Paris - It’s 1.13 a.m., and I’m thinking about the match I’ve just seen - the last match I’ll see at the Palais Omnisports in 2010. Andy Murray beat Marin Cilic, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, in a contest that started on Thursday in a packed auditorium and finished on Friday in front of almost nobody. It wasn’t the greatest match I’ve seen during my time in Paris - but it exemplified what I’ve grown to love about this event.
It’s astonishing how swiftly the exotic becomes familiar. In the space of four days, it’s become second nature for me to rise early in Le Marais, take the metro to Bercy, walk through the drifts of sycamore leaves to the press entrance, file last night’s writing, and then settle in for a day of tennis. Tomorrow I know that it will seem strange not to hurry to seclude myself in an artifical night, lit by the claustrophobic glare of indoor tennis.
We have different seats today, higher up. The stands below us drop away steeply enough to induce vertigo. But it’s a good view, not only for the greater perspective it affords of the court; I can see things that were hidden before, like the next cohort of ball kids doing stretches and practice rolls with imaginary balls in preparation for their next stint. They limber up with the gravity of ballerinas in rehearsal. That’s one thing you’re never in danger of forgetting in Bercy; that tennis is a show.
No wonder Gael Monfils does so well here. He’s subdued in the first set against Fernando Verdasco, weary and disengaged when the Spaniard takes the set in a tiebreak. It seems that Monfils has had enough. The crowd has other ideas. Between every point, the drums roll out, and instinctively you clap along with the rhythm. When the shouts of ’allez Gael’ ring out on all sides, it’s a demand, not a plea. Monfils, who has stayed on his feet throughout the match and eschewed hiscustomary pushing of the limits of muscle and bone, finally succumbs. He dives, takes a tumble and sits on the court for a moment, chest heaving, performing his exhaustion for the crowd so we can yell for him to get up.
When he finds some thrilling shots out of nowhere to take the second set tiebreak and level the match, the showman is back in force, This is the player they’ve come to see; all roaring and chest-pounding, a flurry of long, gleaming limbs under the lights. A transformation has taken place, and the seductive illusion is that the crowd has effected it. Monfils shares it, for at the end of the match he thanks the public for its support,gesturing as if unable to find sufficient words of thanks. Then: merci, merci, merci Bercy.
The crowd is left drained and dazed by this collective catharsis. But more is demanded of them by Michael Llodra when he takes the court and proceeds to put on an exhibition of free-flowing brilliance against Novak Djokovic. It’s death by a thousand cuts for the defending champion, who's left shaking his head, hands flung up in bewilderment, as Llodra’s delicately angled backhands and volleys slice layers off his confidence. The crowd is loving it, but I’m not. It feels very different when your player is the one who’s being battered to his knees. The drums start to sound tribal, the chants evoke images of a mob baying for blood. Without the fun, it’s sheer brutality.
Perhaps it’s so dramatic because the practice courts are elsewhere and in this one concentrated venue you don’t catch the players wandering through the complex or staying to practice after they’ve lost, as you do at the grass court tournaments with which I am familiar. You’re aware only of the spectacle presented in front of you each day, one which features an ever-diminishing cast of players. You don’t see the camaraderie or the joint practice sessions,you don't eavesdrop on the banter with the coaches. There’s just the combat in the arena, the bright lights and the roaring crowd. It’s gladiatorial, more pure, compared to what I've experienced at Queens or Wimbledon. There, the sense of naked competition is cushioned by soft grass and pin-striped blazers. the various trappings that hearken back to an amateur game - not least the pretence that this is a sport played by gentlemen for gentlemen.
That’s not the sport we see in the last match of the day. Marin Cilic has come to play, his swooping forehands finding lines, his heavy serve thumping into the hoardings. Andy Murray is forced further and further back behind the baseline, relying on his scrambling defense and his own serve to keep himself in the match. It’s an entertaining first set, but the match quickly descends after that into a test of endurance. The two staggering, punch-drunk competitors each struggle to land one more blow as the crowd leaches away towards the exits, thinking of last trains home, tomorrow's work, or simply that this is not what they’ve come to see.
They’re wrong about that. This isn’t entertaining, but it’s the naked heart of what this event is all about. The necessary precondition of ecstasy is agony, from the Greek agon, for conflict, a test: Federer’s sublime brilliance is only half the story made complete by this weary slog. The players take aeons between points as the clock ticks on and past midnight. They plod like zombies, animated solely by the unholy will to win. Somewhere along the line, being the better player is rendered irrelevant. Cilic has made all the shots, played all the great points, but he’s the one who stares blankly into the camera during a changeover when he's a break down in the final set. Drenched in sweat, he looks defeated and appears to be struggling to understand how all his brilliant play has come to this. In his post-match interview, Murray seems equally puzzled, pointing out that Cilic was the better player before adding, “ But I found a way to win”.
This match didn’t have the drums, the chants, the dancing during changeovers; the circus went away, leaving two players battling it out in a widening circle of silence. It was long and slow and agonizing in the truest sense of the word. It wasn’t the high that I wanted to end on. But it was the most salutatory of reminders that the entertainment of sport is rooted in its antagonistic nature; one winner, one loser. One will subdued by another. One player leaving the court, shoulders slumped, barely able to look up to acknowledge the pitying applause; one player who has earned the reward of having to do the whole thing again tomorrow. Even at twenty past midnight in a deserted arena, it’s the best show in town.
I still miss the utter silence, the holy hush that descends on a court at Wimbledon or Queens. But I’m getting used to the drums and the floodlights, too. A tennis tournament really can become your life for a week. I’m going to miss it. Merci, merci, merci Bercy.
And a heartfelt merci to Pete for giving me the opportunity and encouragement to try to share my experiences over these four days - and to all of you for reading. It’s been a challenge and a thrill. Merci, TennisWorld.