Superstition, Rage, Joy, Gloom: Tuesday at the French

Tuesday, May 25, 2010 /by
Kd What did we learn at Roland Garros on Tuesday? Tennis is hard, you say? Here's the rundown of the enraging, the surprising, the ugly, the supersitious, the joyful, and the reckless, hour by hour. Not bad for one day.

10:15 A.M.: Justine Henin, who is due to play her first match at Roland Garros in three years, is hitting against a tall male practice partner on an empty, echo-filled center court. She snaps a forehand return up the line and then cuts across her body with a one-handed backhand for a crosscourt winner. Her hitting partner is left stumbling in a futile attempt to catch up with it—yes, Justine can play with the boys. For some reason, though, I find it hard to believe that she hits it in practice the same way she hits in a match. It’s like wearing your best dress to breakfast.

11:00: Henin returns to Chatrier for her match, to a full press box and a virtually empty stadium. The humidity is stinging, and her opponent, Tsvetana Pironkova, is hitting the ball well. At 3-3, after a few cursory points and games, Henin brings out the backhand and forces a wild mishit from Pironkova. As the ball sails upward, Henin lets out an “Allez!” Pironkova can barely put a ball in the court for the next two games.

Afterward, Henin is asked, “With these two years off, you had some show business; you had transformative moments in the Congo. What did you learn the most in these years off?

“Well, a lot of things,” Henin says, “Just to come off this bubble [of the pro tour], you know, because what is the real world?”

Apparently, she found out. She seems pretty happy to be back in the bubble.

***

10:30: Andy Roddick and Ryan Harrison have taken over center court for a practice session. Only not quite. Also hitting here, on the other half of the center line, is the player who will be Roddick’s opponent in the second match today, Jarkko Nieminen. The two of them are on the same side of the court for most of their practice. It’s a marriage of convenience, of course, but from the sideline it has the feel of the mythic camaraderie of the game’s old amateur circuit.

Who knows, maybe Nieminen picked something up from it. This afternoon he leads Roddick two sets to one before losing 6-3 in the fifth. Roddick struggles mightily through the middle two sets. His mix-it-up baseline game doesn’t get much traction against Nieminen’s aggravatingly steady spin-and-run game. Roddick seems stuck in mud for much of the match, but makes the balls he needs to make in a match-deciding fourth-set tiebreaker.

“Same old clay court,” he’s asked in his press conference, “but maybe a different Roddick out there?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, answering in the only way it’s possible to answer. “There was a lot of ugliness out there today. But, you know, at the end of it, I get to play again.”

***

12:15: The heat feels worse on Court I, the famed Bullring, where Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is pummeling Alize Cornet. There’s a debate, mostly in my own brain, about which are the better press seats here, the ones in Court Suzanne Lenglen or the ones over here. Lenglen’s are directly behind the court and you get the very best players over there—Murray/Gasquet yesterday, Nadal today—but the Bullring’s, which are at court level along the baseline, are more visceral. When a player is returning in the ad court, and standing approximately five feet from you, you can hear the clay scratch under her feet with every little step she makes, no matter how soft.

This perspective, where you get one player in close-up and the other in deep background, makes you realize that at a certain point, when one player has a significant lead, a tennis match splits into two very different matches. When Pavlyuchenkova is in front of me, all is calm and life is going according to plan. She hits heavily and places the ball well, and looks nothing like the lost soul she has largely been over the last 15 or so months. After each winner, the Russian drops her head and walks quickly and quietly back to the baseline to play the next point.

I recognize this reaction, because it’s the same way I react to winning points when I’m playing well. The fist-pumps of the pros aside, you can’t really celebrate a winning point, because you know nothing has been decided yet. The fundamentals of superstition call for you to keep your head down—don’t let fate see your face or remember who you are—and try to do nothing that could possibly change anything about how you feel at this moment. You are allowed to breathe, if you do it quietly.

Everything changes, of course, when Cornet gets to my side. Her body language say that life right now is a disaster that she saw coming, something that could only happen to her in quite this horrid way. Cornet slaps at the court with her racquet, slouches with her hands on her hips and stares into the distance, mocks her own strokes after she misses. When the French crowd begins to clap rhythmically, trying, as a last gasp, to get their countrywoman into it, she looks over to her coach and begins to shake her head sarcastically: “Can you believe them?”

***

1:45: Sam Querrey has won the first set over Robby Ginepri on Court 2. Aside from the trucker’s hat on his head, nothing seems amiss. He’s hitting big high forehands and has won the first set in routine fashion. I leave, and, apparently, Sam snaps, tanks the last two sets, and immediately puts an end to this spring’s excellent European clay-court adventure with John Isner.

“What happened out there, Sam?” he’s asked.

“Um, just tired. Not into it. Mentally not there. Just did not enjoy myself out there. It’s been like that off and on for like a while. So I’m going home tomorrow.”

Querrey says he’s pulling out of the doubles with Isner and heading for California. He’s not enjoying competing. He can’t take it when something goes wrong. He’s stuck in the rankings, and even his titles this year—Belgrade, Houston—don’t do much for him.

It’s surprising that this would happen to the seemingly easygoing Sam Querrey. But what really surprises me is that it doesn’t happen more often on the tour.

***

2:15: Over on Lenglen, Dinara Safina is expressing her distress in a different way. After a double fault, she lets out a primal scream. After another miss, she flashes her coaches those famous eyes, eyes you could put on a pair of stalks. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of those eyes. But they don’t express resolve today, so much as a fearsome vulnerability. In the final game, after blowing a 4-1 third-set lead, Safina suddenly has no fight left. She has gone straight from shrieking to despondent, without stopping off at determined.

The beneficiary of her meltdown is the 39-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm, who reached the semis at Roland Garros all the way back in 1995. Her game, with its short, flat strokes that she takes bizarrely early, is still a marvel. She’d had leg problems through the last set, and she hobbled out to receive serve for the final game. When she got to the baseline, the crowd roared. Date-Krumm gripped her racquet a little tighter and got down into the ready position. This, it was clear, was the moment she’d come back for.

“I hope I don’t play tommow,” Date-Krumm said afterward.

***

4:15: Rafael Nadal makes his French Open debut on Lenglen, the second show court. It feels like he’s opening out of town, trying out the forehand, the knees, and the new clothing kit before taking it to Broadway/Chatrier.

The crowd is conflicted about Nadal, particularly since he’s playing a French kid, Gianni Mina, a Gael Monfils look-and-play-alike who has some bounce in his step and pop in his racquet. The fans begin to hiss as Nadal goes through his usual pre-coin-toss ritual. He doesn’t speed up at all, of course. He takes the extra seconds to have a miniscule sip of water before placing the bottle on the court in just the right spot, all as the crowd's collective hiss rises. When he jumps up and runs to the court, though, the fans are back with him, roaring approval. A little later, Nadal goes through another, perhaps less attractive, of his rituals: Before he hits his first serve of the match, he picks his butt and spits on the court. The gray-haired Frenchwoman in front of me shakes her head in disgust.

Nadal’s way of moving during the match is just as ritualized. He takes very few steps that aren’t choreographed, that he doesn’t repeat every single game. Before he returns, he always wipes the baseline clean with his foot; but you will never see him, like other players, make a random or improvised move, such as dribbling the ball out in front of the baseline a few times before coming back and serving it, or taking a different route to his service position—he does it the same way every time. When you see this up close, you see that, more than any other player, Nadal makes his way around the court without wasting a step. He doesn’t appear to be taking nearly as much time as he does when you watch him on TV—but, of course, he is. Purpose over speed or looseness; it works for him.

That sense of purpose can lead to recklessness during points. Up 4-1 in the first set, Mina sends a perfect lob over Nadal’s head. It’s past him, gone, the point’s over, he should let it go, you’re already up two breaks, dude. Nadal, naturally, tries to catch up with it and slides into the back wall to get it. He manages to flick the ball back over his head and over the baseline, which is more than I thought was possible. In the process Nadal slides into the wall and disappears from view, before returning to the court, unharmed. Recklessness in the pursuit of each point: It’s another of Rafa’s rituals. It may hurt him in the long run, but it’s also what got him here in the first place.

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