Contrary to a certain conventional wisdom reinforced by 20th century European history, the Swiss are anything but a nation of pacifists. They did not sit out the two world wars, aka the European civil wars; they put in place a policy of armed neutrality, and it worked. They survived largely intact from the wreckage of Europe between 1914 and 1945. Switzerland was a poor country in 1945, rather at the level of Montenegro or Serbia. Mountain countries often are poor, backward.
Switzerland improved much faster economically than Serbia, let alone little Montenegro. Now they are all on the way to economic success. And they are producing great tennis players. At the moment, however, the Serbs are the leaders in this realm. They have the world No. 1, Novak Djokovic, and Janko Tipsarevic and Viktor Troicki. They won the Davis Cup in 2010. France won it in 2001 and the Unites States won it in 2007. However, Spain won it five times since 2000, so they are the top country.
Among women, the Serbs have Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic. Ana crumbled before the elegant and brilliant game of Agnieszka Radwanska the other day, giving rise to hopes amongst Poles that one of theirs may be about to break into the charmed upper spheres of ladies’ tennis, where a Russian, a White Russian, and an American now reign and watch one another warily. Even the best of these three, the American, Miss Serena Williams, is wary. She knows surprises are always possible in this game.
She appears to have taken a chilly attitude toward another American player, Sloane Stephens, not what they call a frisson in Paris, but rather a certain mépris. It is not even clear that it was that. Maybe it was merely one of those silly rumors that briefly become matters of importance even though they are of no importance. Anyway, a frisson, in French, means a nervous excitement. A mépris is a cold shoulder, a chilly attitude. Supposedly Miss Williams gave Miss Stephens, a teenage phenom, a cold shoulder, hurt her feelings.
This is terrible, but what I have to say that is even worse is that a young person here at the Roland-Garros location, who was holding down a little vending stall, called a kiosque, in the area called the Place des Mousquetaires, could not tell me who the mousquetaires, in English musketeers, were. I bought some postcards to show him I was a good sport, and I said I say, young man, can you tell me why this place is called the Place des Mousquetaires? Curious name, what? In the west of Paris it is de rigueur, that is French for righteous, to sound faintly English.
“Ah, non, la, monsieur, je ne peux pas vous dire, vraiment, la, je sais que c’est en face, la, ça s’appele la Place des Mousquetaires, mais vraiment je ne peux pas vous dire.”
What he said was that he knew we were standing right on the Place des Mousquetaires, Musketeers Square we would say in New York, Musketeers Circle in London, but he could not say why it was called that. Observe that he was exceedingly courteous. Whatever else the Federation does when it trains kids to hold down these stalls and do a couple dozen other chores during the tournament, it drills into them the old fashioned manners for which the French are renowned, or were, and which now are found only in the ranks of the American and British military services, as well as those of our gallant French allies, who at this very moment are saving Mali from violent terrorists out of the desert.
Well, I said, do you see those statues? The square is, in fact, characterized by four life-sized statues of men who appear to be engaged in strenuous physical exertions – playing tennis. Yes, sir, they are the Musketeers. Ah, well, so that must be it, no? Yes, sir, it is Musketeers Square, or Circle, sir, because of those musketeer statues.
Awesome, I said, and bought more postcards.
There were four musketeers, tennis players, who dominated international competition in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Gentlemen, sportsmen, patriotic, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon and René Lacoste built this place rather the way Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and a few others built Yankee Stadium around the same time. They were called musketeers not so much because tennis has any similarity to the swordplay at which the heroes of the famous novels by Alexandre Dumas excelled, but because there were four of them and they defied and overcame overwhelming odds through a combination of charm and guile and valor, as well as brute force.
If you ask journalists, administrators of the tennis federation, or even ordinary fans, who the musketeers were, either the 1920 ones or the ones who lived – and still do – in the pages of Dumas’s novels, you usually can get two answers out of the eight you are hoping for: Lacoste, the “crocodile,” and d’Artagnan, the ultimate dashing hero.
However, French tennis fans do remember that once there was a time when there were musketeers. And even if they are not exactly sure when this time was, they sense it was important. And they can see why it would be normal and exciting to speak of a new generation of musketeers, as the great French sports daily L’Equipe has been doing for the past few years.
At the French Open, these new musketeers, as currently constituted, have been headlining the sports page, raising expectations. The head of the French Tennis Federation, Monsieur Jean Gachassin, has made no secret, why should he, of his wish to give the Coupe des Mousquetaires, the local trophy, to a blue-white-red. It is you might say a major preoccupation of his, but he is no less preoccupied by the need, as he sees it, to improve the locale. It is a beautiful locale, but the marketing sidemen think more space is needed. Vast plans, carefully designed, are in place and waiting for the courts to give their green light, because this is 2013 and everything you do gets challenged in court. The anti-expansion side says the available space would infringe on the local green space, the Bois de Boulogne forest, the botanical gem called the Serres d’Auteuil (the Auteuil Hothouses). However, at Roland-Garros, there are trash cans, receptacles, where you are invited to separate the recyclables.
Meanwhile, one by one, the new musketeers are getting knocked out of the draw. Observe that in the Dumas saga, d’Artagnan and his merry band retire, go down, retire. However, they win quite a few along the way, for the Queen, and for the Cardinal, always for France. Monsieur Gachassin sits at courtside, applauds the efforts. A former rugby pro, he knows what it takes.
Happily for him, Richard Gasquet is beating the Swiss No. 2, Stan Wawrinka, 2 sets to zero. It looks in the bag, the normally calm, courteous Stan has suffered from cramps in the second, lost his temper with the linemen. Richard, with his excellent backhand, his fine volleys, his clever court sense, is determined to break into the quarters this year for the first time.
The others but one all went down fighting. Gael Monfils went down first, in five sets against the champ from Barcelona, Tommy Robredo. Next Gilles Simon failed before the Master, Roger Federer, who is Switzerland’s most famous athlete. There is one left, Jo Wilfried Tsonga. He meets Federer next.
The current champs who, in their style, are most like d’Artagnan are Monfils and Gasquet. Both play vivacious, high-tempo games. Monfils is, as well, a rather high-tempo personality, whereas Gasquet is all ice. Against Wawrinka, who is solid and at the same time extremely intelligent in the art of developing shrewd points (the technique, to use less pretentious jargon, of hitting ’em where they ain’t), Gasquet boldly raises the stakes, going to the net to interrupt Wawrinka’s strategy of hitting deep backhands while waiting for the chance to move up, hit an inside out forehand, and wham it down the line where the other fellow cannot get it, being way over in the corner on the other side of the court.
Gasquet goes for some marvelous volleys, but he runs into the problem that Wawrinka can play that game too, and does And despite the temper with the linemen, Wawrinka refuses to panic. He keeps pushing Gasquet back with his powerful cross court shots, waits for the chance to break, which comes first in the ninth game of the third set. And he sticks to the plan, wins another set, takes the last one to extra games (there is no tiebreaker in the fifth set.) The crowd’s anguish is reflected in Monsieur Gachassin’s face, alternating between shock and relief.
The match remains close until the very last point when Wawrinka, at 7-6 , gets a clear shot at breaking Gasquet’s serve, and does not muff it. The line made by Monsieur Gachassin’s mouth in that moment was fearsome.
A day earlier, Federer took the first set from Gilles Simon in their match, but slipped and stumbled during the second set. Although, according to reports and from the evidence of what followed, there was no damage done in the fall, he did lose his concentration and lost the set and the following one. He then must have thought, enough of worrying about why in the world I let myself slip and fall, get back to work; and he made winning the next two seem almost easy.
The fact is, the person most like d’Artagnan in today’s game is Roger Federer. Dumas’s hero is first encountered in his youth, and in that phase of his life, he would have played tennis like Rafa Nadal, all fury and passion. (He got a birthday cake yesterday after beating Kei Nishikori, the Japanese phenom, in three quick sets.) But even in the first volume of the Trois Mousquetaires saga, d’Artagnan matures quickly and imposes himself as a natural leader, shrewd like Ulysses as well as impetuous like Achilles.
And there is that Swiss quality. I have never seen Swiss cheese in Switzerland that we would recognize as Swiss cheese. They do not make cheese with holes. There are no holes in Switzerland’s defensive armor, either. When was it last conquered or defeated? No one remembers. And is a gruyere cheese, which I should think is the closest thing they have, in Switzerland, to what we call Swiss cheese, full of holes? It is not. Nor does it taste like Swiss cheese. There is no such thing. The truth is that no one wants to eat a product full of holes, any more than one wants to wear a sweater full of holes. Simon and Gasquet looked in vain for holes in their opponents’ games. They found errors and occasional lapses. That was not sufficient to match their superior play, let alone overtake it.
They should read their classics; rather, the journalists who come up with catchy nicknames should check out their own references.