The Weight of the Past - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Weight of the Past

PARIS– Don Budge won the Internationaux de France, now more commonly known as the French Open, only once, in 1938, as did Don McNeill in 1939, then the war came and the tournament was interrupted. Budge joined the Army air force, Gottfried von Cramm, his friend and rival who won the championship twice in the mid-’30s, was released from prison where the Nazis had thrown him and sent to the eastern front to fight Russians. Americans Frank Parker (Franciszek Pajkowski) and Tony Trabert each won twice in the post-war years and decades later Michael Chang won it once and Jim Courier twice. Andre Agassi was the last American to win, in 1994 and 1999. France won the Davis Cup a couple of times in the 1990s, but the last Frenchman to win at Roland-Garros, in 1984, was Yannick Noah, father of the Chicago Bulls forward, who alongside Derrick Rose and Luol Deng gave Miami a run, but you know all about that.

French players won tournaments here during the heyday of the Mousquetaires, known in English as the Philadelphia Four because they won France’s first Davis Cup by beating the great Bill Tilden & Co. at the City of Brotherly Love’s Germantown Cricket Club in 1927.

This was an interesting group, honored by statues at Roland-Garros, which was built for their successful Davis Cup defense in 1928 (repeated until ’32). Born with the century, give or take a few years, they lived through most of it, encouraged programs to develop young players’ talents and sportsmanship. For French champions, they represent a legacy which I suppose can be a burden as well as an inspiration. It is peculiar: the past athletic glories of DeMatha or Gonzaga do not inhibit today’s varsity teams at those great schools, do they? And pursuing Bjorn Borg’s record of victories here, or John McEnroe’s string of victories from the beginning of a season, does not seem to have thrown a wrench into the breathtaking talent of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. So how do you explain that France, with a climate that is friendly to the sport, with a national Federation that cannot be more cumbersome or bureaucratic than the USTA, with municipal administrations and schools that understand they have to make time and grounds available for their precious kids, I mean — what is the problem?

And note that this is not a question only of interest to France-watchers like John Vinocur and Chris Caldwell. Look at us: despite all our money and high school athletic directors and No Child Left Behind and Arne Duncan, we are in the doldrums in international competition. Since the sinking of Mardy Fish, the only Americans in sight are the mighty Bryan Boys. Could we, too, be in the grip of legacyitis? Or are we merely traversing a short national funk and just wait till next year.

Of the famous Musketeers, René Lacoste to this day is the best known. This may be due to his name having become, like that of his contemporary the English champion Fred Perry, synonymous with sports haberdashery. However, many people who wear his famously comfortable polo shirts with the logo representing the animal to whom he was affectionately compared do not know that he invented the first metallic tennis racquets which Jimmy Connors and Billy Jean King, among others, adopted. Much earlier, he had invented the ball-machine, the reason being that he was a maniac for training and even his coach thought he overdid it. Maybe he did: pulmonary illness curtailed his career, which in turn may explain the energy he transferred to business.

Lacoste was not a graceful player; his style was based on relentless and precise returns from the baseline. As his nickname suggests, he was always the toughest, and his view was that the key to winning at tennis is to get the ball over the net, period. This drove Tilden, a virtuoso of style, nuts, but it worked.

Possibly the move from sports to product innovation was in his genes: René Lacoste’s father, a tennis champion of the 1890s, managed the Hispano-Suiza motor firm. Henri Cochet, the first of the Musketeers to beat the great Tilden (Lacoste went on to beat Big Bill several times), is the only player in history to have won at Wimbledon after being down two sets not only in the finals but in the quarters and the semis as well. Known as the wizard to Lacoste’s crocodile, he had the best record of the group. Jacques Brugnon, by contrast, did not win in singles, but completed the team as a master of doubles play, in which he also played (and won) in the mixed version alongside the legendary Suzanne Lenglen.

Politically, the most interesting Musketeer was Jean Borotra, who because of his fantastic net game was known as the bounding Basque. To my dismay, my Basque friend-of-a-day who surprised me by almost making an apology for Francisco Franco during the Nadal-Andujar match the other day, had no idea who he was. This could be because she knew very little about tennis, was merely subbing for a colleague in their tennis coverage, or to the differences in the way Spanish and French Basques remember history and assert their own identity.

Borotra was a highly decorated veteran of the Great War (in which Roland Garros, an ace pilot, perished) and a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, which is roughly like being an MIT graduate but with the additional prestige (and responsibility) of being automatically enlisted at the highest levels of the French civil service and staying there for life, no matter where your career takes you. Borotra concentrated on tennis in the 1920s and early ’30s, winning at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon and in Australia.

Like other veterans concerned to restore the strength of a France bled white by the war, Borotra joined the French Social Party (Parti Social Français), whose leader was Col. François de la Roque. Like other so-called populist currents of other times and places, the National Front here, the Tea Party at home, the PSF began with the sense that the political elites were out of touch with ordinary citizens and did not care for them and thought they were entitled to privileges denied everyone else. It was a mass party (more members in the 1930s than either the Socialists or the Communists) that sought a way to overcome class war by means of a “corporate” or “cooperative” political program allying capital and labor, under the leadership of a strong executive. De la Roque and some of his associates entered the government of Marshal Philippe Pétain after the armistice in June 1940, Borotra taking the junior ministry for sports. His goal was to gradually phase out professionalism in sports. Well, say what you will about this idea, he was soon disappointed by the regime’s pro-German (and pro-Nazi) orientation and joined the Resistance, as did de la Roque. They both were arrested and deported, with de la Roque dying soon after the Liberation, and Borotra returning to his beloved Basque country. He competed well into his 50s, actively promoted sports programs, and died at nearly 100 just a few years ago.

Crazy century, the 20th, and the 21st is starting off pretty wild too. However, people in France do not know much about the paradoxes and contradictions of the political currents of the 1930s and 1940s, nor do they in Spain. For many, history is a blank slate, begun yesterday — if not today. Lately, French sportswriters tried to revive the spirit of the Four Musketeers by dubbing “new musketeers” the team of Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Gilles Simon. However, it is not clear any of them even know the circumstances of the original group, let alone the ur-mousquetaires, the ones Richard Lester invented.

Excuse me, I mean Alexandre Dumas, whom Lester admired.

In case you are interested, you can play tennis in the Luxembourg Garden, not far from a place where d’Artagnan meets the three musketeers to fight successive duels, having let his hot temper get him into a triple jam. No comparison with getting into a situation where you have to overcome three match-points. There is always another match, but if you lose a duel, pff. Monfils, the last musketeer standing at Roland-Garros this year, blew three match points yesterday before finally beating an exhausted David Ferrer, and he goes up against Roger Federer in the quarters, the latter having defeated his friend and compatriot Stan Wawrinka in a masterful three-setter.

Fortunately, the hated Cardinal’s Guards arrive and suddenly it is the famous four against an entire patrol. And, as we know — but do we? — from then on, it will be one for all, all for one. This scene is very well done in the Lester film, but there is no harm in going to the book.

The current generation is strong, though they lost the Davis Cup final to Serbia last December, and there have been strong performances also by Marion Bartelli and Caroline Garcia, but both fell to lean and hungry girls (Julius Caesar, I.1) of the Russian steppes.

However, the Russians better beware of Francesca Schiavonne, the defending champ, who won a great match Sunday against a tough Jelena Jankovic, and the small but mighty Na Li, a beautifully deft player who advanced yesterday against Petra Kvitova.

Richard Gasquet beat Roger Federer in Rome a few weeks ago, but he was overwhelmed by Mister Tennis, Novak Djokovic on Sunday. With Gael Monfils it seems to depend entirely on the mood he is in at any given moment. The truth is that with Rafa Nadal meeting Robin Soderling in the quarters, we are heading for semis with Nadal, Murray — who came back from two down against Viktor Troicki yesterday and needs one more today — Djokovic and Federer. Nadal is chasing Borg, Djokovic McEnroe.

Rafael Nadal, is off his game, according to the smarty pants, shaken in his famous confidence and laser beam precision by his losses earlier this season at Madrid and Rome.

And the way Nadal is off his game, they say, is that he is failing “to get the ball off his racquet” as fast and hard as usual.

Technically, what this means is that the strings of Nadal’s racquets are not “biting” into the ball as much as usual when he makes his famous front-faced upward swing, diminishing the velocity of his topspin and therefore the force with which it lands on the other side of the net. There has been some finger-pointing at the balls furnished by Balobat, a French company. If this were to suggest some kind of anti-Nadal scheme, it would be contradictory, since he uses their racquets.

However, in the Gallic way of thinking accidents do not happen.

Absent evidence my answer to this is a Bronx cheer. A few years ago France’s best football (I mean soccer) player was lured into committing a foul during the crucial last minutes of a final, and got himself ejected. Entrapment by the cunning Italians? Provocation, rather, as we see occasionally in basketball with hard fouls designed to draw out a blatant that leads to ejection. (They enjoy football, I mean soccer, here and it is a safe best more folks are aware of who won Barça-Man U than Nadal-Ljubicic.)

However, it takes two to tango and this is one reason they say the game is mental; you are supposed to rise above provocation. Of his first two, difficult matches, Nadal said that his opponents played fine tennis and neither the balls nor the wind (which was rising even as the temperature dropped toward the end of the week) had anything to do with anything; Nadal is not a man of excuses. He crushed Ivan Ljubicic yesterday, meaning he croaked two Croats in a row, and he is ready for the mighty Soderling, who wiped the court with the man who speared Mardy Fish, Gilles Simon.

I do not see how you can even talk about plots in this situation, or any other notorious situation. By whom? Africans in the Bronx? New York’s finest? What is in it for either? Nicolas Sarkozy, da man himself? People are not that sinister. There is a certain anti-Sarkozism going on in this country, which seems to really have more to do with some visceral dislike for his style than for his policies. He is cynical, or appears such. So was the Cardinal — but in the end, d’Artagnan knows he is working for France’s interests.

It will be an interesting week. Novak Djokovic is showing some strain despite being his usual suave self, when he is not being a ham. He complained about the creeping dusk as he closed out the first set against his friend Juan Martin del Potro the other day, but the umpire was not having it and insisted they play on. The “joker”, as the French call him, not only for the consonance of his name but for his habit of making fun of other players as well as himself — a habit he has curtailed, possibly due to warnings by the PC police — was perturbed enough by this and by some overloud fans to drop the second set, at which point it really was getting dark and play was suspended. He finished off “Delpo” (I do not make up these nicknames, they do) the next day, and then shot down Gasquet, and he will meet Roger Federer in the semis some time this week, because Federer is playing his best tennis this year and ought to go deep — very deep.

Which figures. Accidents, called upsets in sports, happen, not conspiracies. Conspiracies ain’t but another word for doing yourself in. It is always hard to live up to the exploits of your ancestors, I pointed out to a French observer who was clearly unhappy at the way Djokovic was demolishing Gasquet in the third set.

C’est un cas,” he said. “C’est dans la tête.”

“The past is not dead,” I said. “It’s not even past.”

“Not bad,” he allowed.

“I’ll say. It’s Faulkner.”

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