A Leisurely Ride Into Paris

by: Steve Tignor | May 26, 2008

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Kuertensinglesmiami0831For the first week of Roland Garros I'll be exchanging emails with Senior Editor, Jon Levey, who's in Paris to cover the tournament. Here's his early take on things.

Hey Steve,

Greetings from Paris. Or, as I like to call it, a bad place to get lost. I had the strangest cab ride from the airport to my hotel on Saturday. The cab driver was a sharp-dressed, rather tall African man who drove maddeningly slow. Being from NYC a defensive cab driver is a total contradiction. Similar to an overpaid teacher or an American clay-courter. Plus, he kept rocking back and forth in his chair as though he were about to pass out. Then he got into an incredibly heated exchange on his cell phone, which made his snail’s pace all the odder. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I questioned whether we were actually at my hotel, and he didn’t take it kindly. Turns out, though, the foreigner was right – he dropped me at the wrong hotel. It gave me little solace as I took my bag, and my three hours of plane sleep, on a ten minute walk to where I’ll be calling home for the next week. It was the perfect start to my trip. 

After crashing pretty early last night, I was up with the sun this morning. So I headed out to Roland Garros long before the matches got underway. The grounds were rather empty by the time I got there which is a pleasant way to experience them. The only thing you hear, other than griffe (souvenirs) being pushed, is the thud of balls being struck on the practice courts. With the sparse crowd, there’s no trouble getting up close and watching the players ply their trade in a relaxed environment. I know you’re a fan of the practice court as well.

I started by watching Kuznetsova bash some balls, and herself. She was not thrilled with her performance. Then I made my way over to Venus’ court. She had a full entourage watching while her father, Richard, swept the lines. No joke – he spent most of the time in a custodial capacity. I tried to make out some of the advice he was giving her between points, but to no avail. From there I found Ivo Karlovic and Feliciano Lopez trading ground strokes. They’re primarily known as servers, especially Ivo, but they’ve still got plenty of skills off the ground. They were playing right next to Radek Stepanek who never seems to hit the same kind of ball twice in a row. First a roller, then some slice, perhaps followed by another roller, and finally a flat drive for a winner.  

The trait I find most compelling with all the players I saw this morning is they do a remarkable job of transferring their weight into the shot. Pros don’t hit flat-footed. Ever notice that? It’s a free-flowing swing with everything moving forward. Sure, when time is an issue they have to improvise, even hit off the back foot. But when given the opportunity they lean into it.

The best I saw putting it into action was James Blake. I watched some of his win over Rainer Schuettler on Court 1. Blake throws every inch of himself into his forehand. I have no idea why Schuettler repeatedly tried to test that wing with his serve. It was almost obnoxious how hard Blake would pummel Schuettler’s best fastball.

Right before that match, I took in a little of Nicole Vaidisova’s loss to Iveta Benesova. What’s happened to Vaidisova? In her defense, Benesova played extremely well in the second set. She easily countered everything Vaidisova threw at her and found some terrific angles from the baseline. Still, Vaidisova looks a shadow of the player that got to the semis here in 2006. Her movement was suspect to say the least and she can’t play a lick of defense. She had this helpless grimace on her face as she kept staring over at her friend’s box where her agent sat nervously chewing through his bottom lip. For some reason Richard Williams was in attendance. Perhaps he was “scouting”. Both are not hard to look at and Benesova in particular had on one of those low-waisted, hip-hugger skirts that…oh forget it. By the way, I still love the Bull Ring. It’s up there with the Grandstand as the best venue to watch a match. 

Nice call in your Roland Garros brackets breakdown on the Djokovic-Gremelmayr match. Don’t sleep on the Gremlin. He’s scrappy, awkward (his backhand is as stiff as his forehand is whippy), and is the most evil of all tennis adversaries – a lefty. Djokovic seemed to be frustrated by the combination and was pressing on his shots. His front hip was opening up too early on his forehands, usually a good indicator that a player is overswinging. I thought he did a nice job of tightening up his game by the end of the match. I noticed that designer Tommy Hilfiger (I’m pretty sure) was sitting with the Djokovic camp. Is going all Federer on us?

That was followed by the people’s match of the day, Paul-Henri Mathieu versus Guga Kuerten. Did you catch any of it? I thought Guga had his moments – had great volume on his groan, smoked some gorgeous one-handers up the line, snuck in a few drop shots, and generally showed how he could’ve won this tournament three times. Even broke out a retro multi-colored top that only he could pull off. But his movement and consistent length of shot have been taken from him by those hip surgeries. The fans ate it up, though. The chants of “Guga” after he broke back to tie the score at 4-4 in the second set was the highlight. They still love the guy (not just anybody gets a huge clay brick parting gift) and if he’s going to be bounced out of Paris for the final time, they seemed glad it was by one of their own.  

The day ended with me pondering this question: Is Andy Murray that good? I know he’s an exceptional talent and could beat anybody, but his progression hasn’t exactly been meteoric. Shouldn’t he have made a Slam semi by now? Today he carried around French teenager Jonathan Eysseric for five head-scratching sets. Eysseric is a little lefty with thick legs that unfortunately betrayed him late in the match. He’s so new to the professional landscape that the Roland Garros website didn’t even have a head shot for him to go along with the live scoring. Federer likes to practice with him because he’s a southpaw and hits a heavy forehand like Federer’s chief nemesis, Nadal. But Eysseric reminds me more of a lesser Spaniard with a lesser forehand, Fernando Verdasco. Ironically it was Federer who recently questioned Murray’s passive tactics after losing to him earlier this year in Dubai. At the time it seemed like sour grapes (which it was) but perhaps the analysis has some truth to it as well.

The quintessential Murray moment came at the end of the third set. With the match tied at a set apiece, he was serving at 2-4 and facing another possible break with the score 30-40. In this situation he’s got to hold and make Eysseric sweat a little. That’s what a champion does, particularly against a novice. So what does Murray do? Plays the percentages and dumps a drop shot in the net. “Doesn’t have it between the ears,” was how one British journo sitting behind me put it. Got that right, guv’na. Of course Eysseric dropped his next service game, but the insurance break that Murray gifted him allowed him to close out the set, 6-4. Luckily for Murray the kid suffered leg cramps and he couldn’t move effectively the next two sets which the Brit won easily.

You have to admire the variety that Murray has at his disposal, but it would probably do him some good to play with less of it. I can’t wait for him to introduce his overhead drop shot. I think his defense and counterpunching skills make him unique, but he needs to balance it with a healthy dose of aggression.

All in all the day felt a little watered down. I can probably thank the Sunday start for that. Are you a fan? I know more people are home and available to watch, but it does make for less to see on the grounds. On the other hand it does give you the opportunity of seeing almost everything you want that day, even if there is less of it. Reminds me of how the US Open spreads the first round over three days. That first Wednesday can offer up a suspect schedule.  

Tomorrow we get Roger and Rafa. Let me know what you think. Until then I’m sticking to the metro.


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