeing an increase in the population of both Seniors and Padel tennis. We are trying to increase the number of ITF tournaments too. The French Federation pays 1000 euros to a club to organise a new ITF Seniors event.

“We have gone from 15 tournaments to 18 tournaments on the ITF Seniors calendar without making a lot of effort.”

Another initiative in the pipeline is to create a ranking system within France for its Seniors players, particularly in the 35 and 40 age categories. “We have a lot of demand for that,” Berrefato says. “The best players in each category in the country want to be able to say ‘I’m No. 1’, or ‘I’m in the Top 10’. It’s a pleasure for them to be able to say that. Maybe in the future we can organise that.”

“At the ITF we greatly appreciate the attention that the FFT, and other nations, afford Seniors players,” says Jackie Nesbitt, Executive Director of ITF Circuits. “We recognise the importance of Seniors tennis and are trying to improve our Circuit and our Championship events by reaching out to the playing community to get feedback on what we are doing well and what we can do better.” 

“This year the ITF has introduced Player Advisory Panels, composed of player representatives who will guide us. The first panel actually met in Cape Town and included Caroline Dhenin, who helped France win the Young Cup there.”

France is well represented towards the top of the individual ITF Seniors Rankings and, as it stands, has a particular prominence in the Top 10 rankings in the older age categories. Yvette Laubus claimed the world No. 1 spot in the women’s 85 age group for the first time in June, while 66-year-old Bruno Renoult sits atop the men’s 65 age category. Gail Benedetti and Michele Bichon, both former world No. 1s in the women’s 70 category, remain in the hunt for a return to the top ranking.

What is abundantly clear is that the appetite for the game amongst the older generation shows no sign of abating. So much so, that there was outcry when the FFT’s Seniors Committee informed its players a couple of years ago that they were changing the format of the game for those aged 65 and over, with a super tie-break played to decide a match instead of a third set.

“People weren’t happy,” Berrefato says with a smile. “Not happy at all. But they’ve finally accepted the decision. And of course, it’s for their health!”