The French pride themselves on making a conquest, early and elegant. As with every rule though, there are bound to be exceptions.
In the early nineteenth century, there was a French explorer who nearly conquered the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. After a gruelling 16-day expedition through the wild, Francis Louis Barrallier and his men were only a day away from finding a path through the imposing range when they had to call off their effort due to inadequate resources.
The fate of Julien Benneteau in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday wasn’t too different from that of Barrallier all those years ago. The 31-year-old was up a match point at 6-2, 5-4 with Joao Sousa hanging by the skin of his teeth, serving to stay in the match. A maiden ATP title seemed within touching distance for Benneteau.
The Frenchman has been on the tour for 13 long years and was playing in his ninth career final. Standing across the net was a fledgling 24-year-old, who just last year was busy playing challengers to carve his way into the ATP tour.
The opportunity was staring in the face of Benneteau, yet somehow Sousa found the nerve to attack in that crucial moment to save the break point and keep the match alive.
Unfortunately for the 32nd-ranked man from Bourg en Bresse, the champagne moment passed him yet again when Sousa struck a thundering forehand down the line pass. The Portuguese showed immense conviction, not just snatching the match away from Benneteau but also offering a valuable insight about winning to his vanquished senior.
“I just gave my best, it was a tough shot there. Tennis is like this, if you don’t go for it, you’ll never make it, so I just went for it,” reminded Sousa, a reflection that might resonate just as hard on the plight of his opponent. “We both played a great match, he had a lot of chances to win.” It was a sad commentary for Benneteau, who is from an almost extinct species of serve and volley players. The ability to reach the net and gain a position good enough to dictate the points from there demands foot speed.
But it is as if the Frenchman develops cold feet every time he has an opportunity to take home some silver with the winner’s name scrolled on it.
The weight of winning seems to burden the 31-year-old, who has fallen at the final hurdle on nine different occasions. Not that he lacks the weapons or the ammunition – for a man who not only stretched Roger Federer to five sets at Wimbledon, but beat him twice elsewhere, it certainly isn’t weaponry that is at question.
Winning is a trait nurtured on a velvet throne inside the head, and that is where it appears Benneteau has been unable to find a level surface to rest the shaky legs of the throne.
One day perhaps Benneteau will eventually find a way to earn that elusive cup of pride. In the meantime, he shall remain an unfulfilled explorer who fails to find the legs needed to cross over the final mile. After playing 452 (217-225) matches on the ATP tour, the one big hole on his profile should begin to rankle the Frenchman.
Especially so since Benneteau has made at least a final each year since 2008, only to suffer a painful loss and return home empty-handed every time. As discussed in this recent piece about the hunt for an elusive trophy, Benneteau continues to confound followers by his inability to clinch victory on a Sunday.