Sunday at Suzanne's

Sunday, May 29, 2011 /by

Fs PARIS—I’ve talked Chatrier and I’ve talked Bullring. Now that the tournament is down to two arenas, it’s time to talk Lenglen, the mid-size stadium that often feels like the spiritual and sonic French heart of Roland Garros. I spent a sunny and at times epic Sunday there.

***

Something, after three hours, has happened.

Fabio Fognini and Albert Montanes have been hitting balls back and forth from 11:00 A.M. until mid-afternoon. The scattered, quiet audience inside Court Suzanne Lenglen has observed it mostly at a remove. They’ve sat back in their chairs, behind their sunglasses, feet up, hands folded. Young women keep their heads down and punch at their iPhones. Old men unfold the newspaper and read. Children slump in their seats. The crowd has no rooting interest in these two players, one an Italian, the other a Spaniard, neither of whom does anything special with the ball, and neither of whom has enough game to elevate himself above the other. Most fans are marking time in the bright sun until the big event of the day, Frenchman Gael Monfils versus David Ferrer, which comes up third on this court. Naturally, Fognini-Montanes goes five sets, and naturally, the fifth set, in which there is no tiebreaker, goes past 6-6.

Now, as I said, something has happened to make the young women and the old men look up from the paper and the iPhone. Fognini, a highly combustible drama king, has apparently decided that the afternoon needs some livening up. He usually gets around to this quite a bit earlier, sometimes as early as the second point of the match. Last year at Roland Garros, he waited until it was almost dark to get rolling; against Gael Monfils, and in front of a crowd of screaming teenagers, he spent 15 minutes arguing with whoever was in front of him that it was too dark to keep playing. By the time he was through with his rant, it was too dark to play.

Today Fognini has taken nearly as long to get around to what he does best—riling up the French—but again it will be worth the wait. Serving at 6-7, 15-30, two points from defeat, he tells the chair umpire that he can’t move. They talk back and forth, until she finally takes the odd and perhaps unprecedented step of getting down off the chair, walking over to him, and telling him to sit down on the sideline. Fognini is attended to by a tour doctor, who rubs his left leg. The crowd is roused now. They sit up straight. They don’t like this. Fognini says he doesn’t know what the problem is, and mentions the word “cramp.”

Whatever it is, the Italian walks back out, and to a rising chorus of boos and whistles, holds serve to stay alive. At the next changeover, he has his leg worked on again. The crowd doesn’t like this either. When Fognini serves at 7-8, the match appears to be over. He can’t run. He can’t bend. He seems to have thrown in the towel—he’s called for half a dozen foot faults, yet doesn’t bother to move his front foot back. All Fognini can do is hit the ball. Which, despite facing five match points in his next two service games, he does better than he has all match. Fognini stands still, bails on the topspin that he has probably hit since the day he picked up a racquet, and swings for winners. It makes for the best tennis of this four-hour match. As with Andy Murray the previous day, Fognini's injury has paradoxically freed him to play the kind of tennis he likely plays when he’s fooling around in practice, which is almost invariably excellent tennis. So frustrating: We're at our best when we don’t care; we hit the ball the way we know we can when we have nothing to prove.

Throw in a let cord on one match point, and another that goes for a winner a few points later, and you’ve got a Fognini Special at the French Open. When he wins, as we knew he would, he walks slowly to the net, half-defiantly, half-sheepishly, soaking in the boos.

"It was a complicated match," Fognini says afterward.

***

Francesca Schiavone and Jelena Jankovic offer a strange matchup, of two people as similar as they are different. They’re both tennis players, both fighters, both women who will turn around and viciously vent in the direction of their player boxes. Yet from up close they seem to occupy utterly different psychological worlds. I can't explain it any better than that, except to say that they were destined to go the distance today on Lenglen. Here are a few still lifes, of these two players—two sides of the same coin—and the scenes they created today.

***

Many pros grunt, but Schiavone makes a sort of harsh music out of hers. On most forehands today, she lets out an “Ah-hee!” On backhands, its becomes an “Ah-hey!” At times, when she’s stretched or in the middle of a crucial point, she just goes with a straight-ahead, “Aaaaaahhh!”

***

A skinny ball kid, in green, runs fast and takes a huge wind-up before rolling the ball to a colleague. Too huge, it turns out. The ball flies out of his hand and a few inches from Jankovic, who is about to serve. She turns to him and laughs.

***

The two players, both at the net, engage in a volley exchange. Jankovic’s last shot finds the sideline. She smiles and hops up and down. Schiavone turns around and pretends to shoot herself in the head.

They do the same thing again a few games later. This time Schiavone comes out on top. She finishes with a short leap and a fist pump. Jankovic ends bent double, her ponytail hanging near the clay.

***

There’s noise behind Schiavone as she sets up to serve. She turns toward, holds up the ball, and says, “You wanna play?” A few minutes later, there’s noise from her own player’s section. It’s a young girl who is sitting with her team and waving at her. Schiavone begins to turn around with a scowl, sees who it is, and gives the girl a big smile.

***

Two women in the fifth row, likely in their 20s, sit back and take in the sun. They’re ushers in the pricey sections at Lenglen. Both have long black hair and are wearing the same orange top, high white skirt uniform. Both stare at their iPhones for a few points, then look up for a few. On one of them, Schiavone lets out a shout and does a little Leather Tuscadero-style finger snap. The girls look at each other and laugh, then start clapping.

***

Schiavone is a mix of the graceful and the barely controlled—you might say makes being out of control look graceful. At times, she appears ready to fall over after a big ground-stroke, yet her arm movements, especially on her backhand, have an elegant snap to them.

The pleasure, playing-wise, of watching Jankovic is in her side-to-side sliding scrambles, and in the solid thud she makes when she connects on a high backhand.

***

Pascal Maria, conspicuous in his umpire's chair in a bright red sweater, watches Jankovic vent. She yells into the air, in his direction, and raises her hand in protest. When she turns around to walk back to the baseline, he smiles.

***

There are five cameras visible at court level: One in the far corner, three near the net, two more in back. All of them swerve and rotate and move constantly, like gigantic one-eyed beings.

***

As the sun goes down, the wind dies. The light is golden, the clay a deep red. The flags at the top of the stadium don’t move. The match is poised, 2-2 in the third set. Each player has dominated one set, but neither has played any rally with less than maximum intensity—it’s been a dogfight.

In the third, though, each player goes through a period of struggle. When Jankovic drills a wild backhand into the net to go down 2-3, she looks tired. Schiavone is pumped up. But it’s the Italian who plays poorly when they get back on court, flipping two weak drop shots into the net. Then, just as Jankovic seems destined to win, it all turns around again. Schiavone breaks. She hops, swaggers, struts, and flicks her hands up as she walks to the sideline. The crowd roars. It's 5-4.

***

The stadium is full. A girl who works in the press room pops her head out and finds an inch of space to watch the last game. The pigeons that float through the stadium stand at attention on their favorite tower at one corner of the court. The ball kids make their last run and set themselves in their positions. A shadow has begun to creep across the far side of the court.

Up 30-15, Schiavone double faults and begins to yell at her team again. Then she yells at herself. The Italians in the press section giggle at whatever she’s said. At 30-30, she serves and volleys. A Jankovic lob is long. When it touches down, Schiavone pumps her arms and legs like a maniacal child. On match point, Jankovic has an open look at a backhand pass. She pulls up on it tentatively. Schiavone hits another volley. Jankovic’s lob floats, tamely, wide. The Italian smiles from ear to ear at her team; they're on their feet. She owns Paris again. Jankovic drags herself up to the net to shake hands. Her team, one row behind Schiavone's, files out.

The announcer bellows, “Francesca Schiavone!” She lies down on the clay, kisses it, and rubs it for good luck.

A second later, the ball kids in green are running around the court again. There’s another match to come in Lenglen. The main event of this Sunday hasn’t even begun.

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