When Andrei Chesnokov failed to show up to play a mixed doubles match here on Tuesday, the word spread quickly around Roland Garros stadium: he had been called to the Soviet embassy. He had been talking to the press too much as his successes mounted at the French Open.
Open and friendly, Chesnokov had told the media that 80 percent of his prize money went to the Soviet Tennis Federation. He had mentioned a couple of Chicago discos he had enjoyed when he played there in March. He had insisted that the only way he could become a great player was to play the tour full time.
Did these revelations, made by the first Soviet tennis player to make an impact on the game since the retirements of Alex Metreveli and Olga Morozova, upset his government? Was he at the embassy being lectured when he was supposed to be on the court?
"I went out to get lunch," Chesnokov said, after his superb French Open finally ended this afternoon under a barrage of winners by Henri Leconte. "I looked, and the match before mine was just starting. I thought I had time. We went fast. We didn't even have tea. But when I came back, I was too late. I went to the court but it had already been called a walkover. My partner was gone."
Any other player producing such an excuse for missing a match would be fined and laughed at for being so foolish. But when Chesnokov does such a thing, eyebrows are raised.
Stardom is not going to be easy for Chesnokov. Just turned 20, he is an appealing young man on and off a tennis court. Last year when he first showed up here and upset Eliot Teltscher to reach the third round, he was something of a heartthrob with his sandy brown hair, brown eyes and easy smile. He is a little shaggier this year, his hair longer, his face generally unshaven. But his tennis is better.
"How do you play him?" Mats Wilander asked after Chesnokov stunned him in straight sets in the second round. "Everything you hit, he is standing there waiting."
In fact, Chesnokov reminds a lot of players of Wilander with his quickness, his ability to run balls down and his two-fisted backhand. "He's got a chance to be very good," Leconte said today. "If his game keeps improving."
Last year, after his success here, Chesnokov did not go to Wimbledon. In fact, he has only played eight Grand Prix tournaments in the last year. Now he says he will begin playing the tour full time, "11 months a year I expect."
If that happens, Chesnokov has a chance to become a major factor in the game. His ranking has risen steadily and after this tournament should be around No. 50. Strangely, he is ranked only No. 5 in the Soviet Union, although the four players ranked ahead of him are way below him in the international rankings and none has victories of note.
That is not the only irony in Chesnokov's life. Representing a communist country, Chesnokov now has an agent because of a deal signed by the Soviet government with ProServ, the Donald Dell-run agency. Dell has had his hand in so many things during his career that his nickname is "the captain of capitalism." Now, the captain of capitalism is representing the newest communist tennis hope.
Chesnokov could be an agent's dream with his looks and with his game. He understands English, although he still struggles to speak it. Sometimes, during interviews, he will answer -- in Russian -- a question asked in English without a translation. Nothing seems to faze him. Today, after the Leconte match, he sat calmly in a packed interview room for 20 minutes, much of the interview devoted to his mysterious disappearance.
"I hadn't eaten since 8 o'clock and I was very hungry," he said. "I don't remember the name of the restaurant. I am sorry it happened."
Chesnokov is popular among the players, although it seems he is never alone. He has a coach who travels with him, another coach at home and a certain well-dressed man who speaks perfect English and is never far away.
Chesnokov is the first Soviet player to attract international attention since Metreveli, who reached the semifinals here once and the final at Wimbledon once, retired. For several years the Soviets backed away from tennis. They stopped sending players abroad and only in the last year have they started to appear again, with Chesnokov and several other players playing in selected tournaments.
The deal signed with ProServ calls not only for the players to be represented but for the agency to set up a tournament in the Soviet Union, perhaps as early as next year. Chesnokov says there are other Soviet players people will begin noticing soon. "I am not the only one," he said. "Other players are traveling now and they will do well also."
If so, as Chesnokov's mixed doubles default proved, people will take notice.