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A Hot Chill in Paris

The French Open gets underway, an elegant contrast to a sour mood in France.

By 5.28.13

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After nearly four hours of play, it appears Tomas Berdych is finally in control of the match. Over four and a half sets, first Gael Monfils, the volatile French ace, then Berdych has managed to get that extra ounce in a see-saw competition to forge ahead, but now the tall Czech, who combines shrewd place shots with graceful but brutal attacks at the net, is ahead 5-4. If Berdych continues to dictate the points, as he has in the past several games, the Frenchman’s amazing service finally will not be enough; Berdych -- the fifth seed here -- will break him. Monfils, ace or no ace, is unseeded due to having missed much of the past season. The natural order of things must prevail.

The Championnats Internationaux de France, often referred to as the French Open, got underway on Sunday and Monday at the legendary Roland-Garros stadium located near the Bois de Boulogne on the far west side of Paris. This tournament is well into its 80s now, despite a wartime suspension due to enemy occupation, and it is a famous sports venue.

Gordon Bennett, the great American newspaper publisher and playboy, would surely appreciate that one of the streets bordering the stadium is named after him, avenue Gordon-Bennett. It is a neighborhood rich in legendary sports venues: the Parc des Princes, the Racing Club -- my dad often played tennis at the Racing with Irwin Shaw, an Immortal of American literature who played varsity football for Brooklyn College way back when. It is a fine upper-crust Paris neighborhood, very American in its way, the greenery, the parks, the spacious airy apartments in classy buildings, the expensive new cars, the broad streets.

The day before the Berdych-Monfils clash, on the same court -- Philippe-Chatrier to be exact, the center court of the Roland-Garros complex that is named for a figure in the development of French tennis, sort of a French Donald Dell -- Roger Federer gave a brief demonstration of why he dominated tennis for 10 years. He is world No. 3 now, third seed at this tournament, a tall, lean, but hard Swiss gentleman. He is known to maintain one of the most rigorous training regimes in professional sports, which is one reason why, as he approaches his 32nd birthday, he has yet to suffer any serious injuries, unlike his awesome rivals who have been on the disabled list. Indeed, one of them, Rafa Nadal, the favorite here, was on the DL for seven months, and returned at the start of the clay court season this past winter. He is on a roll, with big wins at Madrid and Rome following a successful run on the winter clay court circuit in South America.

Federer, at any rate, looked lean and hard the other day. He seemed unbeatable. He was unbeatable, at least by Pablo Carreno-Busta, the 21-year old Spanish phenom thrown up against the maestro in the first round by the luck (or bad luck) of the draw. Carreno is tall and strong and has fine all-court game, but nothing works. He cannot ace the boss, who stuns him with 10 of the things in three quick sets. He keeps netting his drop shots, while Federer teases him over and over with his own perfectly executed ones, gently slicing balls from back in the court that float just over the net and take low bounces in the red clay. A few long rallies, complete with dramatic lobs that are retrieved by each player in turn with acrobatic pivoting motions, show the younger man’s potential, but they also show the older one’s continuing and relentless ability to stay a step ahead, in this case several steps. Federer’s secret is simple, which is why it is, like all simple things, so rare: He never stops working -- that is why he never stops winning. He loses only to win again.

Ya never know, of course. He faces a battery of Great French Hopes on the way to the semis, including the powerful and athletic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters, assuming both men do not run into a surprise before meeting. Tsonga powered his way through the first round, against Aljaz Bedene, without much trouble, as did the other leading Frenchman, Richard Gasquet, against Sergiy Stakhovsky. Their other star, Gilles Simon, he of the childhood teasing of America’s Sloane Stephens, had a hell of a time against the great Australian veteran Lleyton Hewitt, but, from two sets down, pulled himself together in a remarkable show of tenacity and came back.

And now the big Czech tactician seems to be copying the pattern. From two sets down he has come back and has Monfils on the ropes, relentlessly putting shots on the sidelines. But Monfils, with his mighty service holds, 5-5.

Roger Federer played his early round as a tennis court Mozart giving a lesson to an advanced class. Serena Williams put on the same kind of show against her fellow Floridian Anna Tatishvili, an immigrant from Georgia, or the USSR as it then was. She just crushed her. But it was not cruel or anything, she just did not let her win any points. A few points, maybe, but no games; maybe one.

Anna, Pablo -- no mistake, these are superb young athletes, and they will go far if they stick to the grind. But Serena and Roger are, in their early 30s, at the very top of their form, so much so that one cannot doubt they will top even these tops. Like Pancho Gonzales or Jimmy Connors or Margaret Court, they are likely to play well into middle-middle age, if not late-middle age, and why not? They both have stated they see no reason to quit soon, and they sure look credible.

Somewhat less credible was Miss Williams’ sister Venus, who, like Serena, has suffered from illnesses in years past but who has not recovered as strongly. Her beautiful form, at once languid and supple and fast, was on display shortly after her sister’s, but it was not enough to hold off the fine if erratic play by one of the other great sister pairs in pro tennis, Urszula Radwanska, whose sibling Agnieszka outplayed Shahar Peer of Israel without much trouble Monday morning.

Sam Querrey, the highest-ranked among American men, won his opening match in three sets, and so did another big service man, John Isner. Ryan Harrison put on a display of power tennis in overrunning a Russian youth, Andrey Kuznetsov, who looked like that character out of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov, but was much stronger than he appeared and very brave and dignified in defeat. James Blake, still another Floridian -- but what is about Florida? I must ask our friend Larry Thornberry -- went down in straight sets. But there was some other good news on the American women’s side, with wins by Mallory Burdette and the wild card Shelby Rogers, as well as Sloane Stephens, who had a nice run here last year.

SCARCELY A MILE AWAY from this monument to civilized behavior, on the renowned Champs Elysees, an assembly of citizens clashed with policemen. The demonstrators loudly oppose recently voted legislation legalizing non-traditional kinds of marriage. But it appears they partake of an irritation with the way things are going here that is widely shared. The economic slowdown, the arrogance and corruption of the governing elites, the sense that no one has any sort of vision of what this country stands for -- these are the reasons, one gathers, why people are distraught and angry. Is the feeling justified, or does it represent some sort of generalized existential malaise? Who can say? The nasty May weather did not ease the prevalent mood.

Thousands of miles away, a French uranium extraction facility was attacked in north central Niger, a country to the east of Mali where our gallant allies, supported by African rifles, notably from Chad, have been fighting terrorists since last January. French officials noted that the Saharan jihadists have sanctuaries and arms caches in remote desert regions of Libya. This comes as a rude surprise, because Libya was liberated in 2011 by an Anglo-French expedition, with American support, from the Tripolitan pirate Moammar Gaddafi, and his dictatorial regime was thought to have been replaced by a liberal democratic one that maintained law and order and civilized norms.

While all this drama was taking place against the gentle backdrop of a classic tennis tournament on Paris’s west side, the president of the Republic, Monsieur François Hollande, traveled to Leipzig to praise German social democracy. He observed that “being realistic does not mean abandoning your ideals,” a stinging reply to those among his fellow-citizens, especially on the left, who declare his presidency a bust after scarcely a year. You would think they would give the man a chance. German social democracy, he declared before the cream of the movement (including the legend-in-his-own-time Helmut Schmidt), has taught the world to reconcile economic success and social justice.

There is no logical reason why social justice, if that is your goal, requires the expenditure of a lot of cash, but modern welfare states, including our own, seem to take it for granted. In this optic, the problem is that the French economy, macro-wise, is going through an austerity patch; as Mr. Micawber would say, more money out than money in, misery. At the French Tennis Federation, however, where the French state’s accounts are not the issue, they have grand plans, requiring the investment of substantial moolah in improvements. Though to be honest this is a pretty swell place as is. But it is just like back home, where we are told the home team needs a better stadium, fancier locker rooms, nicer bleachers, concession stands, more up-to-date facilities for the media, and so forth. They are talking about a half-billion dollar project, give or take some of the liquid. They are not talking about social justice. They want to invest and build. The idea is that if you built it (or re-build it), they will come. Judging from the scene at Roland-Garros, they are coming already. The place is packed, sold out.

The municipality is concerned, however, inasmuch as the site is a landmark, a major tourist draw. One of the president’s party, Paris’ deputy mayor, Mme. Anne Hidalgo, visited Roland-Garros on the weekend to pledge the city’s support for the development plan, currently being challenged in court by an alliance of neighborhood residents and eco-activists. Mme Hidalgo, the likely Socialist candidate to succeed incumbent Mayor Bertrand Delanoe next year, stated that this place is one of the most famous in Paris and will remain so, helping to keep the center of French power on the A-list of world capitals.

Personally, I have no opinion, being merely a reporter, but I can scarcely imagine Paris falling off any list of top places, stadium redesign or no. They say they need to improve the legendary Philippe-Chatrier, which is their Arthur Ashe Stadium, their Wrigley Field, their Madison Square Garden. And some of the objections to improving upon Wrigley Field or Arthur Ashe find echoes here. Many people worry about big changes. It is understandable. But do you want to halt the march of progress? That is what you must ask yourself.

The idea is to build one of those retractable roofs on the great Chatrier tennis temple, as they did over Wimbledon’s legendary Centre Court and as they want to do over Ashe at Flushing Meadows. I believe that was in 2008. You can look it up, it was the year after that fantastic final between Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, which many colleagues in the sports reporting business tell me is the greatest match of all time. There are so many tennis matches that are called the greatest of all time that I cannot believe it when someone tells me this one is it. I do not dispute it, but that does not mean I go around saying it. Can you name the greatest baseball game of all time? Maybe it was your favorite. So enjoy. What about someone else’s? Are you going to be selfish and overbearing and not let him enjoy his?

Speaking of fantastic matches, the unimaginable happens: Serving at 5-5, Berdych loses his focus and wilts. An exhausted Monfils sees the opportunity and gets his own mercurial game under control. He breaks -- it is now 6-5 for him and it is his service. And he has been serving aces for four hours.

As a matter of fact, the idea of a retractable dome on the main court was on everyone’s mind the other day, the day the tournament began. It was cold, damp, though when the sun came out for a visit you could feel the soft warmth of summer in Paris.

They remembered that last year brought rain delays and some days were beastly cold. They had to finish the final on the day after it began because it rained, and Rafa Nadal said he did not want to continue. His opposition, Novak Djokovic, said why not, but maybe he said that because he was rallying. The next day Rafa Nadal stopped the rally cold and took the prize.

There are still armchairists today, and I bet there will be in years to come, who are debating what would have been the outcome if the umps had told the pair to keep playing in the drizzle, just as they debate whether Roger Federer was fouled when they kept that last match without a roof at Wimbledon going into the twilight and he protested he could barely see. Rafa Nadal said he could see, no problem. It was the longest final ever played at Wimbledon.

These debates cannot be resolved. You just cannot say. And maybe when they have the roof, as they do at Wimbledon and as they may have at Ashe, they will debate other matters. They will debate racquet technology. They will debate social justice. They will question whether this or that is fair. But others will say life is not fair and just shut up and play ball.

Which is what Gael Monfils did, with his back to the wall and nothing to lose but a civilized match against a man he had never beat before. He won the first two sets, blew the next two on tiebreakers, held to get even at five games apiece, and his nerve stayed stronger than Tomas Berdych’s. He broke his serve and held his own.

It got everybody’s mind back where it should be, match play and the spin of the ball. A classic for sure, in a classic stadium. The Frenchman, with his relentless service -- 30 aces? we stopped counting -- and his amazing shots out of nowhere, outlasted Berdich in five nerve-wracking sets that reminded everyone that in tennis, as in everything, there always comes a time when you say this how it is, so make the most of it.

Which, at Roland-Garros, in the end they always do.

Photo: UPI.

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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.