To triumph at the French Open requires a vast array of skills and rare temperament: agile footwork; innate timing; deft drop shots, slices and looping groundstrokes; clever strategy; and heaps of patience and resolve.
The celebration of all that is what I’ll miss as the month of May closes without a tennis ball struck at Roland Garros, the tennis compound in southwest Paris that has hosted the second major of the tennis season since 1928.
The French Open is not simply one of the four Grand Slam events. It is a tournament “unique in all the world,” as French author Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s “Little Prince” came to realize about his beloved rose.
As the only Grand Slam contested on clay — in this case, the so-called terre battue, which is essentially crushed brick — the French Open stands apart from Wimbledon and the Australian and U.S. Opens.
Clay is the slowest surface in tennis, which means the rallies tend to last longer. And the matches, particularly the best-of-five-set matches men play at Grand Slams, can become marathons.
They also can be works of art.
The French Open is the stage on which tennis is most like a dance — a dance that is often a human endurance contest.
But there are other things, singular quirks and subtle nuances, I came to treasure in covering the tournament a half-dozen times on the leafy fringe of the Bois de Boulogne, where the tempo of life, much like the tempo of the matches, unfolds at a slower, richer pace.
Feats of clay
Some of the game’s greats thrived at the French, such as Chris Evert, whose seven titles from 1974 to 1986 are the most among women. On the men’s side, Bjorn Borg appeared to set an unattainable mark in winning six French Opens (1974-81) until a Spanish teenager named Rafael Nadal claimed the first of his record 12 in 2005.
Other greats were bedeviled by the clay, never embracing the patience and forethought it demands. For all their Hall of Fame credentials, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and John McEnroe never won a French Open.
A prerequisite for excelling at the French is “shot tolerance” — the absolute conviction by a player to hang in each rally, whether it lasts nine strokes or 99, and make one more shot than the player across the net.
Just 17 at the time, Michael Chang embodied that quality in his run to the 1989 French Open title, overcoming debilitating leg cramps to upset Ivan Lendl in the fourth round and topple Stefan Edberg in a grueling five-set final to win his lone Grand Slam and become the youngest male player to win a major.
Chang is one of just three American men to win the French in the past 64 years, along with Jim Courier and Andre Agassi, whose 1999 victory made him the second man after Rod Laver to complete a career Grand Slam in the Open era.
Since then, the French Open has represented futility for American men, although on the women’s side Serena Williams counts three French Open championships (2002, 2013 and 2015) among her 23 Grand Slam singles titles.
The French hasn’t been particularly kind to its own. French players often have withered under the pressure of winning their nation’s Slam since Yannick Noah’s 1983 victory and that of Mary Pierce in 2000.
My second year covering the French Open, 2005, I saw what that pressure did to Pierce, who crumbled at the hands of the far less physically imposing Justine Henin-Hardenne, falling, 6-1, 6-1, in 62 minutes. Henin-Hardenne had what mattered on clay, including a rabbit’s quickness and agility, a gorgeous backhand and a will of iron.
That same year, Nadal announced himself to the tennis world as a long-haired pirate in capri pants with a massive left arm that slathered the ball in topspin. In the cramped interview room at Court Philippe Chatrier, the media celebrated his 19th birthday with him as tournament organizers rolled in a cake and reporters sang along.
That fortnight delivered the highly anticipated semifinal between Nadal and 23-year-old Swiss phenom Roger Federer, then Wimbledon’s two-time defending champion. In that match, the narrative of men’s tennis was set for the next 15 years, with Federer and Nadal going on to push one another to greater heights on clay, grass and hard courts in a rivalry that has produced 39 Grand Slam titles between them.
A glimpse of the sport’s future was on display at the 2019 French Open. The match of the tournament, if not the year, was the 5-hour 9-minute soul-sapping sweat-fest of shot-making brilliance by Stan Wawrinka and 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece for a place in the quarterfinals.
It ended with a Wawrinka backhand slice that Tsitsipas believed would sail out plopping instead on the line. Caked in red clay, Tsitsipas didn’t hide his tears or respect for Wawrinka in their embrace at the net, then stayed up half the night composing a tribute to the Swiss victor.
Beyond the surface
There are smaller, equally enduring moments I will miss about the French Open.
For a global event, it is surprisingly intimate, set in a park, with its multiple clay courts connected by winding paths and interspersed with cafes, restaurants and shops. Depending on your route, you might pass ball kids clad in their spotless uniforms, lying on the ground in orderly rows, their eyes shut, as they’re being guided in a silent meditation to help them focus during their upcoming match assignments. Or you might catch a practice session between current and future stars of the game.
A reverence for tennis hangs in the air during matches. The chants of fans on changeovers, often led by children, sound more like songs than cheers.
No one charges the gates or rushes about the grounds. Lunch at Roland Garros, whether in cafes or restaurants, is much like a well-constructed rally: nothing to race through but something to be savored.
And though evening comes late in Parisian summers, with darkness not falling until 9:30 p.m., even the sunset seems to wait for the completion of particularly great matches.
As things stand, the 2020 French Open will get underway Sept. 20, roughly four months after its traditional spot on the tennis calendar. The French Tennis Federation is eager to unveil the next stage of the grounds’ modernization project.
A retractable roof has been placed on top of the main court, 15,225-seat Chatrier. And the famed Bullring, a mini Roman Coliseum of a court that for decades boasted the closest seats in tennis, has been razed to make way for a spectator plaza, anticipating the advent of separately ticketed night sessions in 2021 that are expected to balloon tournament revenue.
Then it won’t matter how much it rains each May in Paris, and no one will mind what time the sun sets. But for now, something is missing.
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