Soaking It Up

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 /by

ChinoTENNIS Magazine associate editor Sarah Unke was at Roland Garros for the first time this year, on a four-day trip with a tennis-tour group. Following are a few of her first impressions of Roland Garros and Paris in springtime.

Hi Steve,

In just over a day in Paris, I’ve seen plenty of impressive things: the Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, and the Jardín des Tuileries. It’s one of those places that actually does live up to its hype. The feel of the city, quiet and yet vibrant, is what has struck me most. Tiny cobblestone streets are just around the corner from loud bars filled with soccer fans. But there are three things that stick out most: the architecture, the women, and the food.

The architecture. Coming from New York, it’s amazing to see a city with no skyscrapers. One thing I notice, and maybe it’s because I’m not familiar with the city, but every building seems to fit. Even the department stores match their surroundings—they look like mini-mansions with mansard roofs from the outside.

The women. Parisian women have something, it’s hard to put my finger on what, that the rest of us don’t. First, they’re well dressed, they don’t wear too much makeup, and, worst of all, they don’t look like they’re trying at all. Besides that, they emit a certain quality, maybe it’s confidence, that’s alluring. Now I wish I was from Paris (not a small town in Minnesota).

The food. There’s nothing like a Parisian sidewalk café. With all the seats facing out to the street, you can eat and even drink while people watching. The service may be absurdly slow, but the food is worth waiting for.

Now, as I await my first visit to Roland Garros tomorrow I wonder how my impressions will carry over into a tennis tournament. The U.S. Open, the only other Slam I’ve attended, is like a mini-New York. The grounds, crowded and loud, with advertising everywhere, evoke the madness of Times Square. Tourists walking the streets of New York during the U.S. Open dodge buses plastered with tennis stars. And U.S. Open fans, like New Yorkers, are boisterous and passionate (this has been confirmed: a German woman I sat next to on the plane was returning from her first visit to New York. Her impression: “It was loud”).

I’ve been blown away walking around Paris by how little the French Open is advertised here, which is to say, not at all. I only saw two hints in the city center that there’s a tournament going on: I noticed a man carrying a white shopping bag with the “Roland Garros” logo on it, and shortly thereafter I walked by a bar that was advertising “2 Semaines de Tennis” in chalk next to a drawing of a cute girl serving. But that’s how the Parisians seem to like it.

I’ll see tomorrow if this noncomercialized, yet vibrant Parisian attitude is also a part of Roland Garros. I’m expecting the tournament, like Paris, to have guiltily good food, impossibly beautiful women, and stadiums with style, not to mention great tennis. I'm headed out for some decadent fondue (jealous?), but I’ll let you know if Roland Garros, like the U.S. Open, is as incredible as the city that hosts it.

First Timer
No music on the changeovers? But this is a Grand Slam, a main event. No, we’re not in New York anymore. As expected, Roland Garros is very different from the U.S. Open. In New York, the grounds are sprawling. Here, all the courts are packed in together—you never feel like you’ve wandered out to the boonies to watch a smaller match. There are a ton of food options at the U.S. Open—pizza, Mexican, sushi, crépes—but here at Roland Garros there are a bunch of locations of just one restaurant, "BAR & Cie," throughout the grounds. The brand hawkers sweat it out in shorts and T-shirts in New York. Here they wear uniforms with bold stripes or polka dots in the colors of the products they’re selling and crisp white pants. In the U.S., a Goodyear blimp floats overhead and gets credit every time a shot is viewed on TV. Here, a camera rides back and forth on a zipline to get the aerial views. While ads line the courts at the U.S. Open, here there are also red flowers, which, even though they blend in, are a beautiful addition. It’s the details that make Roland Garros special. It’s smaller-scale in the commercial sense, but that puts the focus on the tennis, which I saw a lot of on Sunday.

It was great to watch live tennis on red clay. The surface is so pretty, yet so physically grueling for the players. The match that sticks out most (and that I stuck with the longest) was the five-setter between Andy Murray and Jonathan Eysseric, a 17-year-old Frenchman (he turns 18 on the 27th) playing his second Roland Garros.

In the March “Next” issue of TENNIS, we named Eysseric tennis’ "Next Heartthrob." He fits the bill, in my opinion. And his game isn’t bad to look at either. His favorite surface is clay, and you can tell. He’s short by pro tennis standards, but his muscular legs move him around the court quickly. He has the heavy topspin strokes that work best on clay, along with a solid backhand slice, sharp-angled forehands, and nice touch at net. I was most surprised by the way he was able to mix his strokes up during points, combining hard, flat shots and heavy topspin and even net approaches. One thing he did struggle with was his down-the-line stroke off both wings. It almost seemed like he hit it into the net more than he got it over.

The match was back and forth, which is more understandable for Eysseric, a newcomer playing his home Slam for only the second time, than for a Top 15 player like Murray. Much like Eysseric’s down-the-line difficulties, Murray, the master of the junkball, couldn’t hit a drop shot. He missed no fewer than five that either hit the net halfway down or hit the clay before they even got there. The worst part: He kept trying it.

It was hard to tell by the crowd that Eysseric was French at first. There was no “Allez Eysseric,” only “Go on Andy” from the Brits. But once the match heated up and Eysseric took the lead in the second set, some French cheers spread throughout Lenglen Stadium. Clapping filled the court and pushed Eysseric to win the third set just after he took a medical timeout to get a rubdown on his calf.

After that, Eysseric lost steam. He stretched his legs here and there and hit tons of unforced errors. The more experienced Murray got a little more pumped up and closed out the fourth set seemingly as soon as it began. In the middle of the fifth, spurred on by the crowd's fits of clapping, Eysseric found some fire to take a couple of games, but Murray won in the end.

Still, Eysseric played his first five-set ATP match on the opening day of his second Roland Garros. I get the sense that in a year or two Eysseric might have the wherewithal to close out a match like that and get further. This is the kind of loss that a young player can walk away from feeling proud.

Soaking Up The Tennis
The thing I’ve been looking forward to most since I bought my plane ticket to Paris is seeing Rafael Nadal win his 22nd straight match at Roland Garros, but the weather intervened. The drops fell randomly at first, then more steadily, leaving Nadal in the locker room, and me under an umbrella in Court Chatrier. The tarp team made their appearance not long after and the clay disappeared for the day under dark green plastic.

I did see get to see some tennis before the rain, though. In his first match at Roland Garros since 2005, Argentine Guillermo Coria faced Tommy Robredo. Coria is making the long march back from a ranking of No. 1497, after being as high as No. 3 in the world in 2004. Though Coria was a finalist here in 2004, No. 14 Robredo was the obvious choice to win the match. Still, Coria made it interesting by capturing the first set. Other than a long ponytail that hung down his back under his backwards cap, Coria looked good. He seemed fit and had no trouble covering the court.

I joined the match at 1-1. The third set wasn’t much to watch—Coria double faulted a game away to go down 1-4, missed a chance to break Robredo, then was broken again for the set. It looked like it was pretty much over, but I decided to stick with it.

The fourth set, when Robredo should have been closing, started with five breaks of serve. But Robredo’s difficulty was my gain, as I got to see real glimpses of Coria on clay. He has heavy strokes and good variety, and he was most successful when he approached net. But he couldn’t get his unforced errors under control, hitting plenty of shots well outside the singles sidelines. He let the match disappear in a blur of double faults and out-of-control ground strokes.

At 3-4, Robredo took control, breaking Coria and winning the next game for the set and the match. On match point, with Coria serving to stay in the match and the French crowd yelling, “Cor-ee-ya,” (clapclapclap), “Cor-ee-ya,” (clapclapclap), Coria hit a second serve 3 feet long—a not-so-subtle sign that, mentally, he still hasn’t regained his footing. Now, at No. 604, he’s come halfway back from the abyss, and a big part of me hopes that this was another small step towards regaining his top form.

Following Coria was Venus Williams, another player looking to regain the form that, just a few years ago, made her nearly indomitable. For Venus, the match against veteran Israeli Tzipora Obziler was an up-and-down three-setter in which Williams’ blistering ground strokes alternated with unforced errors. Venus—and her almost impossibly long legs—eventually fended off the feisty Obziler. Maybe Venus knew something we didn’t, because it was precisely the moment after she aced her opponent on match point that the drops began to fall.

I waited under my umbrella in the stadium court for a while trying not to give up hope. An hour or so later—wet and bored—I decided to wait it out by running around the grounds. That’s when I found the perfect spot to spend a rain delay at Roland Garros—“l’espace animations,” a large underground room with games for kids and the stringing station. Once inside, I gravitated to the throngs of 12-year-olds huddled in one area. Their preoccupation? A bunch of PlayStations set up with Top Spin 3. I got in line right away. When I finally got a controller in my hand, I played as Maria Sharapova against Monica Seles. All the service motions look like the real thing and the strokes, especially the backhands, look realistic. But playing it, especially as someone who has never been much for sports video games, wasn’t easy. I had the serve down, but when I was returning, almost all of the balls either hit me (er, Maria) in the stomach or bounced past me. Seles beat me in the end, but playing a new video game was a good way to take my mind off the disappointment of missing Nadal at Roland Garros. There’s always next year. Maybe I’ll watch him win his 29th straight.

See you back in New York,
Sarah

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