PARIS — Basically, the idea was to overwhelm the Brits with sheer numbers. In historical fact, the Great and Good (i.e., blessed) Fleet of King Philip the Number Two numbered fewer vessels than the Royal Navy, assisted by its heroic and gallant Dutch allies, was able to mobilize. But it is true they entered the Channel and the North Sea, the great and cumbersome galleons, in such concentrated mass, that the waters could scarcely be seen and England faced a mortal peril. Observe, too, that the Armada carried 30,000 troops whose orders were to invade England, defeat its armies, and restore the Roman Church.
Well, the Roman Church, you know, extra ecclesiam nulla salust, but Elizabeth was having none of that. She had Philip’s wife, Mary Queen of Scots, beheaded for taking it a bit too literally. To Philip, Elizabeth was a dangerous heretic, but to Elizabeth, he was nothing but a fanatical terrorist before the term existed, and her officers were under no illusions about what this meant. They were permitted to hang prisoners on sight, or torture them for information. What was more important, the civil rights of a foreign enemy or the survival of England?
The Spaniards were under the command — a divided command, it turned out, and it was a big mistake — of their grandees, Medina and Parma, but the English had Francis Drake. I am, of course, simplifying, but that made the difference. Drake and his brother officers were in the process of reinventing naval warfare, and with smaller, faster vessels they harassed and destroyed the Great and Invincible Fleet in the Channel and the Irish Sea between its arrival in June and the departure of what remained in September. The year was 1588. England was secure, and could devote the next three or four centuries to making the world a better place, not, to be sure, without using methods in certain lands that today would be considered inhumane and even cruel. You can read about it in George Orwell, Burmese Days.
These poorly remembered history lessons from bygone school days came back hazily while Mr. Mewshaw — a very fine novelist and travel writer, and author of excellent books on the sport of tennis — and I sat in the legendary Suzanne-Lenglen stadium at Roland-Garros, site of the Internationaux de France, aka the French Open, watching the dismal spectacle of Andy Murray (a Scot, admittedly, but not Roman and carrying English hopes) going down under the implacable, robotic blows of the mighty man of Valencia, David Ferrer.
Michael Mewshaw knows his tennis, and he agreed that Andy Murray played better than David Ferrer. But playing better is not necessarily what wins matches, especially these long, rain-interrupted (in this case) five-set four-hour matches on the red clay of this legendary place’s courts. In the dampness, the balls, the shoes, the socks, the very air turned red as the clay stuck to whatever touched it. And David battled on, a Spaniard in the clay, withstanding Andy’s elegant and breath-taking shots, knowing he would err.
Ferrer, to be sure, is a great and good player, world number 6 — Murray is number 4 — rock of his country’s Davis Cup team (victors over Argentina in 2011), big money man ($13 million to date, to Murray’s $20 million, in tournaments alone since turning pro), good sport (like Andy), fierce competitor (ditto); so the difference is what?
The difference is Spain. Murray himself has mentioned it: the Spanish tennis federation develops players effectively. The result: there are three Spaniards among the eight athletes in the quarters in this tournament. In addition to David Ferrer, Rafael Nadal and Nicolas Almagro were battling it out yesterday. What can you do against this kind of armada?
This year, very little, I am afraid, and Mr. Mewshaw agreed with me. Rafa is likely to meet David Friday and the winner, who is not much in doubt not that anyone, least of all the mighty Nadal, is going to underestimate Ferrer, will play against either the world number one, Novak Djokovic, or the world number three, Roger Federer, both sons of mountainous countries. Had Almagro and Ferrer found themselves through the luck of the draw in the other bracket, there might have been an all-Spanish final, maybe even an all-Spanish semi-final and maybe even a largely Spanish quarter-final.
Contrary to a popular misconception, American men have done rather well at Roland-Garros. It is not true that “this is not our kind of surface,” as is often said. The U.S. Championships used to be played on clay. The greatest American player ever — according to some, not all, historians of the sport — Don Budge, was the first American to win the trophy at Roland Garros. It is now called the “trophy of the Musketeers,” for the four legendary players who built this place the way Ruth (and Gehrig) built Yankee Stadium, but there were many more, most recently Michael Chang, Jim Courier, and Andre Agassi. And among many women, there were Helen Willis and Maureen Connolly and Althea Gibson, and recently Jennifer Capriati and Serena Williams. This is a great tournament for Americans, and we are well liked here and the grounds staff, neatly and smartly outfitted and polite to a fault, all speak English.
The Brits have not done so well; there was Fred Perry, in the days of Don Budge, and on the ladies side there was Ann Haydon (later Jones), in the days of the incomparable Australian Margaret Smith (later Court), which was about when the Beatles were beginning to sing and write (John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works came out in 1965).
Andy Murray has one of the most awesomely artistic — and powerful — games in the sport, but his consistency, compared to other players at his top level, is appalling. Ferrer made plenty of errors too in the damp conditions, but he took advantage of Murray’s service, which seemed to be either an ace or a weak second serve — far more often the latter. He was relentless, like a bulldog — an English trope, but today it applied to him — or a crocodile. Which is what they called the best known of the Musketeers, René Lacoste, whose motto essentially was, get one more shot over the net than the other guy. It works.