For just one fraction of a second a line out of the past flashes through, “And you break just like a woman…” But is that the line? Or did Bob Dylan write, “and you break like a little girl?” Well, these are women, boy, these are the real thing, and they are trying to break all right, but not the way Dylan meant. These are pros. This is a job. This is life, my friends, and it is a historic moment — lasting an hour — in the history of the French Open, officially the Internationaux de France, often referred to simply as “Roland-Garros,” and it is this: Serena Williams, who never in her life has lost a first-round match in a major tournament, is a point away from one “first” — among the “firsts” too numerous to list — that she most assuredly does not want. And because she is a woman, and not a little girl, she is determined to not let it happen.
But there is this: facing her on the other side of the court in the legendary Stade Philippe Chatrier on Avenue Gordon-Bennett — yes, the great, unique, and irreplaceable American newspaper publisher — in the far west of Paris just on the line with Boulogne-Billancourt and a stone’s throw from the Stade des Princes, which is to French football what Yankee Stadium is to baseball, facing Serena Williams, one of the greatest winningest most world renowned American athletes of her time and all time, is a woman totally unknown outside the most rarefied tennis circles, who even in France was unheard of for all practical purposes until a few minutes ago, and everyone, but everyone, who has a radio or a TV or a smartphone is going gaga over this tall thin young lady and her name, my friends, though I am sure this is not news even hours after it happened, is Virginie Razzano.
She lost the first set by a respectable 4-6; she looked good there, counter-punching, as they say, against the mighty younger Williams Sister who, it has to be admitted, did not look quite as mighty as usual. But we are used to Serena being sometimes a little sluggish in the first set, and then getting her blood up, her competitive drive, her “C’mon!” mode, and going after every shot with a fury — and an accuracy — that leaves you a little awed. For the human interest side of the story, though, Serena is funny, polite, alert to nuance in conversation, and, for lack of a better term in these days of p*l*t*c*l correcto, extraordinarily feminine. I mean in these times when women are encouraged to be anything but — but never mind, you know what I mean.
But the second set ended in a tiebreak. A tiebreak? Between Serena Williams, who has more trophies than anyone of the weaker sex with the possible exception of a short list you could count on the fingers of one hand — Suzanne Lenglen (the most historic and glorious woman in French tennis, in whose namesake stadium down the way Andy Murray has just played a remarkable game against Tatsuma Ito, who is even less a household name than Virginie Razzano), Margaret Court Smith, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and, you know, maybe one or two others, I do not put much stock in these silly Best of — lists, but stats are stats, what. Yes sir, the great and magnificent Serena is forced into a tiebreak by this unknown person, and suddenly the temporary lodgers at Philippe-Chatrier Stadium are sitting up from the torpor of the pre-summer heat (actually it is about seven o’clock but you would not know it from the light) and taking note.
Serena does not lose tiebreaks — that is a rule you can bank on. The expression when the going gets tough the tough get going, appropriated by Mr. Nixon’s men in ’72 — for better or for worse, they failed to follow it all the way — was invented in anticipation of her style of play. She is, like a lioness, never fiercer than when under attack, and sure enough, with the second set at 6-6 due to some admirable risk-taking by a spirited Miss Razzano, including going for volleys that most girls — excuse me, women, and most men too, to be completely in the correcto politico — would let bounce before jumping on them, sure enough, I say, Serena quickly goes up 5-1 in the tiebreak. 5-1 — I mean, that is like the Boston Celtics having a 15 point lead in the last two minutes.
But there is no time in tennis. You have all the time you want — or need. Virginie starts hitting these flummoxing shots that Serena cannot return, or more exactly returns like a beginner: into the net, out of bounds, in the air (which Virginie proceeds to put away.) It is simply amazing, one after another and then it is 5-5 and then -6 and then -7, set! Who in the world is this person?
Well, she is a young lady a couple years younger than Serena who hails from Dijon, which is in Burgundy, and who lives in Nimes, which weather wise is like Florida, which makes it fine for tennis practice. She is the same height as Serena but somewhat lighter (Serena, I might note, is much less heavy than she appears on sports TV) and her long Mediterranean face gives her a lean look that belies a superb athletic form. She has a flaw — injuries to her left calf are the ones that are going to matter tonight — but then Serena too has had recent brushes with what they call “health issues,” which translated from politically correct English means occupational injuries.
And if you ask where she has been the mean answer is nowhere, but since we are not mean, Mr. Pleszczynski and I, and admire the good hearts of young athletes, I should qualify that and mention her wins at tournaments in such places as Pontoise and Deauville, little towns in France most French people have never been to. Well, she won at Tokyo once a few years ago, and at Lexington (Kentucky, not Massachusetts). Okay? Serena has won every Grand Slam and some of them more than once and she has won at just about every venue that a tennis champ would want to win at.
But it is now 5-0 in the third set and Miss Razzano, that is Virginie — a fairly common name in France, known to most schoolchildren through a classic primer on the settlement of the New World, Paul et Virginie — is the improbable slayer of the Lioness Queen. But it is Serena’s serve and Serena, finally, holds. And then breaks. And then holds again. At 5-3, Virginie regains her composure — it is clear her calf is killing her — and forces the game to deuce. Actually, she races past deuce to her first of seven — eight, were there? or nine? — match points, interwoven with no one remembers how many of Serena break points, getting the ad and then throwing it away. And then recovered when Virginie had it. And repeat. For what seemed an hour (it was not quite.) It was a match all right, and anyone who tells me, after this — but never mind.
Serena was, she herself admitted it, not doing well, making, as she put it after the match, an “incredible” number of errors. The fact is, we stopped counting, though I am sure you can look it up. She was returning easy serves — easy for her — over the baseline, into the alleys. She was ending rallies by putting ordinary, if perfectly respectable, shots to her right and left into the net. She was not moving. She was rarely hitting service winners, with one beautiful exception, a forehand return winner during that final endless deuce when Virginie was serving at 5-3 that no one, least of all Virginie, ever saw. But the errors just piled on.
The horror of it was that the same curse befell every other American yesterday. Sam Querrey, the big Californian, just could not maintain the necessary pressure on Serbia’s skilled and shrewd Janko Tipsarevic, despite having more than half a foot and 20 pounds on him. Tennis is not only for big men, but it would be nice if Querrey teamed with John Isner — who so far is doing well here — to form the eventual foundation of a rebuilt Team USA Tennis generation. At doubles, these two would be like a stone wall.
Sam actually won the first set of their match yesterday, won it handily. He was powerful, aggressive, sure of himself, 6-2. After that it was all downhill. Even in the third set tiebreak, instead of fighting for every point — the way Virginie did in hers, when she was down 1-5 — he let the steady if not spectacular Serb build a comfortable lead and keep it. The four sets were over in two and a half hours. Serena and Virginie clocked three sets at 3:03 hrs. Sure, it got warmer and warmer as morning moved into afternoon, whereas it was getting pleasantly cooler when Serena and Virginie were entering the final throes of their epic, but it was not uncomfortable. You had the definite feeling that Sam, notwithstanding his fine play, just did not feel like killing the other guy — this is a metaphor, you understand — and the other guy was only too happy to not return the favor.
Following which (though not on the storied Court One where Sam and Janko played, but on the storied Court Six), the perpetually promising Donald Young went up against a Bulgarian named Grigor Dimitrov — there are Bulgars not named Grigor Dimitrov, such as Dimi Panitza, but you have to look — and… wilted immediately. They are very similar — about six feet, 165 pounds of muscle, parents phys ed pros who started their boys on their careers at age 3, make the same kind of money so far (about 150 thousand this year so far, which believe me is normal-ordinary, and gives you an idea what you start earning when you crack the top 10, or even the top 20) — and they are both hungry, young 20s who know they better win now or they will end up as also-rans, which I can assure them is great by any reckoning but which I also understand fully is not good enough for them, that is the whole secret of what we call drive and the reason Serena, despite being the Best of Her Class, took it for granted that she should feel dejected (but by no means finished or even defeated) by yesterday’s loss.
The point, anyway, is that if you go by the stats, there was no reason for Donald Young to lose so easily to Grigor Dimitrov. A tough, a heartbreaking five-setter, okay. A mad match for the ages like the Serena-Virginie classic, maybe. But straight sets, 7-6, 6-1, 6-1, oh no. It made no sense. It made no sense until you looked at the match and realized Donald was not doing anything. Not innovating against an aggressive and inventive opponent who was mixing up his shots and hitting to every spot on the court. Donald just stuck to Game Plan No. 1, which seems to consist of hitting the ball right back to your opponent as hard as you can, which does nothing to him, other than to give him the opportunity to hit his own shot even harder (basic Newtonian mechanics).
Young almost immediately stopped chasing down shots some of which were by no means sure winners. He seemed to settle into the notion that this was not the game he wanted, so he was not about to participate. It was absurd, because, without taking anything away from a gifted and athletic Dimitrov, Young could have played by his own standard and got somewhere. And then the same thing happened in the James Blake-Mikhail Youzhny match a little later in the day. The Russian beat our man 6-2, 6-1, 6-2; it was, frankly, ridiculous. Again, not to take any credit away from the Russian, who played fiercely (as he usually does) from the baseline, but James Blake, a man of his age and experience, has got to know better than to just hit the ball hard whenever you can. Against Youzhny, you have to mix things up, go to the net, drop shots in the front of the court to bring him forward, pass or lob him. Serena too, who normally can do anything on the court, found herself relying on hitting and hitting and expecting the other person to beat herself. That is not a bad tactic, when it works. But it often does not because many players (by not means all) do not really want to beat themselves.
Counting Ryan Harrison’s loss yesterday, with Querrey out and Young and Blake and Serena Williams, things are not good for our side. Our boys and girls are not going to win this endurance tournament if they play like noodles. I never, personally, bought into the argument that Roland Garros is the “toughest” of the slams, putatively because the clay enables, even requires, longer rallies. It is true the matches easily run two, two and a half hours. But you also need endurance on a faster surface, precisely because it puts a lot more strain on you. The fact is, surface matters, but is irrelevant to these kinds of metaphysical questions. Endurance is a state of mind. A brave young Japanese player named Tatsuma Ito went up against Andy Murray yesterday in the Lenglen stadium, a favorite of the tennis-aficionado crowd, and for a while, in the second set, he endured all right, and very nearly won. He was matching Andy stroke for stroke and playing a beautifully clever game, tactical as a go master. But in the third, the intimidation Murray had imposed on him in the first, or exhaustion, or Murray’s own raising of the bar, he became an entirely different man, could not do anything right, missed easy opportunities to put the ball away, and he was done. He was a good sport, polite as all hell, bowing to the crowd that gave him a nice ovation and all. But the point is, the mental steel did not endure.
Without meaning to get philosophical or anything — I leave that to Mr. Scruton and Mr. Thornberry — we as a nation better get our mental steel back in the old bean, or we are headed for the exits. Like too many of these champions who, win or lose, we still love, because they are us, somehow, even as they are only themselves.