Kids' Night

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 /by

Rg Out on the Bullring on Wednesday evening, we closed up shop early. Juan Ignacio Chela started complaining about the light, or lack thereof, a little after 9:00 P.M. At the end of the next game, he asked the chair umpire to stop play. The umpire said there was enough light. Chela asked, not unreasonably, “How can you tell?” and pretended to hand him his racquet. Andy Murray, Chela's opponent, seemed ready to keep going, but agreed to put it off until tomorrow. Too bad: It was a pretty gripping match from my seat in the first row. But then again almost any match is gripping from those seats in the Bullring. More on that tomorrow.

I walked out of that court thinking the day was over, only to be greeted by what sounded like a full house of many thousands inside Chatrier. I jogged over to the Jumbotron outside the stadium to see what was going on. I knew Gael Monfils had been on the verge of finishing off Fabio Fognini earlier. Now, as the din inside rose again, the screen showed Monfils getting set to serve. It could only be match point, I thought. The score flashed; it was 3-4 in the fifth, and Monfils was behind. What was going on in there? I jogged up to the press seats in Chatrier.

There I was greeted by a surprise: The stadium was mostly empty. After a long day of sporadic rain and sporadic tennis, there were scattered pockets of fans and many more empty seats between them. It’s just that those pockets were making as much noise as you get at 10 normal tennis matches put together. The worst, or best, offenders, depending on your point of view, were sitting right in front of the press area. As far as I could tell, there weren’t more than 20 of them, all of them teenagers. It was pretty impressive what they could do with their voices and the backs of their chairs. What were they doing here, anyway? It hit me: It was Kids Day, an annual event at Roland Garros, and it had gone very wrong this year.

Or, depending on your viewpoint again, very right. This, I thought as Fognini lost his mind and the din rose backup one more time, is what soccer is all about. It’s not the sport that counts; it’s the audience. Here were 20 kids, likely not poor kids, who brought an edge of mayhem that you normally don’t experience at a tennis match. They were funny to watch as well. After standing and chanting and banging their seats, they all fell back into them on cue and went silent, just as play was about to begin again. Half the time that they were chanting, they had one eye on the TV monitor in the press section to see if they were on camera. A lot of the time they were.

GmMaybe it was the ominous sense of darkness encroaching, but all hell was on the verge of breaking loose down on court. While Fognini lost it trying to get off the court, Monfils seemed to may have made the mistake of his career staying on it. Fognini appeared invulnerable from the baseline, all the way up to match point, when he suddenly became very vulnerable, gagging the final game away. Monfils, cramping, could only arm his serves by then. Worse, though, was the fact that he had no answer to a guy who is clearly an inferior player. Monfils’ lack of any transition game was exposed; he couldn’t do anything other than try to rip the ball past Fognini from behind the baseline. He’s lucky to be playing on Thursday.

Was it too dark? Not when Fognini began his rant, as far most of us here could tell. But then again, as Chela said, how can anyone know but the players? Monfils wanted to continue, but I’m guessing he regretted that decision a few minutes later.

There was a wild edge to the night, one that, among the Slams, could only happen at the French Open. U.S. Open fans get loud, but since the edgy days of the at least the early 1980s, they’ve lacked the unity of purpose and mob-like viciousness that characterizes the French crowd. There’s something contagious about their reactions; their hisses and boos take on a life of their own, the noise swelling up and filling the air in the stadium before receding just as quickly. Like I said a few days ago, there’s less distance between the players’ actions and the fan’s reactions here than anywhere else. Where else could 20 teenagers raise an unholy ruckus, and make what might have been a mediocre and too-long second-round match into the tennis version of pro wrestling. Except that, as Fognini stood in front of the umpire, waving his racquet up and down, and the French hiss lashed higher, it seemed to me that no tennis match this year was going to feel quite as real, or quite as ridiculous, or maybe even, if you were in the building, quite as entertaining.

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