Winning on the Road

by: Steve Tignor | May 29, 2014

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Even without looking at the TV screen, you can tell a French Open audience by the particular sounds it makes. Most famous are the rising cries of “Allleezzzz!!!” from the peanut gallery, but more often the fans come together to make a distinctly unified and severe set of noises. The crowd in Paris may rise sharply in a burst of celebration, rouse itself into a storm of boos and whistles at a perceived injustice, or drop quickly into a sullen silence. Whether you love them for their passion or loathe them for their intrusiveness, no one makes the sport as dramatic as the audiences at Roland Garros. Only in Court Philippe Chatrier have I ever felt like a tennis match might turn into a full-fledged, chair-smashing, court-storming riot.

This morning, walking around my apartment, I could hear that familiar Chatrier roar from my television set before I turned to look at it. One point would be followed by sounds of joy and hope, the next by a disappointed hush—the French sound sad when things aren’t going their way. This time the crowd was obviously rooting hard for someone; I assumed it was one of their own. When I started watching, I was surprised to see that their flavor du jour was Dominic Thiem, a 20-year-old Austrian. How many people in the audience had seen or heard of Thiem before today? No matter, they were firmly on his bandwagon. It's understandable. The kid, as his opponent would say later, “has everything.”

But while they may have liked Thiem’s one-handed backhand, that wasn’t the biggest reason they were rooting for him. They were rooting for him because of who he was playing: Rafael Nadal. The world No. 1 may be an eight-time champion at Roland Garros, but his earliest nickname in Paris was “The Ogre,” and the image among tennis fans in France has stuck. Even more amazing than Nadal's 61-1 record in Paris is the fact that virtually every match he has played there has been the equivalent of an away game in team sports.

Why do the French dislike their tournament’s greatest champion? The reasons are various.

First, as his uncle Toni once said in rather pointed fashion, he’s Spanish. 

“They say it themselves and it’s true, the Parisian crowd is pretty stupid,” Toni said after the crowd in Chatrier cheered vociferously for the only man to beat Rafa there, Robin Soderling, in 2009. “I think the French don’t like it when a Spaniard wins. Wanting someone to lose is a slightly conceited way of amusing yourself. They show the stupidity of people who think themselves superior.”

In the years since, Yannick Noah’s comments about doping among Spanish athletes hasn’t made the climate for that country’s most famous tennis player any more welcoming in Paris.

Then there’s Rafa’s playing style. The French love artistry in their tennis; Ilie Nastase and Roger Federer are their gods. Literally—I’ve heard Federer referred to as “Jesus” at Roland Garros more than once. And they loved the footloose bohemian panache of the great male champion before Nadal, Gustavo Kuerten. (One of the few times I’ve seen a crowd root for Federer’s opponent was when Kuerten beat him in Chatrier in 2004). By comparison, Nadal, at least in the eyes of the French, uses a physically bullying style to grind opponents down. The fact that Nadal the Ogre has beaten Jesus Federer all five times they’ve played in Paris has only added insult to injury.

The Roland Garros crowds love to insert themselves into matches; they turned the 2004 men’s final in Gaston Gaudio’s direction by interrupting play with the Wave, and they had a big effect on two young U.S. women this week, Taylor Townsend and Alison Riske, when they faced Frenchwomen in Lenglen. In 2005, they rained boos and whistles for seven minutes when an 18-year-old Nadal played French veteran Sebastien Grosjean in Chatrier. Yet Rafa won that match and has kept winning since.

In fact, looking at the record, you might conclude that the French have had the opposite of their desired effect on Nadal. At 61-1, Rafa’s record in Paris is the best of any player at any Grand Slam in the Open era. Ironically, it was Federer, distracted by their oohs and aahs in Lenglen, who screamed at the crowd to “Shut up!” two years ago.

Have the French actually helped Nadal dominate their tournament? Rafa has always said that “you have to love the suffering” to be a great champion; you have to learn to ignore adversity, whether it’s physical or emotional. For he and his uncle, outlasting an opponent, and enduring an oppressive situation, has always been at the heart of their competitive approach. You could see it today in the way Nadal reacted to the challenge of playing a young up-and-comer like Thiem, in front of a crowd that was for the underdog. It was hardly a coincidence that Rafa played one of his best and most focused matches of 2014.

Yet I think the way Rafa has thrived in Paris also shows how fundamentally different he is from Toni, and how that difference helps him. This was Nadal's answer to the French-crowd question after his loss to Soderling; it's pretty much the opposite of Toni's.

“This tournament is so important,” Nadal said, “such a beautiful tournament for me. Well, that’s the way it is. But I wish when I’m back they can support me a bit in key moments.”

Nadal has said that while he has obviously learned a lot from his uncle, his personality is more like his (less-famous) father Sebastian’s. Rafa describes his dad as his family’s leader, a positive and upbeat force who counters Toni’s black-sheep moodiness—a winner, in other words. You can see some of that personality in Nadal’s look-on-the-bright-side reaction to the French audience. There’s a reason, beyond physical skills, that Rafa became the player that Toni never was.

Whatever the reasons for it, Nadal’s story in Paris is a remarkable one. As far as I know, the French haven't booed or hissed at him for a while, and they even sang "Happy Birthday" to him a couple of years ago. Should they take the next step and finally embrace their eight-time champion? It would be nice—and who knows, it might even make Rafa drop his guard and lose a match or two. But I get a kick out of the Rafa-at-RG dynamic. I respect, in a perverse way, the crowd’s stubborn consistency in giving Nadal the cold shoulder. And I respect Nadal’s record there even more because of it.

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