One more report from Our Sartorially Resplendent Correspondent in Paris
There is one big reason for preferring the French Open over Wimbledon—the weather is better. It does rain at Roland Garros, as it has on and off today, but it almost always stops and enables some play to take place.
The problem at Wimbledon is that when it rains, it too frequently lasts all day and ticket-holders have little to do but wander the grounds. That is, of course, worsened by the fact that any rain at all puts the hallowed grass at Wimbledon out of commission because officials live in fear that a decent downpour will end play for the day. Here, the courts drain well and the weather almost always co-operates to allow some play. There is rain in the forecast for the next six days, but there is also sunshine so things will probably turn out just fine.
Today began with Justine Henin's press conference, and it was odd to see her sitting in the main media room behind the same microphone she has been seated behind so many times after winning matches. She looked the same and sported her Adidas top, with what looked like an illegally large "three stripes" down both shoulders. The rather bombastic president of the French Tennis Federation, Christian Bimes, insisted on introducing her in a bit of an excessively gushing speech. Then it was Justine who talked about her retirement, saying about the setting, “It was here that I experienced my most beautiful 'sensations' (feelings) and here in this room that I shared with you my greatest moments of happiness on the tour.”
She said a lot of interesting things, among them that it was already in her mind a year ago, when she won her fourth title here, that it might have been her last Roland Garros.
“I didn’t retire because I’m not happy,” Henin said when asked about her health. “I’m really 100 per cent in everything in my life. It’s just the fact that for me it’s time to move on.” She also said, in English, that she can now talk about tennis with a smile on her face because she was worried that, if she had waited six months or a year more, she would have had regrets about not having stopped soon enough. “I’m really proud to retire as the No. 1 in the world,” she said, “and I think that was important for me. It’s really my personality to do that.”
She revealed something of her state of mind after losing 6-4, 6-0 to Sharapova in Australia when she said, “When I came back from Australia in January, I was injured in my right knee. I can tell you, and to be honest, I really hoped that I would have surgery and that would give me a long break. I wasn’t brave enough to say, at the time, ‘I need to be away from tennis.’ Finally, we did this cortisone shot and it worked pretty well on my knee.”
Henin also said that after her 6-2, 6-0 loss to Serena in March in Miami, “My first thought was to go home and hang up my racquets. But I wanted to battle a bit more to get to the bottom of everything. I don’t regret having gone through the last few months. I feel I really reached the end of my voyage and my adventure. Technically, I have not forgotten the game, but the problem comes when there’s less passion, less desire, when there’s this huge fatigue that you have to overcome.”
One of the more intriguing questions involved her career-long coach, Carlos Rodriguez. Asked if he might someday coach someone else, she answered, “He said in the press conference last week that he would never coach anyone else, a top player, because what we lived was something unique and something that would be hard for him to live with someone else.” But she hedged, saying, “If one day he’s telling me that he wants to coach someone else, of course I’ll be 100 per cent behind him. I have so much respect for him.”
Finally, Henin stayed true to herself and didn’t waver or give a non-committal answer about whom she would like to see succeed her as champion. “I think Kuznetsova can make it, and that’s someone I like and appreciate a lot. So, I probably wish that it would be her in two weeks.” It appears it will not be Justine giving her the Russian the trophy if she wins. Henin said that in her conversation with Bimes there had been no discussion about her returning to present the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
The other interview of the day involved another former multiple champion who is almost retired, Gustavo Kuerten. Asked about whether there was still pain in his troublesome, twice-surgically repaired left hip, he said, “Yes, when I sleep, when I sit (laughing). It's really difficult. But now it’s one more, maybe one more day or maybe three or four (of playing). I don't know what will happen. But I think it’s been hard for me, especially the routine for the practice every day, one after the other.”
Kuerten hopes that once he stops playing, after this event, and very likely after playing Paul-Henri Mathieu tomorrow (third-match up on Court Philippe Chatrier), the hip will improve. “I’ve tried working out different ways and wasn’t able to get first, pain-free, and second able to get myself in a good level of competition.”
Guga’s best memories in tennis come from the memorable round-of-16 match in 2001 that he won 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-3, 6-1 against Michael Russell after saving a match point. “It wasn’t even a final or one of these matches that—I had more important matches in my life,” he said. “But that one, somehow, it got me really great feelings about the game. This happiness inside that you, sometimes it’s difficult to explain. Now you remember it.”
That, of course, was the match after which he drew the famous heart in the terre battue, something he does not plan to do in his farewell appearance here, which even he implied will probably be tomorrow against Mathieu. “Hopefully, I can come up with some nice ideas tomorrow,” he said. “But I think I should not try the heart again. That time was unforgettable so it’s better to let it like that.”
Under a white cap with his name and some publicity logos on it, his curly locks bunched out. He was asked which, of his many hairstyles, had been his favourite. “I think I like this one with the big hair,” he said, gesturing to his head. “I think that’s the one that the people get more, remember me more.”
Kuerten’s media conference livened up the traditional (cancer) charity day when tennis fans come for a nominal fee and watch practice matches, which were frequently interrupted by rain. On Court Philippe Chatrier, Gasquet lost a set 6-4 to Tommy Robredo, Nadal beat Michael Berrer, Federer defeated Andy Murray 6-3, and Alize Cornet handled Karin Knapp before persistent rain fell.
This sartorially resplendent reporter – we shall not reveal whether or not Steve’s description of me involves some use of sarcasm – got sidelined early in the afternoon when he ran into a player he knows who was going to the Nike house, located in an impressive home a five-minute walk behind Roland Garros in the exclusive 16th arrondissement.
The Nike people could not have been more pleasant, greeting, offering drinks and then getting the player a bag full of clothes for Roland Garros – shirts, shorts, practice T-shirts, warm-ups etc. The player will go nameless but it was quite amusing to see him trying on all these shirts and shorts and attempting to figure out whether they were too tight or too lose. He definitely went for the tighter, more streamlined look. There was also a pair of grass court shoes with the special nubs on the sole to be used for the grass-court season coming next month. While he was there, Donald Young and John Isner stopped by for their bounty and later Gael Monfils also arrived.
There was a unique dining table in the rented house. It was made up of a round piece of thick glass set on top on a big ceramic urn full of dramatic large flowers. It was very decorative, but would you want to see large flowers starring you in the face every evening while you’re having a meal?
I missed Federer-Murray but saw Gasquet play earlier against Robredo. I was surprised how Gasquet did not hide his disappointment with himself when he missed shots, including kicking a Perrier bottle toward the trash bin near the umpire’s chair during one change-over. It doesn't bode well for Gasquet's Roland Garros and any hopes he has of breaking out of his doldrums. By the way, yesterday I mentioned that L'Equipe Magazine had a story analyzing Gasquet, featuring a photo of a Lacoste cap with no one inside hovering above the Court Chartrier. Reading the article last night, it was all about the symbolism of Gasquet wearing the backwards cap. L'Equipe writer Franck Ramella did the usual thing of quoting his L'Equipe confrere, the venerable Philippe Bouin, who wrote about Gasquet’s insistence on wearing the backwards cap under the headline “growing up” a couple of months earlier.
Ramella described Bouin’s article on April 17 as, “a veritable lynching of the cap in the public place in the name of strongly defending a (Bouin’s) theory—disguised as a child, Gasquet doesn’t want to grow up and will never get to the top rung of tennis.”
Roughly translated, Bouin wrote, “If appearances don’t actually create courage, they can create respect, even fear. It is not an accident that nature has furnished the majority of male mammals horns and other headdress.”
Gasquet's response? “Foutaises” (ridiculous)
After watching Gasquet, I went for a walk, all the way to the far side of Suzanne Lenglen – not quite the far side of the moon but a genuine hike from ‘downtown Roland Garros.’
First, Maria Sharapova was on Court 7 practising with Michael Joyce. When they first came out, each placed three balls in the middle about a yard inside and parallel to the baseline, each about a yard apart. It soon became clear that they were trying to hit them and in about their 10th rally Maria pinged a ball and clenched her hand and forearm in a gesture of satisfaction. They picked up the pace and Joyce soon was saying as if he was surprised, “I’m really trying to hit them (the balls). This rally keeps going up.” Soon pops Yuri Sharapov called both to the net and was, with strong hand gestures, lecturing (mainly Maria), seemingly on some fine point of tennis. When he finished after a minute or so, Maria and Joyce walked back to the baseline and picked up the three balls. They were moving on and so was I.
I passed Tamarine Tanasugarn signing autographs for about 10 people and then stopped by the Court Suzanne Lenglen, arguably the best in tennis in terms of great sightlines – the 10,000 seats are wedged up close to the action and that it creates a terrific atmosphere.
Virginie Razzano was playing a practice set in front of a crowd with Stephanie Foretz. Razzano – pronounced RATS-ZANO in French – has a Roddick-type abbreviated serve motion. Actually, it is not much more than raising the racquet in the air, wiggling it a bit, and slapping the ball. She was doing fine with Foretz – ahead 4-0.
On to Court 14 behind Lenglen in the wilderness, Nadia Petrova, looking more physically solid than formerly, was practising with Patty Schnyder. Walking around the court like he owned it, and as if he had done too much drinking and smoking the night before was Schnyder’s Charles Manson look-alike husband.
Next door on Court 14 were the Bondarenko sisters. If you’ve seen that suggestive reclining picture of Alona in the K-Swiss ad in Tennis Magazine, you will not be disappointed at how attractive she is in person. A little further along – pretty well at the far end of the grounds, Guillermo Canas was practising with Brazilian qualifier Thomaz Bellucci, a tall, lefthanded guy who was hitting the ball very impressively. A Brazilian reporter said Bellucci, who has already had some knee troubles, is that country’s best prospect. More people will know about Bellucci on Monday or Tuesday when he plays Nadal in the first round. He doesn’t have much chance but it looks like he can hit some shots, so there could be some fun points.
Just behind them on Court 17 there was the unlikely duo of Ivo Karlovic and Fernando Verdasco hitting together. Les baches (the covers or tarpaulins) covered the court around suppertime, and there did not appear that there would be any more tennis on the day, though lots of people still were wandering around the grounds.
The best indicator of that were the TV screens in the media room – they had already replaced today’s practice matches with the line-ups, on eights courts, of Sunday’s opening-day matches, starting with Ivanovic versus Arvidsson on Philippe Chatrier at 11 a.m.
It’s now time for a little French cuisine and a few glasses of wine tonight before the 15 days of tennis madness begins tomorrow.
Au revoir et merci.