PARIS — There is a little park near the Roland-Garros stadium, it is a good habit to go there and take it easy. It has an enclosed playground for very small children, graveled alleys that wind their way around the lawns, an interesting variety of trees and plants, being not far from — an annex, in fact, of — the larger botanical garden next door. There are few visitors, perhaps that is why there are likely to be two or three pairs of young — or not so young — lovers sitting close together and saying quiet ordinary things to each other, though to them they are anything but ordinary.
You must take it easy after the emotional tension of the French Open, as you would after a Game Seven or a big fight or a Masters. It has been going on for two weeks, and the last match in the Gentlemen’s Singles, after the elimination of 136 of the world’s very top athletes, just to make things a little more excruciating, has been delayed overnight due to rain. Rain and chill — in fact, this weather is so unusual in Paris at this time of year that the last such delay occurred in 1973 (Ilie Nastase vs. Niki Pilic). To be fair, you can count the time in 1994 when the final of the Ladies’ Singles (Mary Pierce vs. Arantxa Sanchez) was played on the next day, preceding the Gentlemen’s, due to weather.
You should be fair to the fair sex. I think it is scandalous the way women are considered second class in many societies. Also, TAS must admit to a wild and inexcusable howler the other day, in that the ladies’ championship trophy was given the name of the one reserved for gentlemen. In establishing her career Grand Slam on Saturday in a totally dominating match against the Italian fireball Sara Errani, the Florida Ice Queen, forgive the oxymoron, took possession of the coveted Coupe Suzanne-Lenglen, named for the French legend of the 1920s and ’30s who was known as “the Divine One.” The one Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic dreamed of during the long wait between Sunday evening and Monday afternoon is called the Coupe des Mousquetaires, for the foursome that made French tennis famous and feared, René Lacoste, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, and Jacques Brugnon.
But in truth, what do I know what they dreamed of? Did they remember the verses of the man of the Mancha? At least half of Europe is thinking exactly this way, if not with these words exactly, as national teams compete in Gdansk and Donetsk in the Euro 2012 football championship, the transition sporting event between the French Open in Paris and the Olympics in London.
To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go
More likely they did not dream at all, just focused on the morrow. These are not romantic dreamers, but the best in their field, they know how to concentrate their minds on the job they are called upon to do. And yet, sports fans ask themselves, if their favored players and teams can make them dream, surely they dream too.
At any rate, the FFT puts on quite a show for the finals at the Internationaux. You are supposed to dress formally for the occasion. A few of us did our best to comply, but it must be admitted informality is on the rise even here. You cannot fault the organizers, who keep the environment as classy as they can. The brass band of the Republican Guard, resplendent in fine blue dress uniforms and shining helmets, comes out and plays rousing marches while the flags flap in the wind way up above the last row at Chatrier’s center (and only) court, the Stars and Stripes looking very fine. No Americans on the court, I am afraid. Americans never have done especially well here — too few opportunities to train on clay, is the usual explanation, but Americans should never complain and never explain but just get the job done. Mr. Pleszczynski and I considered the idea of calling Sharapova an American, what with living in Florida and all, but that would have been wrong, and they played the moving and beautiful Russian national anthem when she took the trophy, and good for her. She was fantastic in this fortnight, and coming back from shoulder surgery and refusing to listen to the naysayers and elegant and nerves of ice — an altogether worthy descendant of Suzanne Lenglen, who played with bare arms and calves.
So the match resumed, although without the band this time, since the band only plays before the finals. The clear message, not only from Sunday afternoon but from the whole two weeks, is that for whatever reason, the mighty Novak Djokovic takes his time to get into the match. Whether this has to do with the clay surface or is a matter of deliberate strategy, no one knows. He has not said. But the clear implication was that Rafael Nadal must take the battle to him quickly and maintain the pressure, which is what he had done in the first two sets before the first rain delay wrecked his momentum and allowed the Serb to reverse the trend. However, with the score 2-1 in the fourth now, on Djokovic’s serve, Mr. Pleszczynski expressed the opinion that it would be uphill for the man of Majorca.
But Nadal broke on a bit of luck, a long forehand tipping the tape and falling short on the other side. The unbelievably fast and athletic — but they are all, all unbelievably fast and athletic — Djokovic caught it, but was able only to push it back over to the waiting Nadal, who easily hit it past him. The two men then held to 5-5, when the sun suddenly comes out and after ten days of this rot it is spring again and for this Nadal can breathe a sigh that he did not allow the ump to call a delay 20 minutes earlier when it had started drizzling rather seriously, bringing out most of the umbrellas. Rafa knows he must not, under any circumstances other than the worst, allow his élan to be interrupted. Both have been hitting steady long groundstrokes from the baselines, waiting for chances to hit cross court and then kill the return, if return there is, to the opposite side, and this tactic, on the whole, has been working for Nadal who has not permitted Novak to break him again since that first game.
Serving at 5-5, Nadal gets into the only serious argument he has had in this tournament — that I know of — about a line call, finally accepts a call that in fact did look kind of questionable, but who knows. He is still 30-15, but an emboldened Djokovic seizes the chance to take advantage of Nadal’s irritation and get the score even with an attacking forehand smash. The crowd, perhaps wanting a fifth set, has generally been cheering him on, though it is not unmindful of fine plays by Nadal. Surprisingly, however, Djokovic returns the next service shot out of bounds and it is Nadal’s turn to capitalize on a mental lapse. He executes a perfect drop shot — there have been very few in this match, about two each in the previous day’s sets, all of them gems — but, sure enough, the speedy Serb catches it — and lobs it out of bounds! Nadal has held, crucially, and now needs one last break.
Djokovic stays ahead on serve, 30-15, against a cautious Nadal. Deliberate tactic on the Spaniard’s part? At any rate, he suddenly returns with more force than ever and evens the score, then attacks again with a forehand smash that wrong-foots the great Novak. It is match point.
Djokovic’s first serve is so far out of bounds that we are not sure what he is doing — another trick play? Well, if it is, it falls short — the second serve flies out, just off the inside line of the service box in mid-court. No one is quite sure it happened — Djokovic has not doubled all day. But it happened.
Well, it got very emotional then, the exultant Nadal raising his arms and lifting his eyes heavenward, then climbing, practically springing, into the stands to race up to where his people sit and hugging them all. The crowd, partisan (just for the sake of getting a fifth set, my opinion), is cheering wildly and even Novak’s people — he is sitting calmly with a towel on his shoulders on the bench that the previous day he at one point threatened to destroy during the frustrating second set, earning a ump reprimand — even the Serb clan are clapping, visibly impressed. It was a great clutch play, that last play when Nadal held, and if a double is kind of an anticlimactic way to end the championship match, you have to allow Nadal had guts to set it up by getting the game, set, and match point with those two attacking shots when Novak was leading 30-15.
These are both gentlemen, good sports, gracious and congratulatory and thankful to each other as the trophies are awarded by Mats Wilander, former champion, and the Spanish national anthem is played to a visibly moved Rafael Nadal. He has the record he sought, seven championships, and Novak Djokovic has reached the final for the first time here. He is dignified and correct afterward: “You do not ask what if. It happened. You go to the next match.”
So you admire them both, you admire all those they beat to get here and who were every bit as deserving of admiration too, and you are pleased because you know there is always another match.
Or as it is written on a stone in that little park next door, in a charming area called the Poet’s Corner, where verses have been carved into rocks along the alley, a great line from Paul Valéry —
In every atom of silence lies the promise of a ripened fruit.