After a solid month of rain and gloomy weather, Paris bloomed today. Almost as if on cue, the sun shone brilliantly and the temperature climbed into the 80s, baking the clay courts of Roland Garros on the eve of the French Open.
Beginning Monday, the world's best tennis players will begin the two-week grind in the most grueling of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The soft red clay here provides by far the slowest surface on which any major championship is conducted, making three-hour matches routine, four hours something to be expected if one is to win a championship and six hours not out of the question.
Not since Tony Trabert won his second straight title here in 1955 has an American male won the French championship. In fact, during that time only five American men have reached the final.
John McEnroe reached the final for the first time last year only to blow a two-set lead to Ivan Lendl when he let his temperament get in the way of his tennis. McEnroe's foolishness allowed Lendl to win his first and only Grand Slam title in a five-set, 4-hour 8-minute match.
The women's final last year had no such sustained suspense. Martina Navratilova, on her way to six straight Grand Slam tournament victories, rolled past Chris Evert Lloyd, 6-3, 6-1, in a match that had none of the drama or suspense of the McEnroe-Lendl confrontation.
The four finalists are back, seeded No. 1 and No. 2 (McEnroe-Lendl; Navratilova-Evert). Last year, Navratilova and Evert played the final here, at Wimbledon and at the U.S. Open. McEnroe and Lendl played in the final here and at the Open. This year, there is some hope -- especially on the men's side -- for the rest of the field.
"I think maybe six or seven players have a good chance of winning," Yannick Noah said today. "This is different from Wimbledon. Here, everyone has a chance."
The chances of Noah, whose stature here after winning the French Open in 1983 was perhaps slightly below Charles de Gaulle, are the talk of the city. After sitting out several months because of personal problems and injuries, Noah began his comeback in early spring and, a week ago, won the Italian Open.
His victory came against a weak field, but it was on clay against many of the same clay court players who are here. Today, Noah practiced on center court with Wojtek Fibak as more than 10,000 watched.
Noah looked fluid and smooth, gliding across the clay to balls as the crowd happily cheered his every move. Afterward, he said, sounding satisfied, "I believe I am ready."
He will have to be ready if he is to repeat his 1983 title because his path to the final will probably be blocked by No. 5 seed Andres Gomez (in the round of 16); fourth-seeded Mats Wilander, who won here in 1982 at age 17, and McEnroe.
The bottom half of the men's draw is not as menacing. Lendl, barring upsets, would face Aaron Krickstein in the round of 16; Eliot Teltscher in the quarterfinals, and No. 3 Jimmy Connors in the semifinals.
More than likely, though, Lendl will play one of Wilander's Swedish compatriots in Connors' place. Of the many Americans who have failed here, Connors is most notable because he has never reached the final and never appeared comfortable on the playing surface. To write him off is foolish, but he is four months shy of 33 with a draw that seeds him to probably face the winner of an Anders Jarryd-Stefan Edberg match in the quarterfinals. Connors might find it difficult to get to a match against Lendl.
While it is probably fair to say that any of the men's seeds (including five Swedes) can reach the semifinals and half of them can win the tournament, the same isn't true on the women's side.
Navratilova and Evert, 28 and 30, respectively, still tower above the rest of the women, especially on clay, Evert's favorite surface. The best chance for a breakthrough might be third-seeded Hana Mandlikova, whose talent makes her capable of beating anyone and whose temperament makes her capable of losing to almost anyone.
Mandlikova, 23, was the champion here in 1981 at age 19, and now says her up-and-down days are behind her. Helena Sukova, the towering (6-2) Czech who ended Navratilova's winning streak at the Australian Open, is seeded fifth but is probably not ready to win on this surface. The same is true for No. 6 Zina Garrison, who stunned Evert once this spring, and for 17-year-old Carling Bassett, who is seeded eighth.
The two most intriguing stories in the women's draw might have little to do with the outcome of the final. One is Gabriela Sabatini. The just-turned 15-year-old Argentine has grown almost four inches and gained 15 pounds since reaching the third round of the U.S. Open last fall.
Now almost 5-8 and 121 pounds, Sabatini has beaten Garrison, Sukova and Bassett this year and is seeded No. 15 with an opening-round match Monday against Lillian Drescher. She might be the game's next true star.
Five years ago, when Andrea Jaeger was 15, she was going to be the game's next star. Today, two weeks short of 20, Jaeger is trying to come back from injuries and burnout problems that have kept her almost completely out of tennis for nearly a year.
She has dropped out of the women's computer rankings but is here with a wild card berth in the field (she was a finalist in 1982) and will play a first-round match against another American, Shawn Foltz.
Although Navratilova will play Pam Teeguarden on Monday, most of the top names won't begin play until Tuesday.
Today was a final chance for the players to test the courts and to get an idea of the conditions that are likely to prevail the next two weeks. As Noah was watched by everyone, Navratilova practiced on an outside court with coach Mike Estep.
Dapper in her new glasses and pink shorts, Navratilova was intent on her work, cursing aloud when she missed several shots. Finally, she ended the workout with a thunderous overhead and shook her fist jubilantly as if she had just put Evert away.
Twelve days from now, she might do just that. And McEnroe and Lendl -- who whipped McEnroe on clay in New York three weeks ago and again in Du sseldorf today -- might also meet again. But there are many hours of tennis to be played in the heat and the red dust first.