PARIS — They named Tommy Haas comeback player of 2012. He had some tough physical breaks since breaking into the world top 10 in 2001 and holding the no. 2 rank for a spell in 2002 and American observers noted a fine run to the final at the Citi Open last summer in Washington, D.C. He is big, muscular, very fit at six-two, about 180, looks like a leading man in the movies, you can see him playing the role of Christian Diestl which they gave Marlon Brando in the film version of The Young Lions, Irwin Shaw’s great war saga. Haas is an Austro-German from Hamburg (his dad is a pal of Arnold Schwarzenegger), but he lives in Florida, American citizen.
At 35 one of the oldest men on the Tour, with a never-quit resilience, he beat Roger Federer on grass in the final at Halle last year and won this year’s clay court tournament at Munich. He beat a young Frenchman named Guillaume Rufin in straight sets the other day and waited in the rain yesterday to take on Jack Sock, who will be 21 in September and who is from Nebraska, laid-back and low-key and a threat to anyone from any position on the court, especially when he is in position to let loose the rifleshot forehand that demolished Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in his first match ever here at Roland-Garros, the venue for the Internationaux de France, won in 1938 by Don Budge, a young California phenom who in his day was a lot like Jack Sock.
You figure if the fresh-faced Husker from Lincoln can beat a Spanish vet, he can beat Tommy, but you would be likely to figure wrong. Jack can do it — but it is no sure thing. This is a fine match up and the match we are waiting for and we are waiting also for John Isner and Ryan Harrison.
We waited and the rain came again and then it came down in buckets. Samantha Stosur, the Australian ladies’ champ and former U.S. Open champ, started early and knocked out a young and pretty French hope, Kiki Mladenovic in quick sets but the other matches were delayed. They rolled up the heavy tarps at two o’clock but 20 minutes into the resumption of play it came down in buckets again but it was a spring rain not a monsoon and nobody went home.
Spring is here with or without climate change and we knew the sun would shine because the sun always shines over Paris when it is spring and we sat and talked about past springs and past tournaments and after two hours of talking about these and about whether it would be better or not better to have a retractable roof over the center court as they say they will have in a few years it was beautiful again and the sun was out over the west end of Paris where they hold the French Open as the Internationaux are called for short. Vania King and Sloane Stephens went back to work, Sloane leading by one set to oh, two American girls cute as can be to the delight of French tennis fans because French tennis fans always fall in love with cute American girls.
The rain fell on the awnings and people crowded under the covered alley that runs along the gates into the Philippe-Chatrier stadium where the Roland-Garros center court is located and argued about how having a roof here would make a difference. It would make a difference here but what about the other courts? The program would be delayed even if play continued here. You could not argue about that so we argued about the fine match the day before between Gael Monfils and Ernest Gulbis. It was a fine match but the rich man’s son from Latvia who said Roger Federer is a bore because he is courteous on the court and off the court gave up after Monfils’ shot hit the tape at 5-5 in the 3rd set and just dribbled over the net to his side of the court and he stood there stunned to see a conversion turn to a deuce before his own eyes, not fair if you are a rich boy used to getting what you want and in this case you have worked really hard to get here. It was a fine match until then. But with that fall hitting the tape and falling on the other side of the net Monfils saved his game and went on to hold. Monfils did not break Gulbis in the next game but he held his own game again and took the tiebreaker making it two to one and after that Gulbis did not put up a fight and the match was as good as over.
Sloane Stephens held at love when they resume on Court Six as she looks as fired up after the delay as Vania King looks listless. Rain delays play tricks on the brain in a sport where many things can play tricks on the brain and if you put a roof over Chatrier you will remove that factor from the seeded players who play there but what about the other players who do not ever play there? Miss Stephens looking sharp as all get-go and was catching Miss King’s drops and whipping them to the sidelines. But Miss King sticks to the drops and made a few work and broke for the first time in the match but it was the only time because Miss Stephens was firing shots into the back court right on the baseline and she had all the momentum. They are California girls and play a hard-hitting game but Sloane was hitting harder and deeper and she played the clay better, a little damp and soft despite the heavy tarp, top spins and back spins and you have to know or feel the ground and play it to your liking and you opponent’s disliking and it was easy to see she was doing this. They both are cute beautiful talented, Miss Stephens a Floridian just out of her teens things are way cool and neat and Miss King a few years older, a Californian now living in Florida and a Chinese speaker.
Monfils was out much of last year with knee problems but he had nice runs at the tournaments at Bordeaux and Nice that are warmups for Roland-Garros and now he is the toast of Paris and even the austere afternoon paper Le Monde writes features on him and L’Equipe has done two big spreads already. L’Equipe is a fine newspaper. It is a daily and covers the world of sports like the Sporting News. It covers cycling and football and rugby. It covers French basketball and the tennis when the tournaments are in France and when there are important tournaments in America. It covers the NBA because Tony Parker is a great point guard and several young San Antonio Spurs are French. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are well-known professional basketball men in France because of L’Equipe and readers of L’Equipe know they have a strong chance against Miami despite the greatness of the Miami side. You should read L’Equipe every day when you are in France and you should also take Le Monde because it is a fine austere newspaper published in the afternoon and if you need a paper in the morning you should take Le Figaro but you should read the weekly Canard Enchaine to have the competitive and adverse perspective on what is taking place here and a few kilometers beyond the city limits.
They are happy for Gael Monfils and for Jo Tsonga who won in three sets against Jarkko Nieminen who will be 32 in July and lives in the town where he was born, which is Masku. Masku is in Finland. Jarkko Nieminen lost in three sets to Jo Tsonga but the score belies how tough and brave the man is. He lives in a northern land of almost permanent cold and dark and he is tough and hard like the ice tundra and he makes it very hot for his opponents even when they beat him. He is a veteran, an ex-soldier. He is why you should not try to invade Finland. Tsonga is a powerful and gifted tennis man and has much respect for Jarkko Nieminen as has everyone else who knows him and it is a shame he did not win a single set but not a dishonor.
They are happy too for Julien Benneteau who won a hard match against the German Tobias Kamke who like Tommy Haas is from Hamburg. It was a tough match and Benneteau had cramps and everything hurt but he pulled through. The French players are encouraged by their fan base. Benoit Paire is a fine young player who may go deep and even if he does not maybe he will next year. Richard Gasquet may go deep, though some think his form is almost too good, he plays beautiful form and falters in the big points against the top players. They have been waiting here for a champion.
Yannick Noah, whose son is a star forward on the fantastic Chicago Bulls basketball team, though not as good as the San Antonio Spurs, was the last great champion here. He beat Mats Wilander, a fantastic Swedish player, in 1983. He had a great season that year, and it is sad there was no follow up, but he remains a memory of greatness that French fans cherish. There is nostalgia at Roland-Garros, the beautiful space that was built so the Four Musketeers could defend the Davis Cup they won in 1927, on their second try, at Philadelphia. They beat Bill Tilden in his prime. They adored Tilden. They knew they had to beat him by wearing him down. It was the only way they could beat him. They sent René Lacoste against him, he had a one-track strategy and it worked. You just hit back whatever the other guy sends you. You do not attack. You try no fancy plays. You just hit everything back. You wear out the great Tilden. That is the key. They won.
They built this great stadium because they realized they had no place to defend the Davis Cup. When the U.S. team arrived the following year it was ten years after the Great War and they knew they had to name the place after Roland Garros, the aviation ace who went down a few weeks before the armistice, in October 1918. The men involved were friends of his, veterans of the “der des der,” the last war of all. There could not be another after what they had been through. They took sports seriously, not the way we do. We take sports seriously. But they took sports seriously in the sense they thought they might channel aggression that otherwise might go into war.
Tommy Haas and Jack Sock waited in the wings while between rain delays the Japanese champ Kei Nishikori fought off a late rally by Grega Zemlja. He is a Slovene. Kei is Japanese but lives in Florida. Florida is a popular place to live for tennis men and women but Mr. Thornberry has not explained yet why this is so. Kei almost blew the fourth set as the rain began again and then he pulled himself together. The court was filled with Japanese tennis tourists. Maybe they were not tennis tourists but patriotic Japanese who like it when a son of the rising sun does well. If Benoit Paire beats the Polish hope Lukasz Kubot tomorrow when they resume play he will go against Kei Nishikori. That is the way to win.
The rain came hard again and as Novak Djokovic, world no. 1, easily beat a young man from Argentina at Chatrier under the adoring cheers of umbrella-carrying fans, the Americans waited, John Isner and Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock. The tournament postponed their matches until Friday. Damp weather is normal in Paris in the springtime, as is the sunshine that makes you happy just to be alive and waiting for the girl you are expecting, even if you wait and wait.