Only Man Standing
by

Paris

They did their best to give it drama. They — I should say we, because the working press was in on the game — tried everything to turn the men’s draw into a gripping drama at the Internationaux de France, the year’s second Slam.

We said, well, he lost at Rome, you know, lost to that big strong kid from Austria whom Mr. Pleszczynski thought imagined was the child of a boat-people family who found refuge in Australia due to name sounds like the two southern presidents, Thieu and Diem, who trusted American promises, and on the tennis scoreboards they abbreviate the nationalities and it comes out AUT and AUS, close.

He is a kid from Vienna, one of the Next-Gen greats — another sports marketing gimmick — who are trying to make a dent in the domination of the 1980s generation, now in their 30s. Dominic Thiem has adopted a style much like Rafael Nadal’s, huge power from both wings, constant movement, create space and go for the openings to hit a fast winner, and, to boot, beautiful one-handed backhand, makes you think of Stan Wawrinka. He is good. He is very good. He beat the mighty Majorcan at Rome, yes.

But that was after Rafa beat him at Barcelona and Madrid on the way to taking a triple crown of clay of sorts, Monte Carlo, Barca, Madrid. To me it looked like he was taking it easy at Rome to get geared up for Paris. He loves Paris. Paris is the big one.

You take Paris, you are the King of Clay. You are in the same league with the mighty Mousquetaires of yore, the four dashing Frenchmen who built Roland-Garros the way Ruth built Yankee Stadium, the way Ted Williams built Fenway, the way — you know what I mean. You are up there with the great Bjorn Borg (seven wins), the immortal Roy Emerson (three singles here, five doubles), many ladies, too, Serena Williams (three wins in singles, two doubles, Margaret Court, five, four, plus four mixed.)

And Rafa Nadal, having won the Coupe des Mousquetaires a record nine times since 2005 only to suffer injury and illness and seeing it go to rivals Novak Djokovic (last year) and Stan (“the Man”) Wawrinka in 2015, Rafa wants it back. He says nine’s his favorite number, but you know about Rafa, he does not brag. “It’s just a number,” he says. Then he adds, sly smile, “Paris is my favorite. There is an atmosphere here, no? Special energy. It is special, no?”

You get the picture.

Attendance at this beautiful old stadium keeps booming, even with Paris living with terror threats and there are tough big cops and gendarmes checking bags, infallibly polite and machine rifles at the ready and everything is very professional and it stayed beautiful and calm. They are planning an expansion. More seats, bathrooms, etcetera. A roof over the grand old Philippe-Chatrier, like at the other Slams. Dunno. I just report, you decide, but just between me and Mr. Pleszczynski though for once we will share it, I think it’s a waste of money.

I mean, it’s only money and if they have it (or can get it? Municipal subsidies? Ticket scams? These are not rumors; high French Tennis Federations are headed for court this summer to answer accusations of hanky-panky-you-got-yours-I-get-mine. I say phooey, Gentleman Jim did a lot worse — or better — in New York.)

If they want a roof on Chatrier, why not. You cannot help but note that they put one up over Ashe Stadium at Flushing Meadows, a much harder stadium to cover because much bigger, in no time at all, while here they were still talking. They still are. But they say it is under way.

To be fair, the delays were due also to the environmentalist and neighborhood lobbies that went to court to block an important part of the plan, which would have required moving the next-door botanical gardens, the Serres d’Auteuil. You have to realize that Paris is small, and space is at a premium. You could move the whole thing to the suburbs, or even have two venues for the same tournament, but greed and prestige, you know: you keep it inside city limits, you keep all the revenue and prestige. Like the New York Giants moving to the Meadowlands, grates, causes schemes to rebuild the space next to Madison Square Garden, tear down that famous old post office building with the immortal words, Neither rain nor snow

This year it was announced everybody was kissing and making up and the hothouses in the gardens will be maintained and even protected. How will those extremely rare, delicate, exotic plants survive the noise and commotion outside if they build courts in the space and somehow move the hothouses a few meters to either side? That’s what landscape designers are for and of course French landscape men, who built Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte, know their stuff. Or used to.

In the meantime, they are playing where they always did, and the Chatrier stadium was packed totally solid, 15,000 seats, when young President Thieu, excuse me Dominic Thiem, stepped up against Rafa Nadal for the semi-final. Neither man had lost a set so far, and in the quarters the young Austrian had taken down the defending champion, Novak Djokovic, three sets, the last a bagel. Unheard of.

Rafa beat the boy in scarcely two hours. Three sets. That’s all you need to know: man spanks boy.

Okay, no cause to be mean: Thiem is a great player and everyone knows he will Rise to his Own Due soon enough, but you could hardly miss how easily Nadal outfoxed him. Against Djokovic his limitations were not obvious because he so thoroughly dominated the great Serbian, who has been uneven and prone to inattention, lethargy even, since completing his career Grand Slam with the win here last year. Thiem applied what they said was the Vamos Rafa! style against a passive Nole, and it looked awfully strong, winners from both wings and speed to win a derby.

But Rafa, contrary to the image, is much more than power and speed.

He showed this in the semi against Thiem, and even more so in the final yesterday, Sunday afternoon after the women’s doubles. It was the second French Open win for Minnesota’s own Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a veteran who gets cuter and better with every year and whose teaming up with Lucie Safarova makes a brilliant combination.

Nadal was challenged by Stan Wawrinka, the 2015 winner who has three Slams but not the French one, and so far never lost a final in a major. He is smarts personified, with exceptional ability to combine some of the sport’s most powerful, precise deep and heavy shots to the lines with an uncanny court sense, which tells him when to move in, when to go for the drop at the net or the placement to the alley.

So we all said, okay, this time. Rafa will take it probably, but five sets, close. Like Wawrinka-Andy Murray — the four-and-a-half-hour semi-final marathon wherein the Swiss beat the Scot in an epic of momentum shifts until the world No. 1 finally conceded, a forehand slip at 15-30, then a Stan backhand down the line for the break and the match.

Rafa is brawn, and Rafa is brain. What he showed in destroying Stan in three quick ones (6-2, 6-3, 6-1, two hours) was that contrary to the impression left by his take-no-prisoners march through the draw, he is clever like a fox, shrewd; he takes big risks, yes, but that is because he does not make the mistake of distrusting his abilities. He reminded us of the Rafa of yore, scrambling after everything, making impossible catches of likely winners to the corner lines and whipping them back with stunning flicks of the wrist for down-the-line winners. Wawrinka, himself an extremely fast player who uses his best-in-class backhand to return what look like sure winners with one-handed stretches to the left, got to the point where he was just looking at the Rafa projectiles zipping by.

There was no contest. Wawrinka is great, but Nadal is greater. On clay at least, he is again unbeatable. He da Man.

Observe that the power game on clay is by no means unusual, whatever they say about the slower bounce — true enough, the physics of friction proves it — and so forth. The greatest clay man before Nadal, and not counting the Musketeers (René Lacoste & Co.) and their divine demoiselle contemporary, Suzanne Lenglen, was of course Roy Emerson, who presented the trophies this year (Wawrinka, always the gentleman, graciously addressed him in English), who personified Australian power tennis: fast offense, serve and volley — and brains.

Brains matter. Worth remembering in today’s political environment, but let us not go there now, okay? Even in the women’s contest, an apparent brains-brawn contest between the high-talent Simona Halep, 25, trying a second time for a Coupe Suzanne Lenglen, who has an all-court game that combines — everything. She is a counter-puncher who can suddenly become the aggressor, she is extremely fast and there are no shots she cannot return, she has endurance and will.

She was up against a girl who had turned 20 a day or two earlier and whom no one had ever seen. Jelena Ostapenko hit and hit and hit — she says she wants to play like Serena Williams (absent this year), and she sure looks like she means it.

And yet even here, the wonderful, fresh faced, funny young instant star from Latvia in the end and probably without thinking about it, used brains too. After a see-saw match in which it seemed clear enough Simona had the more complete game and ought to prevail, Jelena in mid-second set turned it around. Behind, she had nothing to lose and knew it. She hit to the lines, as always, but stepped up the accuracy and the old side-to-side. Simona, who never quits, almost did. Shook her head, watched the balls passing her. Said later, “I felt like a spectator.”

It was in some ways a retro tournament, but with glimpses of the future. The all-30-somethings in the men’s final was a first, or at least a rare case. Rafa Nadal ain’t quitting yet, and neither is the great Stan, and the mighty Nole, though obviously disappointed, suggests he is hitting bottom (by his standards) with a deliberate nowhere-to-go-but-up plan. Murray, never successful on clay, took two sets against Wawrinka.

The overhyped Next-Gen young men flopped, though the young Americans in that group, Tiafoe, Donaldson and the rest, showed grit as they went down early, usually in four or five sets.

Ryan Harrison, mid-20s, won a Slam in doubles with his best New Zealand friend Michael Venus, and Donald Young, on the other side with Mexico’s Santiago Gonzalez in the mixed doubles, showed the much touted ex-Juniors champ is still in there and still immensely talented, though prone to unbelievable gaffes, in the final against Harrison-Venus two double-faults in a row to lose a totally critical game.

Venus Williams’ loss to another fresh face, Timea Bacsinszky, who in turn lost to Jelena in the semis, was disappointing, but she’s great and she will be back, and so will Serena after nuptials and motherhood. And Jelena Ostapenko will develop a more varied game as she moves into the leadership of the new generation of women, showing the young ladies like Madison Keys and Amanda Anisimova that, yes, we can play power tennis too, it was right to learn from Serena and Venus, but gotta do more.

So there it is, I reflected — I admit, I admit, first person singular is wrong, this is news not the self-important self-indulgent armchair rot that subverts American journalism — as I took a last stroll through the Serres d’Auteuil, looked with awe at the weird and beautiful plants that scientists, pioneers of botany, had risked life and fortune to gather and bring back and study in the bygone days of exploration. They are not bygone, only elsewhere. Science marches on, look at medical technology. Yes, and tennis too and Paris will be here no matter the little schemes and combines of the pols.

I gather that while all this splendid athleticism was center stage (for me anyway) a new guy was triumphing in the presidential and parliamentary elections across the land. Will have a solid majority. So does our prez have one. But in Britain something went weird I gather and it’s bollocks for the Tories. Maybe Boris will take over, he is a fine tennis player and writer and a high-energy guy. Bad character, they tell me, but is that news?

No, but I hope they do it right with these gardens. I will follow up, get hold of some ecology types I know here, ask. Ask the authorities, city government, FFT. In D.C., we have a neighborhood organization called Friends of Rose Park that with their own money and time maintains, improves, a charming little park at the east end of Georgetown called, appropriately, Rose Park. They are real civic people and they keep these three courts in good condition and they are generous, also built and maintain a kiddie park nearby and a basketball court and a bathroom — no, that Parks & Rec — and a little league ball field and they make it nice, sure.

Awfully good players there, too, Division I types. International, embassies nearby, spies. It’s Washington, and you have to expect that. I’m going home in a few days, and I’ll make my dazed way to Rose Park on my Waterford Precision ten-speed — got hit by a car last spring but that’s Washington too, arrogant drivers with no respect for the American people — and I’ll worry about the plants even while reliving these marvelous matches. I’ll think of the poets’ park, also next door, which I walk through every day, look at the verses on the stones.

Or du fond de la nuit nous témoignons encore
De la splendeur du jour et de tous ses présents
Si nous ne dormons pas c’est pour guetter l’aurore
Qui prouvera qu’enfin nous vivons au présent

Yet in the depth of night we still testify
To the day’s splendor and all its gifts
If we don’t sleep it’s to wait on the dawn
That proves at last that we live in our time

— Robert Desnos, poet, freedom fighter, murdered at Theriesenstadt, 1945

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