The Palais Omnisport de Bercy, which roughly translates as the all-purpose sports dome near the Bastille because nobody outside Paris knows where Bercy is and neither do most Parisians, is one of these newfangled architectural-cum-urban development jobs that the conservative administrations that ran the city for four decades sponsored with mixed motives and mixed results. Most sensible observers feel that when you look at urban development in other big old famous historic cities with gems of architecture, quaint neighborhoods, and precious little room to build, Paris should be given a passing grade. Under the impetus of Charles de Gaulle’s Culture minister André Malraux, and when the mayoralty was restored under the Chirac-Tiberi administrations, building and rebuilding projects eradicated whole neighborhoods, put up some huge new structures that in effect changed the character of others.
Particularly in the 1980s and ’90s there were serious charges of chronic corruption in the way projects were chosen and carried out, as well as persistent reports of individual abuses by the mayors’ men. Less forgivable, the sociological dislocations their programs caused never seem to have been a serious concern. However, I am no sociologist and it is not clear to me which came first, the dislocations or the urban development, what the French call urbanisme. Some of the best writers on Paris, such as the historian Louis Chevalier, think the urban policies themselves had much to do with the destruction of the city’s essential character, which is likely to cost in the long run.
This sober reflection having been made, the domed stadium at Bercy, some blocks east of the Treasury ministry complex — itself a slightly later consequence of these grand rebuilding projects and a source of resentment to high-ranking Treasury officials who used to have magnificent digs in the Louvre — has to be adjudged a success so far, at least superficially. Since the mid-1980s, it has played a role, if such comparisons can be made, akin to New York’s Madison Square Garden or Washington’s Metro Center. Personally, I distrust all these hustle-the-taxpayer gimmicks of municipal governments. There are plans to revive the perfectly nice old RFK Stadium here on Washington’s east side, abandoned in favor of an admittedly well-designed white elephant (forgive the contradiction) across the river, which suggests the whole expensive move to Anacostia was just a waste of money (do the Nats ever fill it? will they ever?)
But what do I know? The east side of Paris, like the east side of most old cities, needed a boost because the tendency of almost all cities is westward. It probably has to do with real estate prices favoring the sunset. At any rate, and leaving for another day memories of the neighborhoods it replaced and the people who inhabited them, Bercy has blended in pretty well, as has the Opera-Bastille, notwithstanding some collateral damage the most significant of which, for us Americans, was the fiasco of trying to move the legendary American Center there from its historic location on the boulevard Raspail, thanks to some dizzy New York dames who thought they would do good while doing well for themselves and instead walked away carelessly, the Center dead. That is another one to look into, perhaps a subplot to my planned Paris-urban-development story.
Sports were on my mind, however, and putting aside misgivings about city government by bread-and-circuses, you had to hand it to the competitors who showed up for last week’s Bercy tennis tournament, the season’s last Masters-1000 event, whatever that means. Magnificent play by two Frenchmen, Gael Monfils and Michael Llorda, almost gave the partisan home crowd an all-French final; in the end everyone agreed great matches were played by all through the semis, in which Monfils beat Roger Federer in three tie-breakers and Llorda fell by nearly the same scores to the Swede powerhouse Robin Soderling, who then made mincemeat of the last standing Frenchman in the final, 6-0, 7-6 (1). Monfils won deserved applause for his breath-taking series of come-from-behind’s, saving seven match points against Fernando Verdasco in the third round and five in the semi against Federer, who appeared his old dominant self yet was unable to close when he had the chances. For what it is worth, the advocates of Bercy’s fast surfaces, notably the serve-and-volley enthusiasts Andy Murray and Andy Roddick, flopped, while the Swedish and French baseline and crosscourt men went the distance.
Monfils was especially strong with a passing forehand that repeatedly got away from Federer, but he also played a match full of heart, chasing down shots that the tactically more adroit Federer sent all across the court. His serve was a surprise: either I have not been paying attention — overly concerned with municipal corruption? — or he has improved it this season, because Federer literally did not see some of his aces.
Llorda, known as a doubles specialist, showed tremendous heart as well, getting three match points against Soderling in their semi, after a mighty run. The Swede, however, stayed calm under pressure and counted on a fantastic cross court backhand that, in this tournament at least, dominated every opponent. In the final he matched Monfils ace for ace and added pin-point volley play that showed he was in far better control of both muscles and nerves than his opponent.
Actually, everyone agreed, in a spirit of good-sportsmanship in happy contrast to the kind of rancor that France has been experiencing lately due to the president’s modest proposal that maybe sometimes people ought to work for a living, that a Federer-Llorda final was as likely as the Soderling-Monfils one that was. But tennis is the mental sport par excellence. With no teammates (or only one in doubles) to worry about, you are either in the game or not, and Soderling, who lost in the French Open at Roland-Garros this year and last (to Nadal in the final and to Federer in the semis, respectively), this time determined to stay Swedish, in the Borg-Wilander-Enqvist tradition. Cool as ice and resistant to panic, Swedes are also known to be gloomy, suicidal even. This trait, whose relation to the kingdom’s peculiar political-social environment has been the subject of some fine literature by Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall in the 1960s and 1970s and Nenning Mankell more recently, is, so to speak, deadly in a game where every shot counts. Soderling, anyway, was as lively and, barring a few double faults, as accurate as can be. However, the French racer Jean-Baptiste Grange beat the Swede Andre Mykrer last week in the slalom at Levi, Finland; his lead was 33 hundredths of a second.
The perennial French question in tennis is whether their champions can “fill the unforgiving minute/with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,” but they are scarcely alone. During the weekend heroics at Bercy, the French government tendered its resignation to President Nicolas Sarkozy. He named a new team (under the same p.m., François Fillon). He has a year and a half to do what it takes to keep himself and his party in power. Indications are that he is opting for a fighting government, more right than center-right, to force a clear choice upon a population shaken by threats to its physical and emotional security. Will he go the distance? Or go down just before the finish line, like the well-beloved one they call la Monf? C’est toute la question.
In tennis, the French will try to win the Davis Cup next month, skipping the wear and tear of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tournament at London in a couple of weeks, for which none of them qualified. It is not clear what good the sport derives from these incomprehensible tournaments, wherein the London show, the year’s last on the ATP World Tour, is limited to eight players who qualified under a points system no one understands. Obviously, winning helps, and winning the more prestigious tournaments helps more; you get two thousand points for winning one of the historic tournaments (such as Roland-Garros) and one thousand for a Masters 1000 (such as Bercy), with points accumulating over a 52-week calendar.
Billed as “the final showdown,” the London Barclays tournament (bankers like tennis, the Bercy tournament is sponsored by Paribas) is really no such thing. True, if Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer, who have the most points, reach the final, perhaps they will settle the speculation over which one should be world number one, after not meeting in tournaments since last June at Madrid. However, if any of the other contenders — Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, and Andy Roddick — bumps either or both, what will it prove? It will prove that tennis is mental, I suppose, which is a real brain twister.
I am no impresario or pro-sports promoter, and I guess the logic of commerce escapes me. But it is not even clear why tennis should have a “champion” the way, for example, baseball does. In baseball, whoever wins, wins. If you win the most games, you get the pennant. Then if you win the most games in the inter-league series, you are the world champion. Tennis is different. You win a championship, you are that championship’s champion for a year. That is the kind of game it is. It is part of this sport’s meaning.
Well, the world does not care much for meaning these days. Actually, you can win the pennant without winning the most games in your league, due to a perversion introduced some years ago and known as the “wild card.” Baseball, a game of statistics, the sport of the long season, does not even connect, phonetically, to such a term. In tennis, you can win the number one ranking on points, at least in theory, without winning any of the four best-known tournaments.
The Davis Cup — the ladies have their Fed Cup, easily won this year by Italy over a spirited but inexperienced U.S. team — once had a certain world championship aura about it in the sense that it at least suggested which nations were cultivating the sport most assiduously, producing fresh and enduring talent. However, this year the Cup’s final round will take place in Belgrade, Serbia, first week of December. Since neither Monfils nor Llorda qualified for the ATP “showdown” in London, whereas Djokovic did, maybe that means something. Especially since Spain won the Cup last year.