Do you call this tournament Roland Garros? That’s what its directors would have you say. I’ve never been sure why. As far as I know, it was originally the facility that was named for the World War I French aviator, not the event itself. It’s always seemed a little weird to me that you can play or attend someone—maybe far off in the future people will say, “Steve Tignor is the toughest tournament in the world to win.”
I like “French Open” myself. It’s easier to understand, and it's grander. I’d even say it’s one of the sport’s most tersely evocative phrases. To an American, it sounds much more exotic than our plain old asphalty U.S. Open. Plus, the idea of French tennis is right there in the name. Anyone who has ever loved the sport—and the various ways it can be played—has almost certainly loved to watch at least one player from France. The sport seems less like a competition to many of them than it does a possibility.
For evidence, click above to see the seemingly impossible, as well as the completely counterintuitive, done on a routine basis by the most eccentric of all French tennis eccentrics, Fabrice Santoro, who just made his final appearance at Roland Garros (“Fabrice Santoro” would make a fine name for a tournament someday, don’t you think?). I’m not going to break down all of the points gathered there. I’ll just say that Santoro was a student and enthusiast of the game as much as he was a player, and his mischievously infectious love for tennis—for its possibilities as a performance—is what I’ll miss most when he hangs up the wand for good this summer. My favorite memory of the Magician didn't come during a point. On a side court a few years at Flushing Meadows, the 34-year-old Santoro was visibly tired in mid-game. He finished one point near his water bottle on the sideline, so he took the opportunity to pick it up and have a sip. He kept his eye on the chair umpire a few feet above him as he drank—it was clearly a time violation. But that's just what Santoro loved about it. He scanned the audience and gave us a conspiratorial grin as he drank, looking for all the world like a little kid not getting his hand caught in the cookie jar.
Fabrice memories aside—they can wait until another Friday, I suppose—we have more urgent business to attend to, namely what’s happening over this long holiday weekend at Roland Garros. The middle weekend at the French and U.S. Opens always seem like the dog days of the tournament to me, long hours when the two weeks begin to find their shape and personality, when players who looked promising to start begin to drop by the inevitable wayside, when the chaff separate from the wheat—or is that the wheat from the chaff? Anyway, here’s a quick breakdown of the match-ups to watch.
Nadal vs. Soderling
Rafa doesn’t like Robin, and he went out of his way to show the world that by wiping the clay with him 1 and 0 a few weeks ago. This one might be interesting for the personal animosity. And Soderling might threaten for a set. An aside: Has Nadal looked abnormally subdued so far? Is he enjoying it as much as usual? I got the feeling he wasn’t having much fun the two times I saw him play in Madrid, even when he was winning.
Davydenko vs. Verdasco
Two solid players in good form. Which one wants to get to Nadal in the quarters? The Russian has won four of their five encounters, but they haven’t played since 2006. I’m thinking Verdasco, who hasn’t dropped a set, has the edge. This is one I want someone to broadcast.
Murray vs. Cilic
The Scot has been living a little dangerously so far, coming back to steal sets from both Starace and Tipsarevic. He doesn’t look confident so much as unwilling to lose, but some of the old mopey anger has resurfaced. Murray is 2-0 agains Cilic, who has played surprisingly stellar clay ball this week. It will be a nice test of where each of these guys is at the moment.
Federer vs. Mathieu
The Frenchman knows how to mount a serious, if ultimately futile, challenge to a top player at Roland Garros. He took Andre Agassi to five sets and made Nadal work as hard as anyone ever has in Paris in their 2006 four-setter. Not unlike Federer’s last opponent, Acasuso, Mathieu hits a heavy, penetrating ball from the baseline. Federer will have to work for this one. That which does not destroy him may only make him stronger. And Mathieu will not destroy him; he’ll give it away in the end.
Monfils vs. Melzer
Monfils says he’s good for an hour and a half out there. Maybe a time limit will be the thing that finally focuses his mind.
Safina vs. Rezai
Rezai is a high-strung and highly erratic Frenchwoman, who will make this entertaining for the home folks. But Safina has the look, the gravitas, as they say, of a Grand Slam champion right now.
Ivanovic vs. Suarez Navarro/Azarenka
The latter two have split sets and will play the third on Saturday. Either will make a testy opponent for the defending champion. Ana has played her best tennis of the year this week, but I still don’t quite trust her. I want to trust her, but I’m not there yet. A win here would help.
Sharapova vs. Li
La Shriek has returned to find that she has inspired an even louder generation, led by Azarenka and Michelle Larcher de Brito. But the original has given the tournament its best story so far by defeating Petrova and, just when you thought the run was over, coming back to win in three today. Don’t say the woman ever does anything half-way. As a tennis match, this should be an intruiging battle of the backhands.
Woz is the one making all the right moves these days, and looking like a player who can find a way to win, rather than lose. But the Romanian, born two months earlier than the Pole-Dane, is a talent. She moved up quickly, then, as these things happen, she hit a plateau and had trouble dealing with it. But Cirstea may be climbing again. She beat Cornet and will now play the girl she calls her “best friend.” Still, Wozniacki seems like she has the steadier head at the moment.
Serena Williams vs. Martinez Sanchez
I don’t know much about her opponent, but I do know that Serena has a way of making an ordeal of any match, no matter how innocuous it looks on the surface.
Enjoy it. For those of you Stateside, the matches continue on the Tennis Channel, over at NBC, and at ESPN360. If you work in tennis broadcasting and can’t get a gig in Paris this week, you need a new career.
I’ll leave you with a new musical recommendation, in case you really can’t deal with Carillo or Gimel or Navrat the Rat or Leif or my new favorite commentator, Ian Eagle. I'd to give you something appropriately French to listen, but the record that's worked for me the last two days has been Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers. Of course, this Jonathan Richman classic is way out of print and not available on ITunes. So let me quote from its best song, "Roller Coaster by the Sea," the gentlest but most affirming summer anthem of all. It's just right for the 1st of June and those trips to the beach we'll be making soon. They're so close I can almost reach out my Manhattan window and touch them.
I went on the roller coaster last night when I was feeling bad
Down by the sea and I was feeling sad
But we went down, and around, and it knocked me out of my head
Hey roller coaster by the sea, thank you for helping me
Yes, you knocked me out of my head
And thank you, Fabrice. You may not have won them all, but your style rarely failed to knock me out of my head.