In this week's Rally, Joel Drucker and Steve Tignor talk about what they’re missing at Roland Garros, and whether Rafael Nadal’s commitment to winning it so many times has elevated the tournament’s stature.
We’ve reached an unfortunate milestone: The first Grand Slam tournament to be postponed and possibly canceled since World War II. Over the last week, we’ve heard the same sad refrain from people across the tennis world: “We would be in Paris right now!” Seeing the photos of Court Philippe Chatrier with its sleek new roof only makes the absence of Roland Garros in our lives sting a little more.
What have you missed most about the tournament and the city? In the past, after a couple of weeks in Paris, I’ve found myself wishing I could stay for the summer. The city’s busy beauty—the narrow, winding streets; the neat, colorful cafés; the skyscraper-free skies—starts to sink in and stops feeling foreign to me. One year I had a hotel room with a balcony where I could sit and see everything from the Eiffel Tower on the far left to Sacré-Coeur on the far right—that was a tough view to give up when the tournament was over.
There’s also nothing like joining the stream of excited fans who rush toward the gates at Roland Garros each morning. The ushers—I always picture them in their red blazers of yesteryear—urge us to “Avancé! Avancé!” over and over, but there’s really no need. As we move through the line, we can hear balls being hit inside the grounds, which only makes us want to get to our seats that much faster.
What would the game be like without Roland Garros, and without red clay? This year we don’t have to imagine those terrible possibilities; we’ve lived them out over the last two months. I’ve always loved that tennis is a sport of surfaces; moving from hard courts to clay to grass gives the game texture and diversity—in literary-theory terms, it decenters the game. Is there any other sport that can boast three different versions of itself?
To me, the clay version of tennis, with its mix of artistry and physicality, may be the most appealing of all. The first time I came to Roland Garros, I was amazed to discover how much of the red-clay game I had missed on TV. You really need to be up close to appreciate everything that goes into a clay-court match, and the gladiatorial atmosphere that it creates in an arena. You need to hear the way a players’ shoe scrape across the dirt when they slide to understand the effort that goes into every rally.
What I’ve missed most about Roland Garros so far is the people who fill those arenas. The French crowd endures its share of criticism; Americans think they’re too harsh, too judgmental, too quick to boo, to quick to jump in and try to influence a match. And they can be all of those things. But they also make tennis more dramatic than it is in other places. I always feel like there’s more at stake at Roland Garros than anywhere else in tennis outside of Centre Court at Wimbledon. And that’s because the audiences in Paris care enough to make it feel that way. Officials at the French Tennis Federation are insisting that, if the tournament is played in the fall, there will be socially-distanced spectators in the stands. Let’s hope they can make it happen. RG, as much as anywhere, is about fans.
What have you missed about Roland Garros, Joel, and are you a clay lover like me, or not?
Nothing more than Roland Garros shows how global and diverse our sport is. You are so right that TV hardly does justice to both the texture and the challenge of clay. The rich orange color, the challenges of movement, the raw physicality of it all, the way the players’ socks get dotted with clay—it's amazing to witness the struggle up close.
There are two times of day I miss most at Roland Garros. It’s captivating and tranquil to enter a field court at 11 a.m. for one of the day’s opening matches, easily being able to find a seat a few feet from the court. With the stands far from packed, players and spectators alike are settling in, uncertain what kind of energy is about to bubble up.
So in this sense, it’s all rather elemental and low-key. Absent tremendous crowd noise, the viewing experience becomes more contemplative, akin to watching two friends at a local park. Taking in the tennis this way gives me a chance to calmly and deliberatively study the players and their skills—and often, on these courts, players I may never have seen in-person. To be sure, in a great many cases, these early day matches are rather routine. Or, more accurately, seemingly routine. For as I’ve seen when watching two world-class athletes compete versus one another, every match requires effort, a battle of high-quality skills, the brick-by-brick layering of points into games into sets. This construction-like dimension is even more vivid on the clay.
My second beloved time at Roland Garros usually takes place between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., that wonderfully evocative time of sinking sun, long shadows and grand drama. Both the field courts and the big stadiums are by now likely packed. Fans have been on-site a few hours and might well be sweaty, hungry, a bit buzzed and by now quite vocal. A women’s match has entered the third set. A men’s match is in the fourth, one guy seeking closure, the other keen to extend. Might there be an upset in the making on Chatrier? A seed beginning to melt down on Lenglen? Contemplation has given way to immersion.
Steve, is there a time or place you most enjoy at Roland Garros? What are some French Open moments you’ve most enjoyed?
Days are long at the French Open in May and June, when play continues without a break from 11:00 a.m. until nearly 10 in the evening. In the U.S., the tournament has a reputation for being leisurely; all we see on TV during lunchtime are empty seats in Chatrier. But I’ve always been impressed by how early the stands fill up on the outside courts at Roland Garros. It can be hard to find a place to squeeze in out there, no matter who is playing.
My RG love started with start with my first visit, in 1998. I saw a teenage Marat Safin lose to hometown favorite Cedric Pioline in five epic sets. “Ced-reek!” the crowd in Chatrier chanted in unison, and then clapped three times together; I’d never been part of a tennis audience that was so unified. Halfway through the match, Ronaldo—the original, Brazilian Ronaldo, who was in town for the World Cup—showed up with Anna Kournikova. The fans in Chatrier gave him a standing ovation. As a good American, I had only a vague inkling of who Ronaldo was at that point, but somehow that only made the moment more magical. I felt like I was getting a chance to spy on an alternative sporting universe.
Since then, I’ve been happy to live in that universe for a couple of weeks each year. I saw Safin again in the Bullring in 2004; this time he pulled his shorts down after winning an incredible point against Felix Mantilla. It may not have been proper tennis etiquette, but it was the proper reaction to that rally, which was one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen live. It wasn’t a coincidence that it happened in the Bullring; everything was intensified in that small, circular, now-defunct arena.
Over the years at RG, I’ve seen Serena Williams and Virginie Razzano play a 12-deuce final game; Gael Monfils and Fabio Fognini almost start a late-night riot; Richard Gasquet break French hearts in Court Suzanne Lenglen and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga do the same Chatrier; Simona Halep face her demons and finally defeat them; Roger Federer make Paris delirious with joy by ending Novak Djokovic’s win streak in the 2011 semifinals. None of those moments would have been as memorable if they had been played somewhere else.
More than anything, of course, I’ve seen Rafael Nadal win a lot of matches in Paris over the last decade and a half, despite never being the crowd favorite—not once. I’m sure some people have come to find his domination dull, and many believe he’s taken the suspense out of Roland Garros. I’d say the opposite is true. To me, his dedication to winning the title over and over and over has only enhanced the tournament’s stature. If Roland Garros does happen in September, we can be sure that all eyes will be on Rafa again. Right now, it’s hard to think of anything more amazing, in any sport, than his 12-title run. It’s also hard to think of anything that would be more momentous than if he were to lose there. It’s bound to happen again someday, right? When it does, la terre battue might start to shake.
What do you think of Roland Garros in the Nadal era, Joel? Do you agree with me that he had helped elevate it, even as he has dominated it?
Rafael Nadal's 12 Roland Garros Titles:
Roland Garros was already a big deal among the tennis cognoscenti. But I think Nadal’s dominance has made the event more captivating on a global scale. Sustained success confers star power, credibility, importance—the chance to see Martina Navratilova, Pete Sampras or Roger Federer at Wimbledon, Jimmy Connors and Serena Williams at the US Open, Chris Evert and Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros. From a distance, over the long haul, the repeated wins these folks registered may appear routine, a prolific tally of figures you could share with your accountant. But if you watch the tennis up close just once—rally to rally, point to point—you indeed get the chance to witness the effort required to earn those victories.
To borrow from another sport, I think that was one of the reasons why The Last Dance, ESPN’s documentary on Michael Jordan, was even more meaningful during this sports-deprived period we’re living in. At a time when so much action has vanished—no live sports—we have come to occupy a world of isolation and constant conjecture, analysis, prevarication, commentary about commentary. Talk, talk, talk. This is so different from the vivid, authentic pace and flow of sports. So in the same way that it was engaging to relive how Jordan and the Chicago Bulls actually had to win those games versus Cleveland, Detroit and Utah, it’s exciting to see Nadal battle as only he can.
Nadal’s Roland Garros reign has also globally legitimized his brand of forceful, baseline-based tennis. Before him, Roland Garros had often been the province of specialists. The three men who won the title before Nadal were attrition-based, niche players such as Gaston Gaudio, Juan Carlos Ferrero and Albert Costa. But, in some ways like Borg, Nadal has used clay as a launching pad for enhancing his skills and going on to conquer the world. That too takes Roland Garros—Nadal’s primary hunting ground—into a new orbit of cultural significance.
My most memorable Nadal Roland Garros moment came when I was in the Tennis Channel commentary booth during his 2013 semi versus Djokovic. It lasted four hours and 37 minutes, Nadal winning by the epic score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7. This was the kind of effort that once again proved why Nadal is the one tennis player I would have play for my life. Darn thrilling to have been able to see tennis’ ultimate matador up close so many times.