You want drama? The French Tennis Federation usually will oblige.
Unlike in North America, tennis is a huge sport in France. This is the federation that live-streamed a formal debate between the three main candidates for its presidency last February. The most entrenched old-guard candidate, Bernard Giudicelli, won the job.
The latest drama is the Fed Cup team, a dysfunctional mess at the moment. And it feels as though three team mainstays are ganging up on their quiet, introverted teammate.
It all began back in February when France’s then-top player, Caroline Garcia, skipped a first-round Fed Cup tie against Switzerland (France lost 3-2). She had already stated after the loss in the final last fall that she wouldn’t play in 2017, choosing to focus on producing better results at the Grand Slam tournaments.Embed from Getty Images
After the loss, the outspoken Kristina Mladenovic (with whom Garcia won the French Open women’s doubles title last year) had her say.
“The adventure is more beautiful with real people, people who have values, people who are ready to die on the court and to not be selfish,” Mladenovic said.
Later, she claimed she wasn’t referring to Garcia but to a younger player who expressed an abject lack of interest in playing for France (at least while the team was a tight-knit family under former captain Amélie Mauresmo): 20-year-old Océane Dodin. Uh-huh …
That successful doubles partnership quickly was history.
After defeat, comes bureaucracy
It gets complicated and rather bureaucratic after that. The men of French tennis are bouncing la balle to each other, deciding what the women should do.
We harken back to a time not so long ago when former No. 1 Mauresmo was the captain, and her players were eager to give her their all. They knew that whatever went on, she’d have their backs.
The FFT decided to bureaucratize the Fed Cup and Davis Cup selections, telling some 20 men and women that they were required to make themselves available for national duty in the four years leading up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. If they refuse, sanctions can range up to five years’ suspension from tournaments, even losing their player license, per articles 110-A and 116-119 of the federations’s charter.
Seriously.Embed from Getty Images
On Feb. 27, each player was advised of the new regulations and was sent a registered letter. The FFT has laid down the hammer before – notably with their unwillingness to compromise with former top-10 player Marion Bartoli, who insisted on having her father/coach on hand for Fed Cup. The standoff prevented the 2007 Wimbledon finalist and 2013 champion from playing the Olympic event in London in 2012, on grass. They also suspended players Mladenovic and Garcia, along with Benoit Paire, after some misbehaviour during the Olympics in Rio.
On March 14, Guidicelli said, the registered letter to Garcia was returned unclaimed.
Let the boys handle it
The new president played middleman to open lines of communication between Garcia’s ubiquitous father/coach Louis-Paul and captain Noah. They spoke by telephone March 14 then a week or so later met in person at the Miami Open. After all the menfolk chatted and patted each other’s backs and got it all straightened out (men are good at this, they tell us), things got soap opera-esque in a hurry.
Here’s a timeline, as outlined to the precise minute by Giudicelli in an audio interview posted by Tennis-Actu.
April 5: Louis-Paul Garcia thanked Giudicelli for creating a “climate of confidence and respect”, and helpfully supplied information about how other Fed Cup teams in other countries operated.
April 8: After France’s Davis Cup squad defeated Great Britain in Rouen, captain Noah told Giudicelli he wanted to select Garcia for the upcoming relegation tie against Spain (which, it should be noted, will be without both Garbiñe Muguruza and Carla Suárez Navarro). Among the reasons stated by Noah were Garcia’s solid performance at a tournament in Monterrey the previous week, the fact that she had entered tournaments following the Fed Cup (namely, Stuttgart the following week), and the fact that they needed her and because the other players wanted her on the team.
At the end of that day, Giudicelli left a voicemail for Louis-Paul Garcia informing him of the decision.
April 9: A voicemail message was left from Louis-Paul Garcia, telling Giudicelli the issue wasn’t whether his daughter wanted to play Fed Cup or not; that was never in question (this came as a surprise to Giudicelli, he said, given Garcia’s statement late in 2016).
The father/coach provided some medical information about Garcia’s back issues and concluded, armed with all the relevant data, that it was up to Giudicelli to decide if it would be useful to select her.
April 10: Giudicelli informed the players he was submitting the list of four nominations to the FFT’s executive committee: Garcia, Mladenovic, Alizé Cornet and Pauline Parmentier.
He added the message was read at 8:39 a.m. by Louis-Paul Garcia, and at 11:27 a.m. by Caroline Garcia.
At 10:11 p.m. that night, Garcia issued a release stating a “painful inflammation of the sciatic nerve” she had been dealing with since last summer’s US Open was forcing her to withdraw from Stuttgart and that she wouldn’t return to action until May. No mention was made of the Fed Cup selection.
Reaction from her teammates was swift, and coordinated.
Will she, or won’t she? That is the question
Despite that release, the federation announced nominations the next morning and still included Garcia. The Fed Cup website still lists her. But she won’t play.
Giudicelli is now playing hardball with Garcia, saying that refusing the nomination will have the federation’s disputes committee ruling on sanctions.
The highhandedness in this case would be amusing if it weren’t so sad. Legislating patriotism is highly overrated. A caveat in this case is that French players receive major financial support from the federation as they make their way up the ranks. It’s fair enough there be some obligations in return.
L’Équipe’s Sophie Dorgan met with Garcia at home in Lyon earlier this week. The story in the newspaper’s Saturday edition reveals a young woman who said the last few months have been the worst of her career. “I’m learning the painful way; that’s not the way I would have wanted it. It’s a hurtful and disappointing period,” she said.
Garcia said she got the impression her teammates think she’s faking the injury, even though the federation physician went to Lyon Wednesday to confirm the sciatic nerve problem.
She’s an easy target. Very much dominated by her father/coach, Garcia’s top-10 talent has always been held back by her emotions and her struggle to handle them.
After the tie against Switzerland, she said what she had to say; the federation knew her intention was not to play this year.
“After that, I read and listened to what’s being said, but I don’t want to get into any controversies. I do my thing,” she said. “They said they understood my decision, that I’d done a lot for the French team, that they respected the fact that I wanted to take some time. They knew I had a back problem.
“Then I read in the press that Noah says ‘there’s no point in forcing a player if she doesn’t want to play.’ There are misunderstandings, obviously. Plenty of them,” she added.
On April 12, the federation announced Garcia’s replacement. It is the previously reluctant Fed Cup participant: Océane Dodin. Dodin is on “the list” as well. She’d better show up – or else.
On Tuesday, Giudicelli will again go on Facebook Live to hold forth on his first 60 days in office. A must-see.
Update: Clearly the FFT doesn’t really ask players if they want to play; they just nominate them and if they say no, they bring the French Civil Code down on their heads.
L’Équipe reports Dodin declined their kind invitation.
“Others really like to be there and cheer. Me, that’s not really my thing. It’s not that I prefer being the centre of attention but if I don’t play … Team spirit, the group, that can be important but for me, not so much. … It’s more important for me to concentrate on my singles career rather than on Fed Cup, because I don’t play. I’m not the French No. 1 or No. 2, I’m No. 4.”
She has a point, sort of. But we’re getting the sense she won’t lead the next generation of French women’s tennis. Amandine Hesse, who was on the team against Switzerland in February, will fill that spot.