PARIS — In the third game of the second set Marion Bartoli hits what appears to the armchair expert an easy volley into the net and two points later her serve is broken, whereupon Francesca Schiavone holds her serve to even the score, 2-2, and since she won the first set handily, it is a safe bet the match is over.
There had been some wild shots at the beginning of the set, but it was clear the defending champ was in charge, setting the pace and keeping the hard-charging Miss Bartoli off balance to avoid her fast, inside-the-court game. In the sixth both girls dispute sideline calls as the tension rises. But Miss Schiavone is forcing errors with long cross-court shots that the tired Miss B. returns wide or into the net.
Girls? Girls’ tennis? These young women, 30 and 27, are not girls. The prize, 1.2 mil euros (it is too depressing to convert this to dollars) for the winner, is the same for men and women at the French Open, formally known as the Internationaux de France and played at Roland-Garros in the west of Paris, which has been sunny and windy for the past few days. One might have thought there would be no matches on the day of the Ascension in this Catholic country, but that is to misapprehend our era. A quick mid-morning tour of the many churches in my neighborhood did not suggest religious observance is booming.
Marion Bartoli was until yesterday afternoon the last hope of French tennis. She is a live wire, constantly bouncing and jumping and looking for opportunities to get her fast game going, opportunities that Francesca just would not give her as she maintained pressure with cross-court shots from the baseline and made her look awful with brilliant passing shots when Marion, who is from Corsica, tried to play at the net.
The truth is that the situation is comparable to the Chicago Cubs. There was Mary Pierce in 2000 and Justine Henin in ’03 and ’05-07, but there are many, including Miss Henin, who would object she is Belgian. Julius Caesar, who noticed they were always fighting Germans, said, Fortissimi sunt Belgae, “Of all the tribes of the Gauls, the Belgians are the bravest.” Miss Henin is surely one of the phenoms of our time, a wisp of a thing repeatedly outplaying big girls, I mean strong fine ladies, with her grit and speed and grace, her exceptional backhand, the all-around superiority of her game. She retired, but who knows? So did Michael Jordan.
Prior to Miss Henin, excuse me Miss Pierce (French mom, American dad, played for France in the Fed Cup), there were a few others, Françoise Durr ’67, Nelly Landry ’48, the great Simone Mathieu, ’38-39 (and runner up most other years in the 1930s), but to really appreciate French ladies’ tennis, you have to know the legend, Suzanne Lenglen.
They called her la divine, due to her grace on the court, her personal charm, the classicism of her style. She was not what you would call beautiful, but like any spirited and lively and forceful woman — she forfeited at Wimbledon one time because she refused to play according to a schedule she considered unfair, which it probably was, perfidious Albion and all that, not that I am anti-English, but keep in mind Andy Murray is a Scot — she was attractive and immensely likable and she was a favorite of one who knew his women, Bill Tilden, the greatest tennis player of all time (some say).
Suzanne Lenglen, along with a few Brits and Americans such as Germaine Golding and Helen Jacobs, put ladies’ tennis on the map, basically, or on the court if you prefer. She was a star. After the 1940s there would be others — Margaret Osborne, who married a Frenchman, Nelly Landry, Shirley Fry. There would be Doris Hart and Maureen Connolly. There was Althea Gibson, the Jackie Robinson of tennis — forgive the political intrusion, she was a genius on the court quite apart from the race issue, just as Jackie Robinson was a genius on the diamond, but you also have to give history its due and, incidentally, one of the finest books written on Jackie Robinson is Robert Parker’s Double Play. Well, it goes on, Margaret Smith (later Court), Evonne Goolagong. But the French girls, nada, rien du tout, or very little, au revoir.
So they remember Suzanne Lenglen — as they would anyway, one hopes. She was graceful and gracious and how brave she was! She was 13 when she reached the top of French tennis in 1912. Her father, seeing her talent, devoted himself to coaching her, like Mr. Williams — and Mr. Bartoli. Personally, I — but never mind.
The war came, she played with officers and men on leave, gave them a glimpse of what peace could be, while at the same time hardening her own game and endurance against these brave Gauls. After the war, she beat an English legend, Dorothy Lambert, admittedly past her prime by then, and went on to establish records at Wimbledon and the French championship and she played in the Olympics and she played in mixed doubles with Brugnon and Borotra, the latter accused later of “fascism.” There was a certain misidentification of sportsmen with the national right during the inter-war years, but that is a whole other topic and I am supposed to be reporting on the French Open.
She started a school. For tennis, I mean. Michelle Rhee, are you listening? The U.S. taxpayer could have saved billions — I repeat: billions — if new-class types like Arne Duncan and Joel Klein, instead of falling for pedagogic programs based on false science, had concentrated on No Child Off the Field. If there is a problem in Catholic education it is due to the simple fact that its leaders do not say “Beat Gonzaga” in the same breadth as “Deo e Patria,” and are not the empty pews of the Latin Quarter’s churches on Ascension Day an indication that their French co-religionists are just behind — if not in front?
Suzanne Lenglen died at 39, struck down by cancer. They named one of the Roland-Garros stadiums for her during one of its periodic renovations — still another one is under way, and one might have more confidence about it if they had suspended play on Ascension Day, but they had all those corporate seats at a thousand dollars each — and, frankly, it is the nicest stadium I know, next to the ones at Nimes and Arles where they run bulls and the “arena” off the rue Monge here, around the corner, that dates from when the Romans passed through the place they called Lutecia. I always had the idea that Julius Caesar went to the forum in Rome that fateful day, unarmed, because he had concluded he never again would find such a thrill as he had during the campaigns in Gaul. But this is foolish romantic nonsense.
Earlier in the day, Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna won their doubles in the women’s legends (over 45) category. Miss Navratilova won six times here in the 1980s in the non-legendary women’s doubles, usually with Pam Shriver as partner.
While surely interested in Miss Navratilova’s enduring talent, visitors were also treated to a first semi-final match, between the Middle Kingdom wonder, Na Li, and Maria Sharapova, who lost match point on the last of her 10 double faults. When you consider the score, 6-4, 7-5, that has got to be a difficult number for her and her supporters to digest.
However, it was not only the poor serves, which may, without making excuses, be blamed on the shoulder injury Miss Sharapova suffered a few years ago. Miss Li, seeded sixth, had twice as many winners (24) as her opponent. In this regard she played a tactically superior game. Bearing in mind fifth seed Miss Schiavone’s 22 winners against Miss Bartoli, it looks like it will be a great final. Girls’ tennis? These women are the real thing.