Julien Benneteau: No ‘emptiness’ for Frenchman who made 10 tennis finals and lost them all

CNN  — 

“Sport is weird sometimes.” Just ask Julien Benneteau, who reached an impressive 10 finals in an 18-year professional tennis career. Unfortunately he lost them all.

Indeed no man or woman in the Open Era that began in 1968 fell in as many finals without ever bagging one.

When it is suggested to the nearly 37-year-old Benneteau, whose career officially concluded in October, that he might be the best men’s player to never win a singles title, he laughs.

“Well, it suits me,” the Frenchman told CNN Sport. “If people say that, that’s fine for me.”

Benneteau might have always fallen at the final hurdle, but he had a varied game to trouble the greats of modern tennis. He beat Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, managed 18 top-10 scalps and appeared in finals on hard, clay and carpet.

He also led Federer by two sets on grass at the Swiss’ stronghold of Wimbledon in 2012, achieved a grand slam quarterfinal on home soil, rose to a high of 25th in the rankings and flourished in doubles.

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Benneteau and Edouard Roger-Vasselin ended France’s 30-year men’s doubles drought at Roland Garros in 2014 and he collected a bronze medal with Richard Gasquet at the London Olympics two years earlier.

He went 8-4 in doubles in the Davis Cup, the farewell victory coming in September’s semifinals against Spain when he filled in for an injured Pierre Hugues Herbert.

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Benneteau originally intended to retire a few weeks earlier at the US Open but couldn’t turn down the chance to suit up in the Davis Cup. He then continued to compete until the end of October in the hopes of landing a spot on France’s team for the finale against Croatia.

‘Magic moments’

Ultimately he missed out after playing in the 2014 final against Switzerland and Les Bleus stumbled 3-1 in Lille in a rather undramatic conclusion to the tennis season last month.

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“Even if I didn’t win a singles title, because I lived a lot of magic moments in doubles and in Davis Cup, for me there is no emptiness in my career,” said Benneteau, who pocketed a total of $9.55 million in prize money.

For many fans however – or at least those outside tennis loving France – it is that incredible, unenviable record in singles finals that truly catches the eye.

“It’s a pity he didn’t win one,” Marin Cilic, Croatia’s hero in Lille and the 2014 US Open champion, told reporters at the World Tour Finals in London that preceded the Davis Cup final. “Sport is weird sometimes.”

Benneteau engineered one of those top-10 wins against Cilic as part of a magical run to the Paris Masters semifinals in 2017.

“He had an amazing career,” continued Cilic. “A great player. Won so many matches.”

Julien Benneteau soaked up the atmosphere at the Paris Masters last year after beating Marin Cilic.

France’s Cedric Pioline – a twice grand slam finalist in 1993 and 1997 – and Pat Dupre lost their first nine finals but unlike Benneteau, broke through at the 10th time of asking.

Respite for Pioline came in Copenhagen in 1996 against home favorite Kenneth Carlsen, with Dupre snapping his losing streak in 1982 in Hong Kong against fellow American Morris Skip Strode in what would turn out to be his last final.

“I never really realized I lost that many in a row,” Dupre, a Wimbledon semifinalist in 1979 and former world No. 14, told CNN Sport. “But it was satisfying to win that first one.

“When you’re playing against a guy in the final, the other guy is doing well, too. There’s a reason why certain players are in a final, maybe the courts suits them well, they like the balls, or whatever it may be. And so, it’s not like the other guy is slacking.”

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Dupre recalled that when he battled Raul Ramirez in his first final in Mexico City in 1978, fans threw coins at him when he led the Mexican by an early break. He couldn’t convert a match point against Eddie Dibbs in Tulsa in his second final.

Match point heartbreak

No one threw coins at Benneteau in any of his finals – which he can recall in forensic detail – but he, too, experienced match point heartbreak.

It came in his ninth final and unsurprisingly turned out to be his most painful moment.

A point from victory against Joao Sousa in the second set in Kuala Lumpur in September 2013, Benneteau approached the net with a good forehand only to be passed spectacularly by the Portuguese. It was the turning point and Sousa prevailed 2-6 7-5 6-4.

While Benneteau tied Pioline and Dupre for futility in finals that day, Sousa made history by becoming his country’s maiden ATP winner.

Benneteau didn’t want to fall asleep that night when he was on a late flight to his next tournament in Beijing.

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“I had more than one beer at the airline lounge,” said Benneteau. “I didn’t want to sleep on the plane because I knew that when I was closing my eyes, right away I would be seeing pictures of the match and I refused to let that happen.

“The end of the season was very tough. I only spoke about that match with my coach after the season ended.”

His second toughest loss in a final, he said, came on the eve of the Australian Open in 2012 against Jarkko Nieminen.

Benneteau cruised to the final in Sydney without dropping a set. But when rain pushed the final from Saturday to Sunday, he admitted he couldn’t adjust.

Rain changed things

Nieminen – at the time 1-10 in finals – triumphed 6-2 7-5.

“I arrived Saturday afternoon in the players’ lounge. It was raining but I had a very good feeling,” said Benneteau. “I was very confident, in good spirits, a good mood.

“When I came back the next morning, it was a completely different atmosphere. Almost no one was there, empty seats, 10 or 10:30 final on Sunday morning. I didn’t feel the same way.

“Then I became very stressed because it was a final and I had the feeling that okay, this one, I can make it. I broke to start. But because he broke me back right after, I remember my mind went away. I went a little bit crazy in my mind.

“This one, I admit, I lost it because I didn’t manage it very well because it was a final.”

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Among his other finals, Benneteau led Guillermo Garcia Lopez by a set and break in Kitzbuhel in 2009 as a lucky loser but had nothing left physically after the Spaniard claimed the second set. He cramped earlier in the week in a long battle against Chilean Olympic gold medalist Nicolas Massu.

In 2012 in Kuala Lumpur, Benneteau said he tore a muscle in his serving arm prior to the final against Juan Monaco. Still he forced a third set and held a break point at 2-2. The Argentine – Nadal’s close friend – saved it and didn’t look back.

In 2011 in Winston-Salem as a qualifier after returning from a serious wrist injury, Benneteau led John Isner by a set and earned a break point at the start of the second only for the American to unleash one of his massive serves. Playing close to his hometown at an event he adores, Isner rallied for a 4-6 6-3 6-4 victory.

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There was another three-set loss to dual French Open finalist Robin Soderling in 2008 in Lyon – Benneteau’s hometown tournament that he attended as a child – and the right-hander was overmatched against serve-and-volleyer Michael Llodra in Marseille in 2010 following two draining wins over the two leading new musketeers of French tennis, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gael Monfils.

Benneteau, though, won the doubles title with pal Llodra.

In his 10th and last final in Kuala Lumpur in 2014, Benneteau failed to serve out the first set against Kei Nishikori at 5-3 and the 2014 US Open finalist proceeded to win in straight sets.

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Registering his top year-end ranking of 25th in 2014, Benneteau underwent abductor surgery in 2015 and never made another final.

Best chance didn’t come in final

Overall he lost half of his finals in three sets. He was statistically the underdog six times as the lower-ranked player.

According to Benneteau, his best chance of winning a title ironically came in a week where he didn’t even make the final.

On grass in Den Bosch in 2007, Benneteau succumbed to then world No. 13 Ivan Ljubicic 6-4 in the third set of their semifinal meaning it was the Croat who met 488th-ranked qualifier Peter Wessels in the final. Ljubicic, now Federer’s coach, lifted his lone grass-court title the next day by edging a third-set tiebreak.

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“I was sure that the winner of our match would win the title. So maybe, maybe, despite my 10 finals, this week was the week I would be able to win a title,” said Benneteau.

As he reflects on his career, Benneteau’ is also keen to look forward. His days in tennis certainly aren’t over. Appointed France’s Fed Cup captain in June, he will next year attempt to halt the nation’s drought that dates to 2003.

Yes, the hunt for titles continues.