Think U.S. Men's Tennis Is in a Slump? Look at Post-WWII France

France was a force in international tennis until political instability weakened its grip on the sport—and French tennis has yet to recover. 

John Isner of the U.S. returns the ball during the second round of the French Open against Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin at Roland Garros in Paris, France. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

With every major tennis tournament come the lamentations over the sorry state of American men’s tennis.

With the French Open getting underway this week, right on cue came the all but inevitable “pre-mortem” inquest into the lowly rankings of the American men: No American has won a Grand Slam event singles title since Andy Roddick in 2003 at the U.S. Open, and with no American men ranked in the ATP’s top 10 (Switzerland and Spain each have two) and only one—John Isner, ranked number 11—in the top 60, Christopher Clarey’s status report in The New York Times was appropriately headlined "Once a Force in Tennis, Now Enduring a Grand Slam Drought.”

It made for especially dispiriting reading on the 25th anniversary of Michael Chang's upset French Open victory in 1989, one of the true highlights of the American experience on the red clay courts of the Stade Roland Garros. And the reasons given for the American fall from the top ranks of men’s tennis suggest that a quick recovery is not likely. (Serena Williams aside, the picture is not much brighter for American women—and Williams herself lost her second-round match this week.)

As Clarey wrote, coaches and former players, including Jim Courier, winner of the French Open in 1991 and 1992, “see a lack of world-class work ethic and toughness in too many of the young Americans. … ‘There are plenty of talented players who are not getting the most out of their talent,’ Courier said.” Jose Higueras, a Spanish player who won 16 tour titles and reached two French Open semi-finals, and who now is involved in player development work for the United States Tennis Association, has expressed similar sentiments:. “We are lacking competitiveness in our players,” he said. “They’ve got good backhands and forehands and serves, but they lack an understanding of how the game needs to be played. We have good coaches, but the culture of our players needs to improve.”

And The Los Angeles Times reported having a conversation with a former American pro player on the same topic: “He didn’t exactly say that today’s players are soft and coddled, but said he has been told by coaches that some of the young U.S. prodigies refuse to partake in practice sessions longer than 45 minutes.”

But it’s hardly the first time that a tournament at Roland Garros triggered soul searching about the dire prospects for a nation’s tennis—and the extent to which asserted deficiencies in the character and culture of the players themselves are to blame. Consider the following:

Tennis has passed through a very prosperous year. Large crowds have flocked to Roland Garros. ... However, no young players were able to break through and compete at the highest level. ...The truth is that today’s young people are adverse to prolonged effort. They see with their own eyes the virtuosity and mastery of the champions but they don’t comprehend the hard work that was needed to acquire that skill or the perseverance necessary to maintain it.

That’s more or less what Courier and Higueras are saying about today’s younger American players. But the passage above was actually written about the condition of French tennis, and it appeared under the title “The Causes of the Tennis Crisis” in a 1943 issue of the Journal des Debats, a collaborationist French newspaper.

That the French sport was said to be in “crisis” was considered especially disappointing in light of what was described as an intensive effort by the French Tennis Federation to stimulate tennis activity among the young.

Some have wanted to blame the Federation. Nothing could be more wrong. Since the armistice [in 1940], the Federation has, to the contrary, focused all of its efforts on the youth. The Federation has established schools for young players and particularly for beginners throughout France. Tennis balls [in short supply in wartime] have been distributed to clubs in proportion to the amount of attention devoted to young players. Established champions have been encouraged to practice with the best hopefuls, all of which has been going on for years but without any result.

The “reason for holding tournaments in this difficult time was to provide the crucible out of which French tennis would be prepared for the international matches of the future,” but that was not happening. Instead, the paper sadly concluded, it was the veteran players from pre-war times, including Yvon Petra and 42-year-old Henri Cochet, hero of France’s six consecutive Davis Cup triumphs from 1927 to 1932, who continued to dominate any younger challengers.

As I have previously written, postwar amnesia to the contrary, France maintained a lively tennis scene throughout the Second World War. The courts at Roland Garros were busy even throughout the “dark years” of defeat and occupation. In July 1942, the national junior championship was played out on its red clay courts while thousands of Jews were being rounded up and held in the infamous Velodrome d’Hiver just across the Seine. Two years later, in August 1944, Petra was defending his French singles title before large crowds even as Allied and German armies battled in Normandy less than 150 miles from Paris.

When international tennis competition resumed after the war, the old guard of French tennis, skills kept sharp by their wartime activity, enjoyed considerable success—at first. In 1946, Petra took the Wimbledon title and Marcel Bernard triumphed at Roland Garros. But Petra was then 30 years old and Bernard was 32—and these victories marked the end, not the start, of an era for French tennis, highlighted by the fact that Petra would prove to be the last man to win a major tournament wearing long pants.

Given the stresses and privations of defeat and occupation, it was hardly surprising that wartime France was an inhospitable incubator of future tennis champions. But the paucity of youthful talent in the pipeline—the “crisis” decried in 1943—proved a long-standing problem. After 1946, a French man would not win a major singles title until 1983 (Yannick Noah at the French Open), and none has won a Grand Slam singles title since.

That is not to say that the "crises" of American tennis today and French tennis during the war had common roots. Occupied France can hardly be said to have been a time when "life is good," a reason cited for the lack of competitive fire in younger American players. Perhaps, though, when life is too hard, the sheer struggle to survive can render the competitive artifice of sports an irrelevant diversion from the uncertainty and stress of everyday life. Nor did postwar France offer a hospitable environment for its reemergence as a tennis power. Tennis was inevitably a low-priority item during the decades of colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria and political instability that followed the Liberation from German occupation. From the 1940s into the early 1970s, tennis was ruled by Australia and the United States, two nations which emerged from the war far stronger, both materially and in morale, than France and which produced players better suited for the grass courts (on which three of the four major championships were then played) than the clay court-favoring French. 

It would be overly pessimistic to predict that the current “Grand Slam drought” for American men will be as dire as that endured by the French, whether from 1946 to 1983 or from 1983 to date. For one thing, the sheer numbers of American junior players suggests that there will be a breakthrough at some point. Tennis dominance is cyclical; witness the current woes of such onetime court powers as Australia and Sweden. And it takes no more than a (small) handful of players to turn things around. Plus the United States Tennis Association is now ramping up its player-development efforts to an unprecedented degree. But, at the same time, given the current lack of American players in the sport's top tier, it would be overly optimistic to expect the drought to end any time soon.