Paris —It was an old-fashioned knock-down, drag-out brawl in the red dirt on a bluebird day between two flawed players on one of the world’s most well-conceived tennis courts. It lasted only three sets and a modest two hours and 14 minutes, and when it was over Dusan Lajovic, the pride of Stara Pazova, Serbia, was in the fourth round of the French Open thanks to his 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 win over Jack Sock.
Not bad for a baby-faced, slope-shouldered, 23-year old who had never won back-to-back main-draw matches before this tournament. Not at a Grand Slam. Not at a tour-level event, anywhere. This was just Lajovic’s second appearance in the main draw of a major (he lost to Kei Nishikori in the second round of the Australian Open in January).
By contrast, the 21-year-old Sock seemed a grizzled veteran despite his age.
But little separated these two men in the rankings (Sock is No. 75, Lajovic is ranked 83rd), and Lajovic had brought along the Serbian Shock and Awe Cheering Section (SSAACS) on a court where you don’t need a megaphone to make your voice heard. Folks who are prepared to cheer themselves hoarse are usually relegated to the upper rim of the tennis bowls of this world, but that’s one of the great things about Court 7 at Roland Garros. Hey, nobody said democracy is always pretty.
My work station in the Roland Garros press work room, which is built into the side of the Court Philippe Chatrier, is near windows that overlook the Suzanne Lenglen walkway, beyond which lies Court 7. Sit here for a few days and you realize that while the muffled roar that shakes Chatrier when the spectators are adequately engaged is awe-inspiring, the folks who are really having fun are out on Court 7. At intervals during the day you can hear them singing. . .chanting. . . bellowing “ole!” as the wave goes round and round.
The capacity on Court 7 is a meager 1,559, but over time the tournament promoters must have come to realize that it’s a special place in a way the bunker-like Courts 2 or 3 are not. Perhaps it’s the open-air intimacy of the place. Whatever the reason, an inordinate number of intriguing matches are scheduled on this court.
I wouldn’t say Sock vs. Lajovic qualifies as such, on paper, but the atmosphere at Court 7 has a way of making whatever is happening there compelling, which is about the best thing you could say about what is, after all, just an inanimate structure.
I’ll admit that one reason I love Court 7 is because it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump (literally, up some stairs) from my desk, tucked like a kitten up against the side of its mother, Chatrier. Perhaps so many good matches take place on 7 because, laboring in the shadow of the big house, the players get the message: keep going, keep trying, keep fighting. . . do yourself proud and one day you may make it into my lap.
Seating at Court 7 is open, but for the corner box just behind the north baseline (there’s very little room at the back of court — or at sides, for that matter), which is reserved for player guests and media. There, from 10-feet above the court, you can hear players growling and muttering like Shakespearean actors as they wander around between points, toweling off. And at times you can even hear coaches coaching.
The box faces south where there are no seats at all on the far side; just a fence with the ubiquitous BNP Paribas signage, over which towers the electronic scoreboard in front of four or five trees placed the same, precise distance from each other. They don’t entirely block out the view of the minor courts beyond, so the field of view is deep. The seats on the east and west sides of the court are functional and almost always filled.
My pal Tom Perrotta and I didn’t make it out to our seats until Sock was down a break at 3-4. The SSAACS were already honking it up, chanting and calling out “Duci, Duci, Duci.” Soon “Duci” served for the set. But before he started, an older gent in a yellow baseball cap shouted out, What time is it?” A number of bewildered fans turned toward him. Women hugged their children. I glanced at my watch, just as he shouted, “Break time!”
A moment later, he tried again, and this time two or three spectators gave the desired answer, but with no great conviction. The SSAACS weren’t doing anything wrong, other than irritating the hail out of anyone who just isn’t into the peculiar form of tribalism represented by all that yelling, foot stomping, and chanting.
It wasn’t long before the polite crowd turned on the SSAACS. After Lajovic served out the set his ecstatic minions took their nonsense to the point where the crowd began to boo them — and shower applause on Sock.
The principals, meanwhile, were engaged in fierce tug-of-war, Sock unable to return serve well enough to menace Lajovic, while the latter had trouble handling Sock’s bare-knuckle game, with its wildly bouncing topspin forehands and unpredictable backhands.
“His game was not really fitting for my game,” Lajovic would say afterward. “He plays really big, and goes for the shots. I was not expecting — I was expecting everything. So he can play sometimes a long rally, sometimes he wants to finish the point quick.”
Lajovic’s game is about as close to classic as you can get, as evidenced by his best shot, the one-handed backhand, and fine touch. He moves well and, technically, suffers only from a slight deficit of power. But a brawler like Sock tends to dictate how a match is to be played out, win or lose, and Lajovic did an excellent job responding to that challenge.
The crux of the match was the final two games of the second set, by which time both men were nicely powdered with red dust, and the Kinesio tape on Lajovic’s right arm had started to resemble a Black Racer snake slithering through a barnyard.
In the 10th game, with Sock leading 5-4 (no breaks), Lajovic fell behind 15-40 when he was called for a foot fault. He promptly double-faulted. But he bravely smacked a forehand winner and pulled off the shot of the match on the second of those set points. For the first time on the day, he went serve-and-volley. Sock hit a fine, dipping return that Lajovic took a wild swipe at with a two-handed half-volley that made contact and sent the ball purring back to fall just over the net for a winner. Out of trouble, he finished the game a point later with an inside-out forehand placement.
Lajovic grinned when he was asked about that recovery, explaining: “I don't know how I pulled out that one. I wanted to surprise him, and I just rushed to the net. Then I realized, ‘Oh, I cannot hit the volley, I'm too late.’ Then I didn't really think. I just wanted to have balance, and I took it with the two hands, so I played it unbelievable. I had a bit of luck but it was a good thing to do on set point.”
In the next game, it was Sock who fell behind, 15-40. In the ensuing rally he was caught standing around while Lajovic made a good retrieval, and subsequently drove a rushed forehand into the net. Now it was 6-5, and Sock was unable to break and prevent Lajovic from winning the set.
That was the end for Sock. He kicked off the third set with a double fault, fell behind 0-40, saved two break points and then hit a rally forehand into the net — and the extra ball in his hand up at the towering of Chatrier. It was the closest he would come to getting into that stadium, for he went on to play a lackluster set that Lajovic won with relative ease.
Sock was in no great mood to talk afterward, but he said, “I just think my strengths weren't really clicking today. I didn't serve the best, and forehand wasn't doing as much as I wanted to, which was allowing him to use his strength, which is his backhand. I felt I was doing a lot of the running when it's usually the other way around.”
After the handshake at the net, the SSAACS began an elaborate chant, throwing their arms toward Lajovic, over and over. Curious, I asked what they were yelling. One of them said, “We will win Nadal. . . we will win Nadal.” They were referring, of course, to Lajovic’s next match.
The Serbians are a tight-knit bunch, so a reporter asked Lajovic if he was going to seek advice from his compatriot and Davis Cup teammate Novak Djokovic, who knows a thing or two about Nadal. Again he smiled: “Yeah, I will try to ask everybody some tips against Rafa. You need to have a lot of tips and confidence to beat him.”
So Lajovic is moving on, almost surely up to the big house. I wonder if he’s going to miss the cozy confines of Court 7 once he understands what lies in wait.