Letter From Paris

Song of Roland Garros

The French enjoyed it, as they must, without any of their hopes getting anywhere (they never do).

By 6.11.10

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PARIS -- Metzer rallied late in the third set, keeping the ball in play until he saw an opening for his backhand which, being a southpaw, he hits on his right. His opponent does not favor the backhand as much, so what he did, being left-handed also, was wait for a Metzer backhand to come mid-court and then dispatch it to Metzer's right like a cannon ball. That worked.

Metzer is an aggressive and tough opponent but he does not cover the court as well as the other fellow and he let those cannonballs pass him. Rafael Nadal was taking charge, after faltering in late middle games and missing some of those Metzer power backhands. He also double-faulted more than usual and for a while it looked as if he might be out of gas. With the match having taken almost two hours already you could imagine Metzer taking his momentum into the fourth set and outplaying a tired Nadal in the fifth. He uses that power backhand from his right and a forehand, when he needs it, that must feel like a Mariano Rivera fastball.

You can imagine plenty when Nadal makes unforced errors and gets the sun in his eyes while preparing to smash a lob and double-faults more than once in a set, let alone a game. You can even imagine that he is tiring. In reality, he sometimes sets himself up while maneuvering to set up his opponent. He then loses the momentum for a few points, or more precisely, control of the point. As Bill Tilden said -- but you know what he said.

Rafa Nadal takes risks, a style some observers say is unsuited for clay, a surface, they say, that favors endurance and patience. However, maybe they should think about what they say.

They will think about Rafa Nadal's awesome return to the clay courts of Rome and Monte Carlo and Paris after a lousy 2009 season due to ill health, and about the unexpected success of Francesca Schiavone on the ladies' side. At 29 she is in advanced middle age by today's tennis standards, so she had a fair amount of one-last-shot support, especially as she was up against a young Australian, Samantha Stosur, whom we will be hearing of again before long. Speaking of ladies, the American stars Serena and Venus Williams flopped in their singles brackets but did quite well in the doubles.

The French enjoyed it, as they must, without any of their hopes getting anywhere (they never do), and their football team was looking pretty awful in the soccer world cup preliminaries, while the Sports minister, a very pretty lady of Senegalese origin, Rama Yade, could think of nothing better than to chastise them for staying at South Africa's swankiest hotel "during the [economic] crisis." The Sarkozy government often plays the populist card and possibly, while a police operation cleared out illegals who had been squatting near the Opera, she meant the footballers should stay in a youth hostel.

Against Robin Soderling Nadal used a combination of defensive forehands, brilliant passing attacks and drop shots to subvert the big Swede's all-attack game plan. As he did last year against Roger Federer (whom he beat this year in the quarters), Soderling showed a bad case of finals jinks, getting the occasional point by relentlessly pushing Nadal behind the base line, at the cost of far too many longs.

The idea of clay favoring the masters of the long-ball took hold during the Swedish ascendancy, when the great Bjorn Borg and his epigones Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, e tutti, perfected a wear-'em-out-from-the-baseline strategy. The problem with this idea is that Borg also mastered the All-England tournament, which is played at Wimbledon, a green London suburb, whose courts are supposed to favor the serve-and-volley style.

Actually, the court-specialty theory took hold with the big-money Open era. The idea is that with the circuit as intense and busy as it now is, players concentrate on what they know best in order to increase their chances of doing well enough during at least one part of the season (which follows a clay-grass-tru schedule) to share in the big pots.

This is hooey. There was always money, or why would Pancho Gonzales have turned pro as early as he did, not to mention Fred Perry. However, to the degree the spectators are part of the playing conditions, there can be a relationship between the surfaces and them, which in turn can affect the players. France's Championnats Internationaux, commonly known as the French Open, are as big an event on the Paris sports calendar as the Tour de France bicycle race, which begins in a few weeks. At Roland Garros spectators are well-behaved although blazers for gentlemen and skirts for ladies are not de rigueur, and even the African ticket scalpers along the avenue Gordon Bennett (named, indeed, for the American newspaper genius) maintain a polite if informal attitude.

This favors dramatic playmakers and point-savers like Rafa Nadal, who covers the court as no one since Boris Becker or even Jimmy Connors, because it is on these big plays that the crowd erupts. But Soderling, the only player to have beaten Nadal here in the past five years, showed his sportsmanship by clapping his racket. You knew he was in trouble from the number of times he did this, and he looked red in the face and worried and soaking in perspiration. Nadal did not smile much but he did not look tired and he frowned and glared, possibly because the prize money is in euros and the euro, in keeping with its sponsors' profligate social-economic policies, is collapsing. In the few days I was here I could have cleaned up, but I did not have a lot of dollars, despite Mr. Wladyslaw Pleszczynski being a real prince in helping me get here.

Roland-Garros, on the tony, handsome, airy, spacious, green west side, was built in the 1920s, and named after a World War I flying ace, Roland Garros.

My father, who lived across town for many years, loved this place, though he played at the nearby Racing Club. It is indeed gorgeous. Still, there is talk of moving the Internationaux to a new location to the north of Paris, an idea hateful to the French Tennis Federation as well as the Paris Chamber of Commerce.

In fact, scarcely 450,000 tickets distributed -- not necessarily all sold -- during ten days of top tennis, may not cut it in today's big-time sports market. There is talk of expanding the Roland-Garros compound, but space is scarce, with several other sports complexes near here and the Auteuil race tracks. Next to the stadium is a charming tiny park, called le jardin des poetes, where small children play and you can read verses on stones placed on the lawns.

The stade was built by the Four Musketeers in the sense that the original Yankee Stadium was built by Babe Ruth. Immediately upon making it their home court, the four famous aces of French tennis went on a eight-year streak, neatly carving an era for themselves between American and British glory days.

French tennis never has been the same, but they do have a nice museum here, closed during tournaments. They give names to their stadiums, as to their streets, to keep the past alive.

Roland Garros, born 1888, was one of the first fighting aviators. A friend of his named Saulnier designed a machine gun that fired through the propeller. At the command of his plane, Garros could fight out-numbered. He was shot down in the summer of 1916, escaped, returned to his squadron, wreaked havoc among German airmen. He went down a second time, for good, a few weeks before the armistice.

I hoped they would be playing here again next year and for many years, but on the way back I stopped in the poets' park and found the lines of another soldier of the Great War, who fell, too, in its last days.

Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre
Odeur du temps brin de bruyère
Et souviens toi que je t'attends!

I cannot do justice to Guillaume Apollinaire's lyricism, but he means, more or less:

We won't meet again on earth
Smell of time sprig of heather
And remember I am waiting!

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.