This is a special time for the Poles here. John Paul II, the People's Pope, has spent the past four days in Paris, the first papal visit to France in 176 years. And Wojtek Fibak, who has created a one-man tennis boom in Poland, is in the quarterfinals of the French Open tennis championships, thinking he can go further.
"Everybody is telling me that it is a lucky time for me because the pope came," says Fibak, who plays Vitas Gerulaitis with whom he has had differences and bitter words in the past, for a place in the semifinals.
"It just happened that (John) McEnroe lost. He was the top player in my quarter of the draw, and everyone is kidding me and saying it is because I have the pope's blessing. I don't think so, but . . ." Fibak's pale blue eyes sparkle merrily, and his cherubic face breaks into a smile as he pauses and ponders the possibilities of going further in the world's foremost clay court tournament. "I'm playing well. Maybe this is my year."
Fibak, who is probably the most widely known Polish sportsman internationally, is reputedly the pope's favorite tennis player. No surprise there. A little partiality to one's landsman is permissible even at the throne of St. Peter.
When Gianni Ocleppo and Adriano Panatta, Italian professionals, sent the fit and sport-minded pontiff a tennis racket as a gift he sent thanks and said he would like to play sometime, but not so much with them as with Fibak. In fact, he invited Fibak to come to the Vatican to play tennis with him, and perhaps give him a few pointers.
"I hope sometime I can do this. The only thing is, he doesn't have much time for silly things like that," Fibak said Sunday after defeating Australian Apul McNamee, the man who had ousted No.2 seed McEnroe.
"If you look at the world today, there are many more important things to solve than to hit a better forehand . . . But he made his propositon. I know he wants to play, and if he ever sets a date, I would drop out of any tournament in the world, even Wimbledon, I would be there in a minute. As it is now, he's just too busy."
When Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland was elected to head the Catholic church, Fabrak swelled with the pride all poles felt. "For Polish people all over the world, this was probably the greatest news since we were liberated after the war and German occupation ended," Fibak said.
Fibak defeated Italian Paolo Bertollucci with dispatch on Thursday, then hurried to Notre Dame Cathedral, where the pope celebrated mass. Fibak's family -- wife Eva and young daughters Agnes and Paulina -- went to mass that John Paul II celebrated at Le Bourget airport Sunday.
Asked repeatedly here if he has had a private audience with the pontiff, Fibak shrugs and says: "I am not really looking to see him personally. After all, I am an average person, and he is a pope."
Among tennis pros, however, Fibak is not an average person. He is a solid if unexceptional player, currently ranked No. 18 in the world and a renaissance man of uncommonly thoughtful and distinctive personality.
Fibak, 27, speaks six languages fluently: Polish, Russian, Czech, German, French and English. He is an intellectual -- inquisitive, well-educated and informed, a man of cultivated tastes in art, music, literature, performing arts.
He collects modern art and antique books and has set about trying to consolidate the paintings of Poland's finest 18th, 19th and 20th century artists from around the world and return them to Poland.
He also has this dream of opening a school where Polish youngsters could learn tennis, and also study languages, art, history and culture, where he could make a small museum of his books and paintings, and influence and elevate young minds.
Son of a surgeon for Poznan, Fibak is well-known around the tennis world primarily because of his success in doubles with a multiplicity of partners which has earned him a great deal of television exposure.
For six years, he has ranked about 15th in the world, getting as high as No. 10 after a fine 1976 season. He makes a more-than-comfortable living, having earned in excess of $600,000 in prize money the past two years, excluding endorsement and ancillary income.
At 19, Fibak decided to pursue a tennis career instead of becoming a film maker. For two years he combined tennis with studies in law but realized after an eye-opening trip to Wimbledon for the junior tournament there in 1970 that he would have to postpone school and complete full time to make up for a late start and reach the upper echelon of the game.
Having calculated that the 100th best player in the world could make about $15,000 -- probably more than a lawyer or movie director in Poland -- he decided to gamble, and get out in qualifying competitions. The Polish tennis federation was backward and skeptical, but in October 1974 Fibak qualified for the Spanish Open in Barcelona and beat Arthur Ashe there to reach the quarterfinals.
That was the turning point. He earned enough ranking points to get into tournaments and convinced the officials at home that he had promise.
Because of him, Poles know the current players and their styles. They know which tournaments are important, and see many of them on television (Fibak handles the negotiations for rights and tapes for Polish TV.
"I am always satisfied. Even if I will be No. 50, I will be satisfied pretty much because I try to enjoy life. I have success more or less," he says. "I don't hit the wall with my head because I don't win a particular match . . . I'm a happy man."
He would be even happier, of course, if he goes further in this French Open. He would especially like to beat Gerulatis, who infuriated him by refusing to shake hands after Fibak beat him in a tournament at Forest Hills, N.Y. last summer. Gerulaitis has said, as have some other players, that Fibak is a gamesman, a slick con man.Fibak thinks Gerulaitis is a bad sport.