x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

French failures fail to frustrate

Their defeats have as much panache as the wins. From Rugby World Cup to Gael Monfils, a looks at some instances from France's sporting history.

Gael Monfils lost at the French Open this year but won many hearts. Gerry Penny / AFP
Gael Monfils lost at the French Open this year but won many hearts. Gerry Penny / AFP

If there is any palatable, acceptable and, even cool, way to lose in sport, it is the way the French do it.

They can be so disarming and even endearing about it, that in the final accounting, defeat does not ultimately equal a defeat at all. You could even say it assumes in their hands the status of a fetish.

Now naturally, some pretty wide generalising is being invoked here, and it has to be acknowledged that there are plenty of exceptions.

But equally, it is difficult to deny that there is a thread that runs through some of their losses, distinct enough to be visible.

A French defeat is nearly always memorable.

Many individuals and nations lose sullenly, unable to digest that they have been bettered, and they stand ready to bring the world down by the power of tantrums.

Others lose self-deprecatingly, dealing with it by being dry and witty. Some manage to do it with dignity and honour, as if in the course of duty, and some do it as neurosis.

The French? They are not averse to any of the above, but overwhelmingly, they seem to lose with great style or great drama, and sometimes, lucky for us, both.

There is something so French about being involved in great sporting contests, but ending up on the losing side, that defeat becomes a kind of philosophical sculpture, carefully chiselled over years and years into a standalone object of overpowering beauty: to lose is not to lose, but to be interesting.

Take the men's French Open, now in its 30th year since it was last won by a local.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the only Frenchman still alive, having dismantled Roger Federer in straight sets yesterday, but favourites Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal can yet spoil the party.

Instead, it is the runs and eventual defeats of Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet that crystallise best the sexiness of French defeat.

Already the pair provided arguably the most enjoyable contests at Roland Garros and the most intriguing storylines.

Monfils was particularly epic, transposing somehow through his own lanky, loose charisma and skills even more sexiness and magic on to Paris than the city already has.

Both lost immense five-setters, having been two sets up, and Gasquet's loss to Stanislas Wawrinka on Monday was a game of such mind-bending quality that the natural tendency was to end up actually in awe of the vanquished.

Following them was like idling in some wonderfully ditsy world of fantasy, a last stop for the imagination before returning to the relentlessly real inevitability of deciding which of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will win.

Tennis just happens to be one of the best observation points for this tendency. Remember Henri Laconte (the only way he could be more French was if you replaced the N in his surname with an S)?

Winning must have been important for him, as it is for every professional sportsman.

But did he ever have a hypnotic way of masking it under the desire to be this clown with the touch of a lapidary. You absolutely could not take your eyes off him.

But the fortunes of their rugby side could equally be called upon; three World Cup finals, some of the best players to watch, a tradition of attractive rugby, some truly dramatic games and not a single World Cup win to show for it.

And without Google, the more casual followers of golf among us might not be able to remember the winner of the 1999 British Open, but they will remember who did not win it.

Jean Van de Velde's name fairly slips off the tongue, those images of one of sport's most bewildering collapses still etched in the head. The strain has been there in some of their football sides, less viral in the mid-80s side of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse, who at least won Euro 1984, but probably should have won more.

It was vicious in the 1994 side, which had Eric Cantona, David Ginola, Didier Deschamps and Jean-Pierre Papin, and somehow managed to not qualify for that year's World Cup, despite needing just a draw at home in their last game.

Not that any kind of consolation is needed, but it is worth pointing out that they do often win: the 1998 World Cup and the Euro 2000 and, personally at least, their most memorable recent triumph, the 1991 Davis Cup in which Laconte especially (and Guy Forget) blended perfectly their innate Frenchness with the nous to win.

When they do win, it is with equal panache.