Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Don't look now, but France...yes FRANCE...currently boasts three of the Top-10 performers in the world and four of the Top-30 players in the ATP Champions Race.
After going the better part of the past half century without catching the attention of the tennis world, the proud European nation is making some noise with a handful of young, potential stars.
2001 Australian Open semifinalists Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean currently account for the No. 2 and No. 3 positions in the Race, while Nicolas Escude holds down No. 10. Throw in Julien Boutter (No. 29), and the French have four Musketeers in the Top 30.
Good friends and doubles partners Clement and Grosjean represent France's best shot at year-end Top-10 status, with Escude and Boutter being the "sleepers," if you will.
France has never had a year-end No. 1 since the world rankings came into play in 1973.
The 23-year-old Clement put himself on the tennis map by stunning top-seeded and defending champion Andre Agassi in the second round of last year's U.S. Open. Clement not only beat the American, but soundly whipped the career Grand Slam ace, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. The 5-foot-8 Frenchman eventually lost to fellow diminutive star, Australian Lleyton Hewitt, in the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows.
Clement continued his rocket-like rise in the ATP ranks by advancing to this year's Australian Open final, where he ran into a buzzsaw in the form of Agassi, who avenged the U.S. Open setback with a resounding 6-4, 6-2, 6-2 pasting of a bewildered Clement.
But, in the process of reaching the Aussie Open final, Clement sent a message that he's a man to contend with on the circuit. He climbed his way to the Melbourne title match with impressive victories over the likes of rising Swiss star Roger Federer, hard-serving Englishman Greg Rusedski, former world No. 1 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Grosjean, who he miraculously defeated in an all-French semifinal at Rod Laver Arena. Kafelnikov was the 2000 Aussie Open runner-up to Agassi and captured the event a year earlier.
Clement's unbelievable victory against Kafelnikov prompted him to launch everything accept his shorts into the appreciative crowd at Melbourne Park.
In the semis, Grosjean was easily leading his pal, 7-5, 6-2, and had a pair of match points in the third set before Clement came back from the dead to secure the third set en route to an improbable 5-7, 2-6, 7-6 (7-4), 7-5, 6-2 victory that took four hours and eight minutes to complete.
With the huge win, Clement improved to 3-1 lifetime against Grosjean.
The incredible comeback catapulted Clement into his first-ever Grand Slam final. And in doing so, he became the first Frenchman to contest an Aussie Open final since Jean Borotra -- one of the legendary four Musketeers of French tennis -- won it way back in 1928.
The Clement-Grosjean encounter also marked the second time that two Frenchmen battled in a Grand Slam semi since the Open era commenced in 1968. The previous occasion came in 1983, when Yannick Noah squared off against Christophe Roger-Vasselin at Roland Garros. Noah went on to win his beloved French Open that year.
The appearance by a Frenchman in the Aussie Open semis was the first such venture since Escude turned the trick in 1998.
The 142-pound Clement, who was born in Aix-en-Provence and now resides in Geneva, Switzerland, still owns just one title on the ATP since turning pro in 1996, but the athletic Frenchman has proven in recent months that he's a force to be reckoned with on tour. His lone title came in front of the home fans in Lyon last November.
It's agreed upon that Grosjean possesses a bit more talent than Clement, using a world-class forehand to keep opponents honest. But Clement is lightning quick around the court and has a never-say-die attitude out there.
The 22-year-old Grosjean, who hails from Marseille but now lives in Boca Raton, Florida, is currently third on the world ledger, thanks mostly to his brilliant performance at the Aussie extravaganza where he upset world No. 4 Magnus Norman and 1997 runner-up and former world No. 1 Carlos Moya before locking horns with Clement.
In 1995, Grosjean won the French junior championship, and the following year he was the world's No. 1 junior in both singles and doubles.
Seven years ago, the 5-foot-9, 147-pound Grosjean was told by French tennis officials that he was too small to make it as a professional. But, like Clement, Grosjean joined the pro ranks in 1996, and, like Clement, he's captured one career title, which came in Nottingham last year.
Outside the Aussie Open, another highlight of this still-young 2001 season came in Grosjean's hometown of Marseille, where he advanced to the final against the always-tough Kafelnikov, who, playing on his 27th birthday, defeated the Frenchman much to the chagrin of the home throng.
Grosjean and Clement are also part of the French Davis Cup team, which wiped out the host Belgians, 5-0, in first-round action last month. Clement went 2-0 in singles play, while Grosjean's record was also unblemished in Gent, at 1-0. Both Grosjean and Clement trailed two-sets-to-love in their opening singles matches before roaring back for impressive five-set victories, giving France a comfortable 2-0 lead.
The 24-year-old Escude, who, like Clement, also resides in Geneva, wanted to hang up his racquet after bowing out against unheralded American Bob Bryan in the first round of last month's Marseille event, but the native of Chartres carried on and played as a qualifier the following week in Rotterdam, where he surprised everyone by going on to capture the indoor tournament. Escude became the first qualifier to win an event since Fernando Gonzalez titled in Orlando last May.
Escude upset Tim Henman and Federer on his way to the Rotterdam title, which ultimately came when he outlasted the heavily-favored Federer, 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7-5), in the championship round.
The victory gave the seven-year-pro Escude his second career title, to go along with one he corraled in Toulouse in 1999.
The 6-foot-3, 26-year-old Boutter (BOO-tair), like Clement and Grosjean, turned pro in 1996. The Boulay native/Metz resident is still in search of his first-ever ATP trophy.
Boutter advanced all the way to the Milan Indoors final in late January, only to lose to Federer, who's widely-considered to be a potential world No. 1 star in the making.
I don't know if any of the aforementioned Frenchmen will finish the year in the Top 10, but the French can currently bask in the glow of their early-season success to this point.
Clement and Grosjean should hover around the Top 10, thanks in part to a French-friendly 25 clay-court events. The French typically prefer the dirt, but Clement and Grosjean have actually proven that they can challenge on other surfaces as well. Especially Grosjean, who prefers hardcourts over clay.