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DRANKOFF 2011

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Pitt of Despair

Notes From Roland Garros

Rafa's close shave, Federer's sustained excellence, and the rest of the weekend at the French Open

The first week of Roland Garros is over, and with it has gone a constellation of stars: Venus Williams, Tomas Berdych, Na Li, Samantha Stosur, Ana Ivanovic, and Gael Monfils. But the top four seeds in both draws are still very much here, and a few of them are under pressure. People are frustrated that Rafael Nadal isn’t simply mowing down opponents, that he isn’t Serena Williams. This is Nadal’s first major since recovering from a knee injury. But he managed to win six of the seven lead-in tournaments he entered since February 11, losing only to a storming Novak Djokovic. He’s won the French Open seven times, and there’s no reason to think it won’t happen again this year.

But around the grounds, fans and reporters are murmuring. They’re concerned. Last Monday against the German Daniel Brands and on Friday against the Slovak Martin Klizan, Nadal lost the opening set. But he’s lost sets here before. Nadal’s first true test of nerve came on Saturday afternoon, at Philippe Chatrier, against Fabio Fognini, an Italian so handsome all you can do is laugh. Fognini wrapped his head and black hair in a yellow headband that matched the accents on his Adidas shirt. He wore matching wristbands and a trimmed goatee and played swashbuckling tennis. Give him an earring and some eyeliner, and he could take over the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. 

Fognini seized the first points of Nadal’s opening service game with blazing, angled winners. Nadal still won, but if Fognini could have kept hitting the ball like that, who knows how the rest of the match would have gone? He’s great on clay, moving all over the court and sometimes leaping high up off it. What he does on clay is not sliding — it’s sailing. Nadal fought back after a break. He must have known that surrendering another first set would only increase the chatter.

The opening set lasted 69 minutes, and if a movie studio has any brains it’ll release it as an action-comedy later this summer. Fognini’s speed matched Nadal’s, and his forehand warranted a Defense Department contract. But he hit with too much horsepower to be 100 percent accurate, and that was when Nadal took advantage. And Fognini understood, as Brands and Kližan probably did, too, that if you don’t get the first set you’re probably going to lose to Rafa — and even if you’ve taken the first set from Nadal in France, you’re playing the match of your life, and how long can you keep that up without your mind leaving your body and freaking out about how amazing beating him would be? The only player ever to have accomplished that at the French Open is Robin Soderling, who’s been missing due to a glandular illness since July 2011.

The Italian couldn’t have played better, more daring tennis than he did in the first set. He lost anyway. By the second, Nadal was more dialed in, his court smarts fully engaged. A lot of players like declarative-sentence tennis: noun, verb, period. But with Nadal and Fognini, it was tennis by the paragraph, with exclamation-point endings. By the third set, down 0-2, Fognini seemed to grow frustrated by the mountain he had to climb. He seized his opportunities, like breaking Nadal at love as he served for the match. He couldn’t do it a second time. Rafa held at love and it was over, but Fognini got the rousing farewell of a man who tried to hit a living legend with everything he had. As for Nadal, on Monday, he took on Japan’s Kei Nishikori, the 13-seed, and had a straightforward win. Oh, and it was his 27th birthday, so the tournament wheeled a cake onto Chatrier and the stadium serenaded him.

Roger Federer

It seemed impossible that the atmosphere for that Fognini match could be topped, but it was even more intense for Roger Federer and Gilles Simon. Having stood for a couple of hours watching Simon beat the rangy American Sam Querrey in a grueling five-set match the day before, I had planned to catch the end of his match against Federer, assuming I’d see most of the third set.

So I banked on a good match at Court Suzanne Lenglen between the fifth seed Sara Errani, an Italian and last year’s runner-up, and the Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro. It was not the spectacular for which you pass up Federer vs. Simon, but it had its moments of touch and variety and manipulation. It just lacked passion and consistency. I watched them play behind some Italian journalists who were clearly frustrated and occasionally audibly mumbled about it from the press box. 

Both women are speedy and roughly the same build, the Italian being stronger-looking and the Spaniard playing with a short haircut. She looks like everybody’s idea of a kid sister in a movie. When she slipped returning a shot that pulled her off the court, Errani went up to the service box and asked if she was OK. Then it was Suarez Navarro’s turn to check in, as Errani doubled over in pain. She walked over to her chair and sat for a moment before a trainer put down a towel and Errani laid on her back as the trainer pressed on her stomach. Suarez Navarro kept concerned watch while trying to stay loose on her end of the court. Five minutes later, Errani was back on her feet, to everyone’s applause, and ready to serve. She returned with a cough and lost the set. Errani later explained that she had felt a sharp pain. 

In the second set, she was more herself and play improved. But in the fifth game of the second set the score of the Federer-Simon match came up: Federer had taken the first, 6-1, and Simon was at 5-4 in the second. When it changed to 6-4, the crowd at Lenglen broke into cheers. Later, with the set even, the scoreboard flashed the men’s score and revealed that Simon was up a break in the third. There was a little applause and some murmuring, probably about the etiquette of whether to slip out and how to do so without hurting Errani’s and Suarez Navarro’s feelings. Just then a man barreled into my end of the stadium and whisked his family away, the way one might during a police evacuation or a fire. It was perfectly obvious where they were headed.

And could they be blamed? You don’t want to be the person who leaves a match that just got good. But you also don’t want to be the person who didn’t see what could be the match of the tournament.

I arrived at Chatrier in time to feel the eruption of Simon winning the third set. I asked an Italian reporter what happened with Federer. He blamed Federer’s backhand. It wasn’t working.

Federer has the best court sense of any man I’ve seen play. But I got there in time to see a lot of his shots wind up in the net. And Simon was swinging freely and hard. The noise after Simon hit a ball into the dirt was huge. Federer smacked a backhand down the line at 5-2. Fourth set Federer. 

By the time the fifth started, the temperature had dropped about 10 degrees, and what looked like rain clouds floated in. Simon went for a bathroom break and came out to deafening cheers. He missed the singing of “La Marseillaise,” complete with “Olé!” But he could certainly feel it. This is the closest a casual tennis fan will ever get to live European soccer. But this was a new variation: a nation versus a brand. 

Federer committed himself to error-free attack and Simon started wilting. To get the break, they traded power shots until Federer took his foot off the gas and sliced a shot that Simon was forced to overhit. Federer held, and the French crowd fought to keep itself pumped up. It took a while to get the chants of “Gillou” to drown out the chants for “Roger.” The next game went to deuce about five times, with each man trading zingers until Federer overzinged and Simon held. It wouldn’t matter. The match went to Federer.

As he packed his things, Federer looked amused with himself. It was a new expression for him. It conveyed something beyond smugness or entitlement or whatever else it is that the anti-Federerists abhor him for exuding. In a sense, Federer is the Yankees. He’s the Lakers, the Patriots, Real Madrid: a lucrative corporate entity that’s fun and harmless to hate. But he’s also “old” and a dad and appears to be at a stage at which the pressure is off. He’s done it all and now appears capable of sitting back and enjoying his artistry. Damn the haters.

John Isner

The only player left in the draw this weekend at home with marathon tennis is John Isner, the Greensboro giant. He’s seeded 19th and is best known for his three-day Wimbledon odyssey against Nicolas Mahut. On a cloudy Friday afternoon, Isner was on Court 7 playing Ryan Harrison, the 21-year-old slugger from Shreveport, Louisiana.

If you’ve never seen Isner play up close, it’s an extraordinary sight. He’s 6-foot-9 and is able to get low for almost every shot. His serves are bullets and his forehands blistering. But Isner himself looks shy on the court, aware that he’s being watched and extremely self-conscious. Court 7 is fenced, and over the fencing are bank ad banners, so you can’t see what’s happening  — but you could see Isner, and sometimes after a point as he toweled himself off Isner could peer over and see you, just as a giraffe can in a man-made habitat. He’s just as gentle and quiet, too, with the face of a kind little boy.

Isner doesn’t impose himself upon an opponent the way showier, more fiery players do. He simply lulls you with consistency and power serving. The reason so many of his matches go such absurd distances is that Isner applies what’s basically a sleeper hold, and it takes some players much longer than others to submit. Harrison did his best. He stung Isner many times during their 230 minutes together by clinging to the lines (for what it’s worth, Nadal needed 108 fewer minutes to win). Isner, though, plays doubles and is a terrifying sight at the net. It’s as if the ball would rather hide than face him. 

Isner took the third set in 26 minutes and had a ragged time closing out the fourth. But he beat back two break points to bring things even, and then embarked on a final set that lasted as long as an entire Serena Williams or Maria Sharapova match. This wasn’t much of a clay-court match. Isner’s not much of slider, although he can do it. Harrison did even less. But word must have gotten out: If you see that John Isner has made it to a fifth set, you have to come by. You could be part of history.

Isner tried a handful of drop shots that became increasingly predictable. On one of Isner’s game points, there was an 18-or-so-stroke rally that ended with Harrison smacking the ball down the line for a winner and the crowd cheering. But then Harrison double-faulted to give the break to Isner in the 13th game. Isner’s first match point was a 10-shot rally with Harrison hitting a forehand that Isner couldn’t return. In his second, Isner smashed an overhead volley that Harrison couldn’t retrieve, and then it was time for an on-court interview with Pam Shriver.

Amazingly, Isner managed to duplicate that match the very next day, against Tommy Haas, on the much more stadium-like Court 1. But this one was of much higher drama and quality. I got there at the end of the fourth set and, along with a handful of other people, was kept waiting in a stairwell, at 6-5, to find out whether we’d be let in. (The attendants permit entry on a changeover.) Were we allowed to enter, it would have meant Isner had taken the fourth set and tied the match. If Haas had won, we would have been sent down the steps and back onto the grounds. The suspense became surreal. Haas had nine match points in that 11th game, and every time the score had returned to deuce, which in France is “égalité,” we all had a nervous laugh.

Égalité.

Advantage Haas.

Égalité.

Advantage Haas.

Égalité.

Advantage Haas.

Égalité.

Advantage Haas.

Égalité.

The advantage (and game) was eventually Isner’s, although you could tell when Isner won a point because the cheering was dull. The crowd sounded fully behind Haas. On the stairwell, people were fully behind Isner. We wanted to see what was going on for ourselves. Because tiebreaks are played without a changeover sit (merely a change of sides), we could only listen and laugh. 8-8. 9-9. 10-10. Haas had three more match points. But none of those came true either. Instead, Isner showed great resolve and mercifully allowed us in to see a fifth set.

Isner went up another break, but it seemed reasonable to assume that Haas — who at 35 remains fast, wily, and determined — would find a way to even things out, which he did. In the 10th game, Isner had a match point that he hit into the net. By the 17th game, however, Isner seemed to be reaching for his lower back. His volleys no longer worked. He didn’t even sit during the changeover. He just stood by his chair, bent over. With Haas up a break, Isner went wide. Match over. 10-8.

My walk to the subway that evening was almost drunken. Isner and Haas had taken several hundred people on a great adventure. For some fans it was better than that; it was a movie. On the way out of Court 1, a German guy who bounded down the steps and bounced up and down on the walkway had it just about right for the entire weekend of tennis. He was shadowboxing with a buddy and singing the opening bars of the theme from Rocky.

Filed Under: Events, French Open, Roland Garros

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris