PARIS — The light failed, finally, at the center court (the only one) at Chatrier stadium at Roland Garros, site of the Internationaux de France, aka French Open, so Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Man of Le Mans, and Stanislas Wawrinka, the best Swiss Tennisman of Our Time (after his slightly older compatriot Roger Federer, that is), called it a day and agreed to resume their historic rivalry on Monday. It was an amazing case, the kind of thing of which Chinese Wisdom is made, where some old cryptic guy in silk robes tells you that you cannot escape Fate and you will meet your doom — or your one true love — where the Red Line meets the Blue or some such Oriental Wisdom.
The thing is that last year, maybe even on this very calendar day, I’ll have to check, Wawrinka fell behind by two sets and came back to beat the big Frenchman, who admittedly is not at his best on clay, and then went on to lose to someone or other whose name probably was either Nadal or Federer or Murray. Stan is an awfully nice guy, a real gentleman and a superb tennis player whose fate — here we go with the Chinese Wisdom stuff — is to be just three or four years younger than the great Roger, who also had a bit of a doomsday today, but of that later.
Something about these Swiss, they are modest. Take your money, though, if you are not careful. Shrewd business types. Also Swiss Guards, Pope’s Own, you have to see their dress uniforms, ripping. Wawrinka, who was born in ’85 — 1985, I mean — in Lausanne, a deceptively quiet Swiss city on a lake (plenty of hot financial action there, behind the placid front, though not quite as much as nearby Geneva), has made good money this year already, well over a quarter mil from work on the court, and there are the sponsors, the endorsements. Earned every dime, too, the man is a workhorse. You can never, ever, underestimate Stan Wawrinka, except to your own detriment. You can get a point, a game, a set: he will come back at you, and he will crush you with his deft and intelligent mix of attacking forehands, his low slices that stopped Tsonga’s own attacks cold, his dangerous serve although, admittedly, in yesterday’s windy conditions at Chatrier it was not as effective as he wanted.
Of Tsonga, you certainly can say he deserves one of these Most Improved awards, but the question remains whether he has the nerves, the endurance, the steel in short, to outlast a determined opponent in the kind of five-setters these gentlemen get into on clay, where it easily goes to three and a half, four hours. Novak Djokovic fought back from two sets down against Andreas Seppi, an Italian who looks very German to me, and finally pulled it off in a match that took just short of four and a half hours.
Seppi at first was certainly the stronger player in the windy conditions that perhaps interfered with Djokovic’s opportunities. The Mighty Serb likes to get at you with crosscourt backhands or to move in to the net and slam the ball out of reach with a beaut of a slicing smash, but yesterday he fell back on his passive-aggressive defensive stance and wore out the Italian, who just could not find the opportunity — or the strength? — to go in and close it out when he had a comfortable lead. He let himself be drawn into Djokovic’s passive-aggressive game and got sandbagged, though it took a while.
You might be surprised at how these Top Players end up having to fight it out with the inferior breeds, who, remember, are still a million times better than 99.99 percent of everybody else who plays, and I mean plays competitively, college, regional qualifying tournaments for the Tour, etc. You get to a certain level, like Andreas Seppi — a very attractive player and a real sport in this terribly disappointing match — and frankly, to the naked eye, you can scarcely see how the Top Men are so much better. Until, precisely, you see them battling over five sets in difficult conditions, and you grasp how much more there is to this game than being able to hit anything back at least once or twice. You see the shrewd plays, the change-ups, the perfect drops (risky in the wind), the tactical big serves, the daring attacks down the line instead of playing to let the other guy beat himself — Wawrinka is quite brave in this regard — and you see what it takes to win consistently at the highest level.
The Top Swiss, Roger Federer, dropped the first set against a total upstart, Belgian “lucky loser” (a player who qualifies despite losing in the qualifying play due to the withdrawal of one of the winners) David Goffin, who won the affection of the crowd at Chatrier center court (the only one) with his great verve and acrobatics and excellent sharpshooting. But he just could not hold up against the Master’s poker nerves, as Federer settled down to mix his unflappable baseline game with attacks at the net that Goffin countered heroically but, finally, not sufficiently. Federer will have to wait until Monday to find out who between Juan Martin del Potro and Thomas Berdych, both of whom represent serious threats to him, he will meet next as their match, too, was called as day gave way to night in this little piece of peace and class next to the historic and tawdry Bois de Boulogne, scene of innumerable morals abuses. What do you want, this is the contradiction of our civilization.
What they say about basketball at this time of year, that it matters whether your team has playoff experience, applies to this sport as well. It applies to politics too, which in democratic regimes are a kind of sport. Apart from whether you are true and good, how do you handle the pressures, the partisan crowds, the fatigue that produces the “unforced errors” — a concept I never can completely accept, as you still need someone to cause you to make an error — that is not that different from the goof or blooper or slip of the tongue that can cause the momentum in a political contest to turn. It is, at any rate, unfortunate about American men this year, but to be fair, they are still very much in contention in the doubles bracket, in which the Bryan Brothers, Mike and Bob, advanced again this weekend toward the quarters, as did an American-Australian team consisting of Ryan Harrison and Mathew Ebden. No need to panic, not quite.