PARIS — Rafael was down 1-5 in the third set and it occurred to me he was feeling the effects of the marathon against John Isner in the first match of his campaign for a sixth championship in the Internationaux de France, the French Open tennis tournament which is held at the Roland-Garros site on Paris’s west side. A young compatriot, Pablo Andujar, who is from Valencia, was playing a brilliant tactical game after losing the first two sets. There was something almost Roger Federer-like in the precision of his sliced drops and his high-velocity passes. Nadal was not chasing them down, either, which gave rise to my notion that Mr. Pleszczynski was right when he wired me — okay, e-mailed — to watch for just this angle.
To be strictly accurate, Pablo Andujar is a few months older than Nadal, who is going on 25, but he is slighter — at six-one Rafa is no John Isner, but he is no 98-pound weakling, either — if muscular and more handsome if you like the Adonis type. Nadal is your man if you like the Bogart off-handsome handsome type, particularly with fierce piercing fanatical eyes.
At 1-5 in the third set, his eyes were blazing. Sitting just behind the service line in the packed Suzanne Lenglen stadium, a gem where even from the stands you feel close to the court because you are, I thought, he is either going to concede the set and fight like hell in the fourth, or he is going to start fighting now.
Then it hit me: If your game plan is to fight like hell, why wait for a new set? If one way or another you mean to win the next six games, you might as well begin right away. That was also when I noticed his eyes. You could see them when he turned from the baseline to grab his towel and ask for balls. The player serving is always picking among the balls available from the ball-boys (or girls), finding the least-used ones. A fresh supply is used after about a set (9 games).
Creo, I whispered to the person next to me, es el fin para Pablo… I meant it looks like curtains for Pablo, but I could not remember the Spanish word for curtains. (I know, cortinas, but it’s too late and anyway they do not use this expression.)
The reason I whispered is that the etiquette on these courts is strict: during play, you shut up. Conversations flare up during changes of sides, and there is total silence the rest of the time. Etiquette had been breached repeatedly, however, because the crowd was overwhelmingly Iberian for this Spanish drama, without partisanship. They were howling encouragement to both, going gaga over great shots and long rallies.
The only other reason I whispered is that due to certain events that have taken place in New York but which have got the French obsessed with s-x and proper behavior between m-n and w-m-n, I have totally frozen my habitually chivalresque style, to the point I dasn’t even offer a lady my seat on the subway — always crowded on the way back from the stadium — and resist the temptation to stop in the corner bar in the neighborhood because it is always full of young things in tight sweaters or half open shirts over jeans that I cannot figure out how they got into them.
But this person took the seat immediately adjacent to mine before the match began and said Hi. Actually: “Hola” — this tipped me off that it was a Spanish person. Garrulous, at every break she was yakkety yakking about this and that and what fun to be in Paris and where am I from and am I a tennis pro. In normal times I would have known how to rise to the occasion, but I froze.
However, I steered the conversation toward sober topics, history, Francisco Franco, the dark years of dictatorship. Make her think I am totally out of it — most Spaniards probably do not even know there was a dictatorship. Mistake: the granddaughter of Basque Republicans, she knew that stuff by heart, grew up with all the passionate memories.
“Terrible tragedy,” I muttered between sets. “Well, in the new Spain, it’s great, you have young men like Pablo and Rafa, competing in this friendly — and lucrative — way. And in Viscaya you can speak Basque.” (Which was forbidden under Franco.)
“New Spain, pff,” she said heatedly. “We could use some order.”
Lately there have been massive demonstrations in downtown squares in many Spanish cities. Supposedly inspired by the Arab spring, the demonstrators demand “dignity” — and jobs. Unemployment among under-30s, I gather, is over 30 percent. Something is not right in sunny Spain. The German government dreads it may go the way of Greece. Spain’s Socialist government, trying to introduce austerity programs, lost local elections last week, and it seems unlikely they can turn the situation around in time to prevent the Partito Popular, the conservatives, from winning the national elections next year.
None of this has anything to do with tennis, of course. However, she was a keen observer, for someone, as she told me, who never played the game. When Andujar surged ahead in the third set, she correctly noticed the effectiveness of his slices and drops, the precision of his cross-court forehands, the dexterity of his movements.
“The caudillo,” she whispered, “was a dictator. But he was a Spanish caudillo, not a fascist or a Nazi.”
I was astonished. This from a Basque?
“And he protected Jews.”
Jews? “Well,” I whispered back, trying to figure out what this was about, “Jose-Maria Aznar is very pro-Israel.” (I was referring to the prime minister before the sitting one, whose name is Jose Luis Zapatero.)
“Un jefe,” she said simply.
Meanwhile, Nadal climbed out of his hole. In tennis, the teachers and coaches always tell you if you lose 5 games, your opponent can lose 5 games. By definition. If you win a few in a row, he can win a few in a row. Rafa Nadal won 4 in a row until finally Andujar managed to again hold serve. Nadal won his easily, and it was 6-6.
By then I was sure the match was not going to extra sets like the one with Isner. It was not easy — it lasted about 3 hours and to someone who had never seen them play, Andujar might have seemed the more talented of the two, who was having an unlucky day, with marvelous net play and superb long forehands into the corners that Nadal often did not even try to chase down, steady tough backhands, and a reliable service. He played quietly, gracefully, with classic form.
But he was far more tired than Nadal. During the defending champion’s steel-nerved comeback, he followed error upon error, getting his hand on the ball and then sending it crashing into the net. Nadal exhausted him with cross shots, constantly hitting the edge of the line with heart-stopping accuracy. Had there been player challenges, Andujar would surely have called them — though, come to think of it, he might not have: Spaniards play like caballeros, gentlemen, good sports, as my seat-neighbor noted approvingly.
(In fact, there are challenges, but they are the traditional one customary to clay-surface competition. A player can ask the ump to descend from his chair and study the trace left by the ball. They both did this a few times, never argued when the umpire stared at the ground and stood by his call or reversed it.)
Tie-breaks, like overtime minutes I suppose, require a mental focus of their own, and like everything else this comes with practice. You could not expect the comparatively inexperienced Andujar to maintain his high level of play during the nail-biting points of the end-game, and he did not. He had the first serve and lost it, and that was pretty much it. The Spanish fans, including my neighbor, were pleased.
“A good fight,” she said.
“A class act.”
AND CLASSIC TENNIS. Maybe it is because the players are getting used to the conditions, including these supposedly faster new balls, or maybe they are warming up, or maybe, half the field having been eliminated by now, they are all pulling one another to higher levels. It was evident not only in the perfectly sized Lenglen stadium, big enough to accommodate a sizeable crowd, small enough for everyone to see the players’ eyes flashing, the grips on their racquets, the perspiration on their shirts, not only in the side courts with barely a few benches thrown up around them, where I saw Mardy Fish, our last best hope with Sam Querrey going down early in the day, decisively beating a young Dutchman named Robin Haase with a mighty offensive game that could carry him into a few more rounds, but even in the huge Philippe-Chatrier center court, the only one remotely like what we would call a stadium. What is evident is that they are playing classical clay court baseline, deep-hitting, cross-court aiming, long-rallying tennis.
Andy Murray, for example, a serve-and-volley man, put on a fine display of this kind of form against someone for whom it seems to come naturally, the Italian Simone Bolleli. They were both playing with Head tennis racquets — this is emphatically not a placement ad — that looked like the one I use — this is certainly not a placement ad — namely the Radical, unless it was the Extreme. Or a model made to order. Anyway, it was a three-setter, but each one was close and there were voices in the press box to suggest Murray was sloppy. Sloppy shloppy, it was Simone who was strong and put him under pressure. They were whispering the same thing about Maria Sharapova, who lost in the first set of a late afternoon match — of which I only caught the end, because of the length of time it took to finish Nadal-Andujar and I had to resist — consider for a moment the political ramifications in the present climate –politely of course, certain invitations because even the appearance of impropriety these days, in this country — but I digress. The Russian tennis diva who is determined to rival Serena Williams as a corporate brand as well as an athlete was getting a unexpected scare from a 17-year old French prodigy, Caroline Garcia. She hung in and the French teen lost her nerve, or something — it was over when I got there, but what was clear was that here again, they were going for the deep baseline game, rally, crosscourt, drop one when you get a chance, slice your backhand.
The idea of the slice, the pros explain, is to keep the ball low on the court, an essential condition to winning on clay because otherwise, especially against someone like Nadal, you set yourself up for a forehand topspin smash or some monster like that. Frankly, I am sure it makes a difference at the level these talented young men and women play the game, but to my naked eye it was hindering the ol’ Rafa topspin. The mechanics of it, they tell me, are that because the ball is faster and harder, your racquet’s strings have less time to bite into it on contact and create the famous topspin wham.
However, evolutionary biologists and historians consider that one of the characteristics of is adaptability. After a few days at Roland-Garros, they have figured out how to do what they know how to do.
They are playing classical tennis, with class.