There can be no disguising the scale of British failure at this bizarre French Open. When Heather Watson joined her five compatriots as Parisian tourists before the start of the second round, her mood matched the grimness of the weeping skies and the wreckage of history that has gone before. The forecast is not great.
Watson, who battled ongoing dizzy spells earlier in the year to move from outside the top 100 to 56 in the world, had beaten Fiona Ferro twice without dropping a set before they met again on Court No 14 on Tuesday but the experienced clay-courter, ranked third among the 11 French players at Roland Garros, rose to the moment and tamed Watson to win 7-6 (4), 6-4.
Rather than dwell on the wretchedness of this campaign, however, Watson bemoaned the lack of young British players coming through and lashed out at the LTA.
“We’ve got a good little group of players right now,” she said, “but, as far as the next generation goes, I don’t see who’s going to be in the top 50. More players need to get help, rather than just helping a selected handful. That way you’re not spoilt and you’re not given everything at a young age. You need to work for it and learn the grind of the Tour.”
Watson played well but Ferro is flying on her favourite surface, unbeaten in six clay matches this year, with the Palermo title in her pocket. She next plays the 14th seed, Elena Rybakina, who beat Sorana Cirstea. Cirstea fittingly put the British No 1 Johanna Konta out of the US Open in the second round.
So, gone without landing a proper blow are: Andy Murray, Britain’s best ever player, after equalling his heaviest grand slam defeat; Konta, meekly in straight sets against the American teenager Coco Gauff; Cam Norrie, after a surreal collapse; the grand slam debutant Liam Broady, with a bit of a flourish; Dan Evans, who has never much liked clay; and Watson, who has been here before.
Watson was part of the losing pack the last time there were no British players in the second round at Roland Garros in 2013, when Murray missed the tournament with a back injury. The game lent heavily on him then and, sadly, still does.
On another day of flickering drizzle, Watson served well and hit intelligently short and long but could not establish herself. The second set was close and hard fought but Ferro was solid under pressure, finishing the task when she forced Watson to overstretch on the backhand side.
After Konta lost against Gauff in the first round, she was asked to summarise her performances in grand slam tournaments this year. “I lost first round of the Australian, second round of the US, and first round of the French, so that’s kind of how that went.” When it was put to her that those losses were against players outside the top 50 and did she not consider that a matter of concern, Konta replied curtly: “No.”
It is not that these talented players are not trying their best. You can see their anguish when things go wrong on court. But the prevailing notion of “acceptance” smacks of dealing with disappointment to soften the spiritual blow. “I don’t think any player, including myself, will sit here after an early‑round loss and be pleased with the result,” Konta said. “I would like to do better, but I’m not exactly going to hate myself.”
Nobody wants to inflict loathing on them, which seems to be their perception when the “British media” is characterised as on the rampage and looking for headline fodder, but “acceptance” – another Konta buzzword – provides comfort when a professional athlete needs to embrace constructive regret over mistakes. Losing should hurt. Sometimes these players are too quick to move on, and the danger is that a pattern emerges: acceptance reinforced by failure, followed by more acceptance.
Consider the devastation that engulfed Gaël Monfils after Alexander Bublik beat the French favourite in front of his home crowd. “I have no words to say anything, to be honest,” he said. “Definitely was not a great one. Was, I think, the worse one, 100%, for sure that I had.”
Winning is a habit, the All Blacks say. British tennis needs to toughen up, get its hands in the ruck occasionally, maybe smash a racket or two, scream a few expletives, shed some tears. When Édith Piaf sang “Non, je ne regrette rien”, she probably had not just walked off a tennis court. In sport, it is good to look back in anger.
As that long time Irish Parisian, Samuel Beckett, reminds anyone who takes a close look at Stan Wawrinka’s strong right arm: “Fail better.” It certainly beats: “Go home and see the dogs.”