The Show Goes On

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The beeps and bleeps from the loudspeakers begin as the players walk from the locker room to the court. There, the crowd is waiting, and lights are flashing and swirling in the darkness. A countdown begins on the big screens above—"10-9-8-7...”—as the beeps turn to beats and the music gains momentum. An announcer bellows the players’ names as they enter, blinking, briefly blinded, into a spotlight, which follows them all the way to their chairs.

Is this a heavyweight fight, a pro-wrestling extravaganza, a duel of the DJs, a Daft Punk show? No, this is tennis, Bercy-style. The tournament, the last Masters event of the ATP season, does its best to give the players a rousing send-off. By most accounts, the facilities here are due for an upgrade—one journalist described the second side court as “scuzzy” today—but there’s no skimping on the show.

Bercy is on the other, less-leafy side of Paris from Roland Garros. I’ve always thought the club noise they pump out at this indoor event is a way of making up for what doesn’t happen on the staid old clay across town. Aside from a pre-tournament dance party inside Court Philippe Chatrier, the French Open offers little music or between-game fanfare. No blaring Britney, no Kiss Cam, no please-look-at-me dancing. The game, and its artistry, is what counts among the well-dressed, well-heeled tennis lovers in the Bois de Boulogne. Maybe that’s why the fans in the cheaper seats at the top of the stadium get restless so often and start the Wave. They have to keep themselves entertained.

Once the music stops in Bercy, though, the crowds are attentive. There’s a noisy energy inside the center court, especially when one of their own is playing. The beat doesn't stop entirely, either—a fan with a bongo drum laid down the rhythm from the front row on Tuesday. French players and athletes dot the stands around the court, giving the event the vibe of a family reunion, a last celebratory gathering of the country’s tennis elite before the winter off-season sets in. It’s no surprise that many French players, including Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils, and Michael Llodra, have saved their best tennis for Bercy.

It’s also no surprise that Paris is the only city that hosts a Grand Slam and a Masters event. As far as world capitals of tennis, only London, which currently puts on Wimbledon and the year-end World Tour Finals, can compete. But men's professional tennis is played all over France; there are smaller ATP events in Montpelier, Marseille, Nice, and Metz (the WTA holds just one event in the country outside of Roland Garros, an indoor tournament in Paris in February). The tours are constantly looking for emerging tennis markets, and constantly sending players off to them, whether the locals want to watch or not. In other big countries, like Germany, the U.S., Russia, and Japan, the game’s popularity waxes and wanes. Interest stays steady in France. When there's a tournament, people tend to show up to see it.

In the U.S., we like to say that the French men can’t win the big ones, and we're right—it's been 30 years since one of them won a Grand Slam. But what they lack in ultimate quality, they make up for with quantity and variety. Currently there are nine Frenchmen in the ATP’s Top 50, compared to just two from the States. More than that, though, the French have a knack for the game’s nuances. It runs in their blood; court tennis, the ancestor of lawn tennis, was invented in France. Perhaps to its detriment, the French Tennis Federation has developed few straight-ahead power players. But from the high-flying theatrics of Monfils and Tsonga, to the baroque backhand of Richard Gasquet, to the all-court polish of Julien Benneteau, to the knuckleheaded flash of Benoit Paire, the French are always watchable—as long as you aren’t rooting too hard for them. Tuesday night we got a look at another young Frenchman, the intriguingly named Pierre-Hugues Herbert (pictured above). The 22-year-old, ranked No. 189, had set points on Novak Djokovic in the first set before losing it in a tiebreaker. 

The steady stream of recruits points in part to the popularity of tennis at the grass-roots level here. The club game thrives in France, and its instructors must pass a more rigorous test than their counterparts face in the States; hence the technical polish on so many of their players’ games. Unlike general-interest papers and magazines in the U.S., France’s national sports journal, L’Equipe, employs a stable of full-time tennis writers. And on the business side, it feels like Babolat and BNP Paribas, France's biggest racquet company and corporate sponsor, have taken over the game. Tennis is entrenched deeply enough in France that the rest of us take the country’s interest in it for granted. That’s a nice luxury to have. 

This year the celebration in Bercy might be a little more muted. Three resident showmen have already departed: Monfils pulled out with an injury, and Tsonga and Llodra lost their openers. Watching today, though, I had the same thought that I usually have when I watch the game from Paris.

It goes something like this: Tennis's international reach ends up emphasizing nationality all over again, but in a different, healthier way. For the most part, on tour, the Americans hang out with the Americans, the French with the French, the Spanish with the Spanish, etc. The same is true in the media. We know each other, acknowledge each other, and help each other when we can. But social groups form roughly around nationalities. There isn’t a lot of time to cross over. 

In my experience and opinion, this is a positive. Tennis brings the world together, in microcosm, and puts it on a year-long journey across the globe, a journey that is now drawing to a close in Bercy. When you make this trip—and you can make it as a fan in your living room—you get a sense of the larger world, which can give you a deeper sense of who you are and where you fit in it. From this point of view, French tennis feels like an alternative universe to me, one with its own history and heroes, even its own emotions. It’s an alternative universe, but not a foreign one; and the differences makes the sport richer. Paris isn't a bad place to end up. May the music and the lights and the show go on.

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