Monday, June 11, 2007

The Clay of Roland Garros

For those who don't really enjoy watching tennis--and that would include most of us--there is always the fascinating and curious anomaly called the French Open. It's not that the French have created something truly different. On the contrary, they have stuck to old-fashioned methods and habits, and more power to them. After all, the French invented tennis. Under the ancien regime a game known as 'Jeu de paumme' became wildly popular among the aristocracy. It was played in an enclosed court, and the rules were different, but the embryo of modern tennis is not difficult to discern. Take a look at the opening scenes of Richard Lester's very funny film The Three Musketeers and you'll see what I mean.

The game would begin when one of the contestants shouted "Tenez" (or "Play") and the rest is history.

One of the most important events of the French Revolution took place in a tennis court: the Third Estate declared itself the Nation, and good riddance to the clergy and the nobility. Yet tennis as a sport was not well-served by the decline of the French aristocracy following the French Revolution. During the nineteenth century it was revived on the country estates of rural England, however, as an outdoor activity. These Tenez contests took place on grass, and they set the stage for the diversity of surfaces that provide an angle for sportswriters even today. In the New Worlds of America and Australia tennis later became a game of hard-courts, and over time the "Grand Slams" were canonized--Wimbelton (grass), the French Open (clay) and the U.S. and Australian Opens (hard surfaces). (The Australians switched from grass to a hard surface in 1988)

Of the three hallowed surfaces it has long been recognized that clay is the odd man out, and more than a few great champions have failed to excell on that surface. Why? Because clay is slow, the ball bounces higher, and power gives way to speed at running down shots, endurance, and sheer doggedness. It's foolish to describe clay as "the great equalizer," however, as some do. It's not as if anyone can win on clay. But clay calls for different strengths, and that's why those stars who have won slams not only in England, Australia, the United States, but also on the red clay of Roland Garros Stadium, elevate themselves to a higher bracket. To win in France, on the other hand, is only a moderate achievement in itself. Thirteen of the last 17 French Open winners have never won a Grand Slam on another surface.

The yearly duel between the Spaniard Nadal and the Swiss Federer has taken on added dimension because of the remarkable success Feyderer has had on other surfaces. He's won four straight at Wimbledon, three straight at the US Open, and three over time at the Australian Open. Nine of the last eleven grand slams have gone his way. The French conisistently eludes him. And for the last three years, Nadal has been his nemesis.

Year after year I plan to buy some croissants and orange marmelade and watch the finals of the French Open from start to finish. That's the only way you really get the feel of what a titanic struggle it can be. (I remember Lendl coming from behind to beat McEnroe, and Chang defeating Edberg with an underhanded serve.) But in recent times it seems that something always comes up, though it often happens that I return home right as the final awards ceremony is taking place.

This year we went bicycling with my sister Nancy along the Mississippi, where the Frenchman Louis Hennepin portaged his canoe in 1680 or therabouts. I was eating a tempei sloppy-joe at the Longfellow Grill on Lake Street when I saw Nadal's face come on the screen of the TV above the bar, and I rushed over to see who had won. They'd just changed the channel, and no one at the bar seemed to know what was going on, but it was clear to me that Federer had won. Nadal looked sad and sincere and emotional, and Federer looked pleased but also gentlemanly and composed, as he usually is.

That's Great, I thought to myself. Now Federer can scratch that off his list. It was only a matter of time. Why not get it over with? And Nadal has had a great run too.

Later, when I read in the papers that Nadal had won, I was equally pleased. Three in a row! That, too, is a very unusual accomplishment.

Yet Federer's dominance of the other Slams is more impressive. In fact, it has driven some sportswriters, hungry for an angle, to throw out the query, "Federer, best of all time?" An alternative theory would be that the field of worthy opponents has simply declined. Consider that during the French Open Federer defeated Michael Russell, Thierry Ascione, Potito Staraco, Mikhail Yauzhny, Tommy Robredo, and Nikolay Davydenko. Who? Some of us are old enough to remember the days when Sampras, Agassi, Becker, Lendl, Courier, Ivanisovic, and others battled it out year after year. And the era of Borg, McInroe, Conners, Edberg, and Wielander was arguably even greater. Going back to the golden age of the Australians.... But I think you get my point.

Yet for all I know, the men Federer defeated on his way to the finals of the French Open are just as good as, if not better than, the colorful characters I've just mentioned. (Wielander colorful? That's going too far.) The problem is that winning a Grand Slam is what gives a ring to a player's name, and when one talented player wins all the Slams, the rest remain in relative obscurity, which (paradoxically) diminishes his achievement.

Those of us who have actually watched Federer play have no qualms about including him among the best ever. And watching Nadal play leaves us in no doubt that he is also among the best ever--on clay. The two make a truly classic match-up. Tennis needs more of them.

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