Stan—Ready to Be the Man?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008 /by

SwFor the first week of Roland Garros I'll be exchanging emails with TENNIS Magazine senior editor Jon Levey, who's in Paris to cover the tournament.

Steve,

Looks like my lament about a watered-down Sunday schedule raised the ire of the tennis gods. I’ve been punished with a waterlogged Tuesday. Unfortunately I hear the forecast for the foreseeable future includes some varying degree of precipitation. My GustBuster umbrella is the best thing I’ve brought on this trip.

I’m frittering away the time in the covered press seats at Chatrier staring at the puddles on the court’s tarp blinking back at me. This afternoon, when the grounds crew came to sweep the water off the tarp, they got an ovation from the sparse crowd braving the weather and hoping for the slightest bit of action.

The French faithful are anything if not hopeful. Perhaps they're not as tortured as Chicago Cubs fans, but they’ve had their share of disappointment. It was big news the other day when a French film won the Palm d’Or (1st prize) at the Cannes Film Festival, the first time that has ever happened. I couldn’t believe that. You would think there would be some home cooking once in a while. There's none in tennis either, as it’s been 25 years since Yannick Noah won the men’s title, the last homegrown talent to do so (I have trouble counting Mary Pierce). Tsonga and Gasquet both withdrew with knee injuries, with the former needing surgery. When I was here in 2005 I remember thinking that with the embarrassment of talent the French have it won’t be a question of if, but how many Davis Cup titles and Grand Slams they would capture. It may still happen, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it didn’t.

There’s a morning show here that’s broadcasting live from Roland Garros. The first day of the tournament they had Tatiana Golovin in studio (also out with an injury), and in one segment she was asked to diagram on a chalkboard the match point she would play to beat Mauresmo in the final to win the title. Talk about optimism. Although the next morning the reigning Ms. France was on (and how) and did the same thing, so it’s probably more joke than delusion.

It’s funny you bring up McEnroe and the ’84 Final. I took the metro this morning instead of the press shuttle from my hotel because for some reason every time I take it the driver has been playing Pink Floyd’s concert album, A Delicate Sound of Thunder. I thought I liked David Gilmour’s live rendition of "Run Like Hell." Turns out when I hear it, I want to do just that. On my walk from the metro station to the courts, there’s a long mural commemorating the 80th year of Roland Garros. There are pictures of all the great champions and moments that have taken place here. One picture is a wonderful shot of the ’84 trophy presentation. Lendl has this outsized, toothy grin of disbelief and joy while McEnroe stares blankly into the abyss wondering if he could run like hell out of there.

Do you have favorite Roland Garros memories?

For some reason Lendl is involved in a few of mine. Hard to forget that match against Chang five years later in ’89. Chang’s theatrical cramping, the underhand serve, and his total disrespect of Lendl by creeping up to the service line to return Lendl’s serve late in the match. When I recently saw clips of the match (YouTube, what would we do without you?) I thought Lendl handled the situation with more restraint than I remembered. Like he knew he was destined to play a foil in this teenager’s improbable run.

Thanks for updating me on the television coverage. Speaking of which, I was returning to my hotel after Day 1 in the shuttle and sat next to a Tennis Channel commentator who claims you’ve given him the business in your blog. Sounded like he wanted to go medieval on you. But anybody who wants to make a living on television has to accept criticism as part of the job. And you wouldn’t be doing yours if you gave him a free pass.

I caught a little of Eurosport’s coverage before heading to the courts this morning and they were replaying the Federer-Querrey match. A British team of analysts were providing the coverage and at that point in the match assessing Querrey’s game. My favorite lines, as only the British can deliver:
“Querrey was born in San Francisco and lives in some place called Thousand Oaks.”

And

“The Americans don’t exactly have a conveyor belt of talent coming up now, do they.”

In between the heavy bouts of rain I did manage to see some tennis. I started with the newest member of the men’s Top 10, Stanislas Wawrinka, who took on Philipp Kohlschreiber on Court 7. These guys are basically mirror images of each other, from their stout one-handed backhands down to their matching red Adidas shirts. Stan just has a little more power and comfort flattening out his ground strokes, while Kohlie (as his box, and now me, call him) moves and defends a bit better. Today, power and aggression won out. Wawrinka was getting the upper hand early in rallies and was pushing Kohlie all over the court. When Kohlie tried to return the favor, he couldn’t do it as consistently or effectively. The way he’s hitting the ball at the moment, I doubt anybody wants to play Wawrinka. If things play to form he’d meet Federer in the quarters and I have a hunch that being a deferential Swiss, Stan might fall on his sword.

During the first rain delay a fellow journo asked me, “Did you see Soderling play?” As you know that’s not normally a question we ask each other. His matches are hardly eye candy. At that point Soderling had unlucky 13th seed Juan Monaco down two sets. “He’s just killing the ball,” the writer continued. So I went to Court 2 to catch most of the third set. Not since perhaps Fernando Gonzalez have I seen a player hit his forehand as hard and heavy as Soderling did this afternoon. Every time he set his feet he absolutely bombed it, and he wasn’t missing. His serve was no picnic, either. According to my metric math (dicey, at best) he was hitting first serves around 135 mph, and his second serve at 115 mph. He had Monaco completely on his heels, chucking his racquet, and muttering all the way back to Buenos Aires.

Soderling mashed a player who coming into this tournament I thought would be a tough out. Monaco managed only six games in three sets. There’s no way that Soderling can realistically play at this high a level for seven matches. But on a day like today, is he the type of player, even on clay, best suited to beat Nadal? There’s an old tennis saying (that I just invented): A 135 mph serve on clay is still a 135 mph serve. And we’ve already touched on that hammer he calls a forehand. Attempting to outlast Nadal in a best-of-five match on clay is suicide. He just burrows down in his bunker on the baseline and won’t stop fighting until his opponent submits. Perhaps someone like a Soderling who won’t engage Nadal in protracted rallies and instead opt to let it rip at every possible moment has the better odds, long as they may be.

My day ended with something I do at every Grand Slam I attend: watch Marat Safin. Do you think Safin has a run at a major left in him? For some reason I think he does, but not at Roland Garros. The grinding matches take too big a toll on his glass psyche. Today he was up against Jean-Rene Lisnard, a 228th ranked qualifier, who I saw on the practice courts on Saturday and admittedly didn’t think was a pro. Lisnard is a wee one and he plays like a poor (older) man’s Olivier Rochus. But little guys give Safin trouble and when the match was halted by rain in the third set, it was tied at one set apiece.

Safin usually has a motley cast of characters in his friend’s box and today didn’t disappoint. There were a handful of guys, dressed almost entirely in black. One looked like Russia’s answer to Wilford Brimley. During a changeover he leaned over the railing that surrounds the court to bark something at a ball kid, who practically wet himself before running away. A few games later, after Safin had tied the match by winning the second set, another guy in the group starting giving a third a backrub. Not sure what they would’ve done had Safin actually taken a lead.

Then the skies opened up and play was called for the day. I find the grounds hard enough to maneuver when spectators are in the stands, but when they’ve got umbrellas out and are scrambling for shelter it’s human gridlock, a total fire hazard. Say what you will about the size of the U.S. Open, at least there are spots you can flee to for some sanctuary from the crowds. Plus, access to the side courts is more available and with better sight lines. You can’t really walk by a court here and steal a glance at what’s happening inside for a point or two.

So I never got a chance to see Odesnik yesterday. Or Baghdatis. The courts were mobbed. Maybe next time.

That’s all for now. Here’s hoping for some dryer weather and more matches.

Jon

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