This is a city poised for a celebration.
In a week, the World Cup begins in Mexico. The French can win. In 24 hours, the French Open begins. Yannick Noah can win. In Paris, either victory would be cause for a huge celebration. And, if the World Cup team is at a disadvantage playing in Central America, then Noah has a distinct advantage here on the red clay of Roland Garros.
It is not so much the slow red clay as the raucous fans that make this place so ideal for a Frenchman. In fact, there is even an outside chance that this could be the year the impossible dream comes true for the fans: an all-French final.
Noah is the No. 4 seed and the man all eyes will be on when he begins play Tuesday against countryman Tarik Benhabiles. But the No. 8 seed is Henri Leconte, Noah's friend and doubles partner. On these courts, even with defending champion Mats Wilander in his half of the draw, Leconte is capable of inspired tennis and could conceivably reach the final.
That is a long way off, though. For the men, this tournament is a marathon, of sorts, two weeks of three-of-five set matches on the slow clay that produces memorable four-hour ordeals with regularity each year.
The matches also are longer for the women. Last year, Chris Evert Lloyd and Martina Navratilova played three hours before Evert won that classic match for her sixth French title. The two grand dames of the game again are seeded to meet in the final here.
But Evert has a far tougher draw, facing the prospect of a semifinal against the game's new star, 16-year-old West German Steffi Graf, or U.S. Open champion Hana Mandlikova. Mandlikova beat Evert and Navratilova back-to-back to win the Open last September. Graf has beaten both of them in the last month during a four-tournament winning streak.
Evert opens play Monday against France's Cecile Calmette. Navratilova plays Tuesday against Italian Anna Maria Cecchini, a surprise quarterfinalist here last year. The most interesting first-round match might be the one between 14-year-old Mary Joe Fernandez of the United States and 16-year-old Canadian Helen Kelesi, two rising tennis babies.
In all, a 14th Evert-Navratilova Grand Slam final still is what people expect, but it isn't as automatic as it was a year ago. "We both know we have to bear down to get to the final," Navratilova said. "If I just look at Chris or she just looks at me, we could get beat."
The men's draw is wide open. Ivan Lendl, the world's No. 1 player and the 1984 champion here, must be the favorite, but not by much. Wilander, seeded No. 2, has won twice here, including last year when he upset John McEnroe in the semifinals and Lendl in the final. When he is interested, Wilander can beat anyone in the world, especially in this stadium.
In addition to Leconte, Wilander has Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg in his half of the draw. By normal standards, Becker has played excellent tennis in 1986, especially for an 18-year-old still learning the game. But being Wimbledon champion, more is expected of him and he has been spotty lately, losing early at the Tournament of Champions in New York and then in the Italian Open.
Becker could face Emilio Sanchez, the 20-year-old Spaniard who beat him in Rome, in the fourth round and probably would face Edberg after that. Wilander and Leconte are seeded to meet in the quarterfinals, although Leconte might have to beat yet another rising Frenchman, Thierry Tulasne, to get there.
But most of the attention will be focused on Noah, who became the first Frenchman to win here in 37 years with his victory in 1983. After three years of inconsistent play since then, Noah, now settled in New York, might be playing his best tennis. In recent weeks he has beaten both Wilander and Lendl and lost to Lendl in a final-set tie breaker in Rome.
"I'm coming in here with a lot of confidence," Noah said. "There is no one in the draw I walk on the court feeling I can't beat him. It is not a hope like it was last year, it is a belief. I have been pointing for this tournament and I'm ready."
And the U.S. men? Are they ready? It hardly matters. American men in the draw are like American tourists in Paris this spring: scarce. There are only 18 U.S. men playing here, compared to 39 U.S. women. American men generally hate the red clay, mostly because they can't win on it.
No American man has won here since 1955 and the chances of that streak ending this year are almost nil. John McEnroe is in California, awaiting the birth of his child. Jimmy Connors is awaiting the end of his 10-week suspension. The highest seeded American is South African expatriate Johan Kriek, who is seeded No. 13. Kriek easily could lose his first-round match to veteran Brazilian clay specialist Carlos Kirmayr.
The other seeded American is No. 15 Jimmy Arias. Under ideal circumstances Arias would be doing well to reach a fourth-round match against Wilander. But today, playing an exhibition, he crashed into a tarpaulin and sprained his right ankle. "I heard it pop twice," he said. Arias expects to be ready to play his first-round match Tuesday against Mexican Francisco Maciel. That match won't be easy after 48 hours in an ice pack.
The only other top American playing here is Aaron Krickstein. A year ago, Krickstein was the No. 10 seed here. Now, at age 18, Krickstein's ranking has dropped to No. 36 and he plays a Frenchman, Thierry Champion, in the first round.
Anywhere else in the world, Krickstein would be a lock again Champion. Not here. This is Paris, and the French come ready to play -- especially the fans.