by Pete Bodo
You thought I was kidding about following the French players right to the bitter end, or at least Saturday (when I leave for Paris), right? No way. Venus Williams was clobbered today by Agnes Szavay. Who cares? Of course, Szavay is my Hungarian countrywoman, but I don't want that to get around, it might destroy my reputation as an ignorant, insensitive, war-mongering, Europhobic American!
Well, Szavay is a nice kid, and why should I care how well Venus does on clay, when I'm not really sure she herself cares a whole lot? I say let's get back to the French. After all, the reactions to the Hear Me Roar post were generally so favorable, both in the Comments and via email etc., that it made me realize that either I'm just one muy talented hombre, or I happened to hit on a particularly interesting subject.
Much as I'd like to go with option A, I must confess that slumming in Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda land - focusing on the early round losers, and particularly the French losers at the French major - has taught me something. It's also made me buy into all that Vogue magazine hooey about the the mystique of French women like never before. Is there a more diverse, mystifying group of women out there?
For the record, I always knew that Virginie Razzano's father was a magician, and sure I thought that was interesting - up to a point, and in a whimsical kind of way. But until this week, it's unlikely that I really would have been very interested in Their Ginny's "personal journey" on red clay (Our Ginny, of course, was the tabloid nickname bestowed on Virginia Wade the year she improbably won the Centennial Wimbledon; I guess if any other nation comes up with a quality player named Virginia, it's just going to have to be That Other Ginny, and that's what you get for being third).
Reading Razzano's last transcript makes me think the unthinkable: this French girl could go far at Roland Garros. I mean, it's like she's channeling Andre Agassi, and nobody thought he would ever win the French Open, either - not after he blew those two early-career opportunities in such ghastly fashion in early 1990s. There's always hope, at least for those who care.
Anyway, here's what Razzano said when a French reporter supportively informed her that he felt she had found a way to adapt her game, which he described as an "attacker's game," to the red clay:
"Well, it's got to do with maturity, you see. It's quite simple to me. When you start accepting the fact that clay is not your enemy but your friend, as I said yesterday, that's when you start thinking more about things. That was my case. (Early this year) I thought, now, it's going to be two months on clay again this year, whereas this time you're going to look in a more positive way.
So what did I do about it? Well, I said, there's no choice, and your game is a game you can adapt to all types of surfaces. So why not? You can play well on clay with the type of game you have So that's when I started practicing and working more on my clay game at home. That is, the pallet (sic) of shots I could play with: Sliced shots or also moon balls and forehand, backhand, dropshots.
Now, you see, the other player moves more into the court. With the Spaniards it's very important, because usually they like to stay behind the baseline. I worked on my serve, as well. It's very important to have a first ball on this surface. It's more important than on any other type of surface. What else did I work on? Fitness, to be more solid behind the baseline, to resist in a better way and to accept longer rallies if this is something that has to happen."
Razzano took a little break to let her audience digest all this, and then she added: "I'm a fighter. I want to go as far as I can and win. But, you know, as far as pressure is concerned, there's no pressure, because, you know, playing here, Roland Garros, is not something that all players can do.
What's good with me is I'm a professional tennis player, and therefore, I can play the four Grand Slam tournaments. These are the most important ones during the year. So I try and seize all these opportunities that I can share with a French public, and I think it's quite pleasant. . ."
Now, isn't that just. . .nice? A few things to note here, and the first one has been a surprisingly common theme in the early rounds:
1 - Plenty of French (and, presumably, other nationals besides Americans) have issues with red clay, too.
2 - Razzano makes a good point by stressing the importance of getting in the first serve in red clay; in general, two of the most overlooked aspects of the clay game are the importance of taking control of points and also the benefit of being willing to finish points. I think Steve Tignor touched on this in his latest blog entry as well. I hope Razzano pulls Gael Monfils aside and makes these points to him, but more about that later.
3 - How counter-intuitively wonderful is it to hear a French player talking about what a pleasure and joy it is play at Roland Garros?
If Razzano represents the good, Alize Cornet must be emblematic of the bad (as we all know, there is no "ugly" in France). Cornet is ultra-talented, but I get the sense that she could go the way of Richard "Baby Federer" Gasquet (except for Peruvian Marching Powder stuff). I couldn't make heads nor tails of the presser she held after blowing a huge opportunity to make the third round - with a Caroline Wozniacki (rather than, say, a Jelena Janovic) waiting there. Cornet lost to Sorana Cirstea, who's outside the Top 30 and had exactly one Roland Garros win under her belt before this year. How did Cornet describe a performance that can only be called pitiable (she won just five games)?
"Well, I think it has to do with the stress. I was so stressed before I started, it probably used some of my energy. When I walk on the court, I'm a bit stressed, and, you know, you waste a lot of energy before the match. I started off well, and all of a sudden at 2 Love, I really felt weak. My legs were not strong enough. So is it something that has to do with my physical condition? Is it something that has to do with my stress? I don't know. I don't know. But that's weird."
Note to Alize: You may not know, but you'd better find out, gal-up, and deal with it.
But let's not be too tough on the girls here - did you catch Gilles Simon's remarks after he played a disappointing match and went down in straights to Victor Hanescu? You know a guy's clutching at straws when he starts complaining about the expectations of the press, and today Gilles said (in response to a fairly gentle question about whether he was "thinking" too much):
"Yeah, but my results, as I said, are not as bad as you might think. So, I mean, you guys have other types of expectations this year. You know, this year, making the third round in Roland Garros is just normal for you, whereas last year you would have found it fantastic.This also has changed."
Okay, Gilles, we get it. You had a great year last year. But that was then and this is now, and you yourself wouldn't want it any other way. So Simon (and the intriguingly named Josselin Ouanna) are out, too, leaving the following French men in contention: Paul-Henri Mathieu, Gael Monfils, Jeremy Chardy, Marc Giquel and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Monfils was asked the other day about the Roland Garros Effect (aka Mauresmo Disease) and he gave an interesting answer:
I mean, actually, I'm just thinking about the new generation. Every time we said French, but the new generation, I think we did pretty good. I mean, every time we try to pass one round. I think about like Mathieu Montcourt. Every time he win a round. I mean, at least it's been all right. Josselin has been not too bad. He played very good. Jo now, and like Chardy also. So I mean, the new generation is always playing all right, I think, in the French. I don't really know about the others. I was too young. But, I mean, us, the new generation, wasn't too bad. Every time I think we made a good job.
Well, I'm not entirely sure I buy that, or that I even know just what he means, but Monfils certainly has held up well under whatever pressure the Roland Garros Effect entails. He's also been working this injury thing this year to point where it's a little weird, getting a lot of mileage out of a bum knee that he says doesn't really bother him all that much during play. Call me a cynic, but there's something coy about the way Monfils has allowed this issue to remain alive, and I don't like the way it builds in a nice excuse for when Monfils loses. It's not good for Monfils himself.
But I also must say Monfils has been pretty cool and charming about it all. He's been sharing all the secrets of the work they're doing in the body shop, part of which involves Monfils encasing his leg in a new machine that then more or less freezes it, from the thigh down. When someone asked him if his knee hurts on the court, he replied, "No, when I'm on the court, no. I'm not an injured player. But then before the match, yes. I think about this. It's different. I look at it differently. There is this new machine I love, really. You know, my leg is frozen all day long, and then I run like a rabbit on the court."
Being able to run like a rabbit is a good thing, but too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and that's where I think Monfils' biggest challenge lies when it comes to any designs he has on actually winning Roland Garros. Given his size, range, power and athleticism, Monfils may be selling himself short by relying so extensively on counter-punching and patrolling the hinterlands far beyond the baseline. The problem can be put pretty simply: with guys like Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and even Verdasco so willing to take charge, it may be that the evolving clay-court game is leaving Monfils behind.
Of course, most of the attention among the French will be on Mathieu, who's got no. 2 seed Roger Federer next. The ground Federer has surrendered over the last 12 months in the intimidation department was nicely articulated by Mathieu, after he was asked if he felt he had better chances than before to beat the world no. 2. He said:
"Well, it's difficult to say. His results are probably not as good as they used to be, because he lost in a final. Well, you know, today we have Nadal. In the past we had Federer for five years. I think they're passing the baton, because Nadal is absolutely incredible, but I'd like to have the same records as Federer.
"No, I mean, in the past, he would almost never lose. Maybe now he loses more matches, even though it's most of the time to Nadal. But it's true that when you walk on the court, you feel you have a chance; but likewise, against Nadal, otherwise it's no use walking on the court."
Okay, there' s a fair amount of hemming and hawing in there, which can't exactly be described as confidence. But that tug of opportunism at war with the brake of realism (and the respect Federer has earned), is what most good players feel now before a match with Federer, rather than a simple, queasy feeling in their tummies and the urge to vomit. But Mathieu's tentative analysis also shows the way most players today are on guard about coming up too timid and missing the boat. This is the time to beat Federer, they sense, while it would still be an upset heard round the world. Consequently, I imagine they come into matches against Federer more aware, alert and prepared, because challenging the icon no longer seems an act of futile impertinence.
Well, I was hoping to see what Aravane Rezai had to say after downing Michelle Larcher de Brito to make the fourth round, but there's been no presser yet, and I've got to get ready to say 'Dios.
So let's end this on an upbeat note. I don't know of Jeremy Chardy reads TennisWorld, or knows what we've been up to these past few days, but he's certainly acting as if he does. Chardy had a quality win over Simone Bolelli in Round 2, although he blew a two-sets-to-none lead and dropped the next two sets before he sucked it up and put the talented Italian player away, 6-1 in the fifth.
Here's how Chardy analyzed the finish; someone ought to print it out and tack it up above Cornet's bed:
"Then two sets (the third and fourth) went by quickly, and I was really happy at the beginning of the fifth set when I was on my chair. I had lost the fourth set. I thought, stop thinking about what you feel. Start thinking about tennis. It's the one who is going to want to win is going who to win. And at the end, therefore, I was more positive mentally. . . I was a warrior. . . I looked at him straight into his eyes, and then I'm happy to have won the battle at the end of the fifth set.
Sheesh, I thought he was going to reveal that after he looked Bolelli in the eye, he bellowed: "Go ahead - make my day. . ."