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The Game Continues

Tennis remains in good condition as Roland-Garros 2013 passes into history.

By 6.10.13

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PARIS -- Mike and Bob Bryan won their second championship here -- their first since 2003 -- extending their record as the winningest men’s doubles team in the Open era and any other era. Coming on top of their victory at Melbourne last January, they have two more grand slam trophies, 13, than the great Australian team of Newcombe-Roche collected in the 1970s and ’80s. At 35, the twins show no sign of slowing down. With their characteristic game of lightning attacks at the net and quick wits on defense, they played a sharp, lively, beautifully choreographed match against a deserving French team of Mika Llodra and Nicolas Mahut that fell a few steps and strokes and serves -- fundamental elements of the game -- short of keeping up with the Yanks.

It was a grand and glorious way to end the French Open, officially the Internationaux de France, played at the Roland-Garros site near the Porte d’Auteuil on Paris’s west side. In gentlemen’s single (simples messieurs), our side did not do so well, but there were some nice runs by Jack Sock and John Isner that should keep our spirits up at the forthcoming Championships at Wimbledon and the long hot hard court season back home that will follow.

The Frenchmen’s excellent play in the doubles final went a long way to saving French good humor, sorely tried by the disappointing collapse in the semifinals of the local hope in the gentlemen’s singles draw, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The big-serving man from Le Mans had his country’s fans in an ecstatic fever after a decisive, no-contest, three-set victory over Roger Federer in the quarters. The sky seemed the limit. Tsonga was featured in every sports section, print or television. He said he was on a mission. He stayed calm, serene. He smiled, he praised his opponents. He was generous, big.

The 30-year itch issue -- the last winner at Roland-Garros was Yannick Noah -- appeared almost irrelevant: Tsonga, at 28, with a new Australian coach, seemed last week to be supremely confident, centered, motivated, ready. He was reported to be on a new diet, gluten-free, a recent fashion apparently started by Novak Djokovic. He certainly looked good, still does.

But who is to say with food? What you can eat -- your grandmother knows, the vegetables, the fruits, the coffee not to excess, avoid soda drinks (too much sugar) and tobacco and sweets but take in chocolates from time to time (as does Federer), be reasonable with meat and fish, drink in moderation if not necessarily tee-total; you know, eat like Babe Ruth, basically: enjoy it.

However, not to digress -- you are what you eat, but since everyone is different you have to eat your own way, just as you play your own game and write your own scripts -- the point is that here at least, in France, they said it is our year. Forget about the fact -- Tsonga himself certainly did not forget it -- that he is not Noah. How could he be? Is Rafa Nada Mano Santana? That is your answer.

He is not David Ferrer, either. And Ferrer is better. Or he was, at any rate, on that amazing Friday of gentlemen’s semis, when someone in the programming of the tournament had the bright idea of playing Djokovic-Nadal first and making Tsonga-Ferrer wait.

Wait they did. Nadal-Djokovic turned into a five-set battle of monstres, the French word for superstars, that immediately was in contention for a best-of-the-tournament in a tournament with no shortage of those. Meanwhile, Tsonga and Ferrer sat backstage in the locker rooms, stretched, kept their minds clear. It seems evident in hindsight that the 31-year-old Valencian, who has nerves of steel, gained an advantage over the outwardly serene but inwardly pressure-cooking Mançois with every minute that passed. Nadal won in five sets over four and a half hours, point for point with his great rival all the way until the last two games (the 15th and 16th), when he easily held serve and then broke Nole at love, the last point coming on a double fault. By then it was too late for Tsonga, whom Ferrer crushed easily.

Normally in these events you save the best for last. It could be argued that Ferrer and Tsonga, both of whom were playing to reach their first final ever here, were so eager that they would produce the match of the tournament. However, Djokovic and Nadal were certain to produce a great one. The Serb made a very big issue of winning; it is the only grand slam event he has not won, and somewhere inside him there must be a nagging sense that had last year’s final not been delayed overnight because of rain just at the point when he seemed to have gained the momentum and had Nadal on a downward skid, he might have been this year’s defending champion instead of the man of Majorca. Who in turn had to show that he rules the clay surfaces of southern Europe and Latin America as no man ever ruled them before, and notwithstanding his seven months on the disabled list, he was back because he could still be best.

This had to be dramatic. Djokovic came from behind to win the fourth set and seemed likely to have the momentum in the final, breaking Nadal’s service immediately and holding off his attempts to break back until the eighth game. The Spaniard’s game kept improving even as the Serb’s showed the strains of the long match, not to mention the long fortnight. It was possible to expect another great match after this one, given the way the tournament had been producing great displays of sport and guts, but it was also possible to expect a choke and listless breakdown. So it had to be all-Spain for the final.

Nadal’s domination of this tournament can only be compared to Serena Williams, the American star who made the semifinal look like a mismatch between a pro and a junior, notwithstanding that Sara Errani, her opponent and the finalist last year against Maria Sharapova, is a superb competitor (she was half of the finalist ladies doubles team with Roberta Vinci). She was bludgeoned. She won one game. Sharapova put up more of a fight (she won eight games over two sets), but there again it seems difficult to disbelieve Miss Williams when she says the best is yet to come: not only unstoppable, she manifestly is in no mood to stop, either improving or winning.

There appears, and in fact there really is, more competition on the men’s side, but it is not a stretch to say that at least on clay -- we shall know within a few weeks about grass and then we return to hard and we can see about that -- competition or no, Rafa Nadal’s supremacy is likewise unchallengeable. He has lost only one match at Roland-Garros over nine years, winning 52. He is the winner here in 2005, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’10, ’11, ’12, and now ’13. Bjorn Borg won six times in the 1970s-early ’80s, and Max Decugis won eight times in the years before the Great War. But if you say that, they say that in those years the Internationaux were not international and only if you were French could you compete, plus it was not open to pros. There were no pros. There were baseball pros but no tennis pros. It was another time, before communism and fascism and the need for a two-ocean U.S. Navy.

Nadal is the embodiment and textbook case and living proof that the best defense is a good offense. Djokovic and Ferrer, each of them in his own way (their games are completely different), are outstanding defense men. They play defense. They hit back whatever you hit to them and wait for their opportunity. Djokovic seizes his with a mighty surge down the line or a crosscourt you never see until after it happens. Ferrer by contrast jumps into a point with a shrewd drop shot or a corner beaut that gets you way out of position and leaves him with what the cognoscenti call the open court, wham, he puts it in there where you ain’t.

Not against Nadal. Maybe now and again, but not over five sets. In Ferrer’s case -- and David Ferrer is one of the glories of the contemporary game -- not even over three sets. Nadal took him apart much the way Ferrer took apart Jo Tsonga, in three quick neat no-contest sets. It rained again on Sunday and the cold temperature returned and the French fans worried about whether this was going to be another one of these été pourri, a rotten summer of rain and cold, the floods in Germany this week auguring nothing good, but it took their mind off the perennial dismay at not seeing one of their own lift the cup, the Musketeers’ Cup, at the end. Still they sure had to admit the show Rafa gave them was worth the worry and the misery because can that man play.

You would not be incorrect to say that the collapse of Tsonga was more manifest than the resignation of Ferrer. David Ferrer never quits. He is that kind of man. But he knew he was done for and it showed finally on his exhausted efforts to stave off Nadal’s relentless passes, down-the-lines, lobs when needed, aces down the middle, and those big forehanded top-spinning whipped shots that appear impossible, the way he stands on his rear foot and lets loose. It is a game he alone knows. It works.

Now we pack up and leave and the French Tennis Federation is happy, the crowds came despite the uneven weather and they can say they are right to think the great and legendary Roland-Garros must grow, add space, expand, put a roof over Chatrier Stadium where the cour central, center court, is located. This will cost half a billion, dollars that is, estimated. They say the New York Public Library rehab will cost that much but they know it will cost more and they do not exactly know what it will cost the city of New York to have two million of its books in New Jersey in some kind of unnatural shelving arrangement, though of course innovation and problem solving are the very stuff of New York. But you worry about that. And you worry about Roland-Garros, because all things considered if they really need the space, there is plenty of space outside Paris, for example in Romainville, very close by the bullet subway they call the RER. But that is not Paris, and Roland-Garros is part of Paris. That is what they tell you and we cannot take that passionate commitment from them even as we ask does it make sense.

It makes much less sense to move the New York Public Library out of New York than it does to move the French Open out of Paris, that seems clear. But maybe it is not clear. We do not know the whole dossier, the case history. They may be right. But it will cost.

Money is only money, but what of plant life? What of the encroachments on the renowned Bois de Boulogne, its green acres? What of the possible disruption and even destruction of the world-famous serres d’Auteuil, even if few know of them, the hothouses with exotic and priceless and wonderful plants that risk destruction if this plan -- currently the object of a legal battle -- goes forward.

The French Tennis Federation led by Monsieur Jean Gachassin and Monsieur Gilbert Ysern did the right thing no doubt, they said they were open to any sensible solution but they did feel there was the necessity for more space, in or around the current grounds or somewhere else altogether including outside the city. They are increasing the prize money. The prize money this year is nearly twenty million dollars, two million to the singles winners, and they are aiming for over thirty million by 2016, which is roughly where Wimbledon and the U.S. Open are already. Money, they say, talks, and they are correct. Money talks. So you cannot do the other thing, which merely walks, and you must do something. You might argue that space is, in truth, not so important. Roland-Garros has a special intimacy that lends it much of its charm and character. But that is a difficult case to make in these global days.

And the mayor of Paris, who is a Socialist, did the right thing and fought tooth and nail and in the old fashioned big-city boss way, to keep the famous tournament inside the city limits and how could you object, his job is to protect and promote Paris. Well, the suburbs are part of the city, are they not, because how could they be suburbs except for the city, but he did not see it that way and he fought tooth and nail and he is not running anymore and next year it will be another mayor who will insist, in court or on the chantiers, the construction sites, that this project go through, half a billion bucks or whatever.

And the environmental lobbyists and the neighborhood associations did the right thing too in thinking of the plants and the historic green spaces and the beautiful and precious little poets’ park next door and the whole character of the Bois de Boulogne, all threatened by the development no matter what anybody says. Because they say they can keep the hothouses, the serres, and keep the plants safe, but the biologists and the botanists and the green folks say this is not real and it is not possible, they cannot keep it the way it is presently and the hothouses will be in fact half empty and not with all the precious exotic botanical treasures, two centuries of French botanical science, one of the wonders of modern civilization and maybe the answer or part of the answer to the future of capital e Earth.

Science, scenery, sports, there must be a way to keep them all in harmony, as they always have been at Roland-Garros and as, one has to hope, they always will be.

Photo: UPI

Correction.  An unforced error on the finals of the French Open misidentified the winners of the ladies' doubles draw as Roberta Vinci and Sara Errani, who are in fact the finalists; the championship belongs to the Russian team of Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.

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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.