At the end of their matches, the kids were tired, frustrated, mumbling and yelling at themselves. One kid even threw his towel on the ground in frustration. He had the crowd with him — a French kid, in France, against an Argentine — but he got so mad it was not sure he had himself with him, and in tennis — as in anything — that can matter.
The problem was that he was hitting crazy hard shots and his opponent — who at 27 is not much older in the great circle of life, but on the pro tennis tour seven years is a long time — knew exactly what to expect. Sometimes he was surprised by an adroit drop shot or a big one down the line, but more often he was exactly in the right place, ready.
In tennis, somewhat as in baseball, if the ball comes very hard at you and you make contact with it with racquet or bat and the contact is fair and true and the ball is not a treacherous slice or a breaker, you are in position to prove Isaac Newton’s first law. Maybe his second, but you know what I mean.
The kid put huge energy into his shots, relenting only for a drop shot when he had his man pushed so far back behind the baseline (from the hard pounding) he figured he would not be able to reach it. This worked — sometimes. The other fellow, a lean hard six one to the kid’s six four and skinny, reached the ball in time most of the time and sliced it back over, cross ways and away, for the point.
The energy, meanwhile, was exhausting. It was warm, too, a bright sunny day at Roland-Garros, the classic old stadium on the west side of Paris where the Internationaux de France, aka the French Open, have been played since 1927. Warm is putting it mildly. The city is in the early hours of a mighty heat wave that threatens to make weather a serious factor for at least the first week of the Slam, crowning glory of the clay season.
However, weather always is a factor. If it’s not heat it’s something else. The young player, Maxime Janvier, is fantastically talented. He is one of France’s next-gen hopes, in the Tour’s current marketing book. He very much wants to make the breakthrough into his first major tournament.
Guido Pella, who is also a big hitter when he needs to be, wants to make the cut just as badly, and as the second set begins, after young Maxime has outhit him in the tiebreaker to take the first one, it becomes clear what his plan was. Sure, he would have liked to have won that first set. It is always better to win than to lose. But he was making sure he understood the French boy’s game, while getting him hot, sweaty, and exhausted.
Young Max had nothing left in the tank. He went down 6-2, 6-2, the two sets over in less than 90 minutes, scarcely more time than the hour taken by the first set.
It was hot and packed on Court Six, and the fact is, despite the boy’s Waterloo — from which he will grow — it was riveting. No one left. It dawned soon enough on everybody — at least where I was sitting — what was happening, but Maxime never let it look like a foregone conclusion. He kept fighting and getting those big heavy shots across the net and sometimes pulling a winner out of what looked like nowhere.
Pella, however, played the percentage and the points added up. He whipped him, perchance gave him a lesson in energy management and balancing raw power with tactical sense. There was no condescending. The Argentine gained control and kept it, but he could afford no let up. To the end, he could not be sure Janvier would not find some deep reserve of strength, get a second wind, and make the long points pay. The game scores got lopsided after the first set, but within each game the scores stayed competitive. Pella knew he had Janvier where he wanted him, but he had to sweat and grunt to keep him there. This was fine tennis.
The same thing happened in the previous match on Court Six, which also drew a packed house. (The pre-tournament qualifying tournament, which this is, is a good bargain at 20 euros for a day’s pass.) Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a fresh faced dynamo from Minnesota who is world number one in women’s doubles, wants to play in the ladies’ singles draw as well this year. With her singles ranking at 116 (Pella’s ATP ranking is about that too), she must qualify. At 32 she found herself staring across the net at Viktoria Kuzmova, who is 19 and is ranked 164. (Max is at over 200.)
The eagerness and intensity that players, young newcomers and resilient veterans, put into these bitter-sweet “qualies,” with their sharp disappointments and their thrills, is a good part of the reason the French Open decided to be stingy with Maria Sharapova this year. As she comes out of a 15-month suspension for doping, she is getting some wild-card invitations to tournaments, while rebuilding her ranking. Notwithstanding that she is a two-time champion here, and of great interest to the fans, the FFT (French Tennis Federation, like the USTA) must consider the effect of giving her a pass on the morale of kids — and vets — working hard just to qualify for a chance to qualify.
Bethanie-Viktoria was a case in point. It was a tough match, with the elegant (and tall, strong) young Slovak making Mrs. Mattek-Sands work hard for two sets. Miss Kuzmova — the French Open maintains the custom of referring to women as Mrs. and Miss, male players are called by standalone last names — forced a tiebreaker that went into overtime (8-6) in the first set, then held until the ninth game of the second before going down, 7-6, 6-4. Like Guido Pella but differently, Mrs. Mattek-Sands maneuvered the points into opportunities for winners, while mixing things up with unexpected drop shots and sudden changes of pace.
She needs a win on Friday to qualify. Then it’s the Slam, which, one likes to think, will be a bigger draw — more attractive, at least — than the shouting matches taking place in the background as the French people complete this year’s political season with the election of a new parliament.