Thursday, May 30, 2013

Roland Garros: Notes From Qualifying Week

By Mert Ertunga

Let's begin by saying the obvious: every year, the weather conditions pose problems at Roland Garros. Can anyone remember how miserable the conditions were in last year's semifinals and finals? Hence, I was not expecting a great, sunny weather for the full duration of the tournament.

What I did not expect, however, was to look at the weather forecast the day before qualifying rounds start, and see nothing but rain in the forecast for the next 10 days, which was as far as the long-range forecast would allow me to see. I said to myself "surely not!" I was right only for a portion of Wednesday. The rest of the time, the weather forecast turned out right. Outside of a couple of hours of continuous sun on Wednesday, the rest of the week has been rainy, crummy, windy, and cold. Very cold. I mean winter jacket type of cold!

I must thus express once again my admiration for French tennis fans. They still came in fair numbers to watch the qualifying rounds, ready with their umbrellas, their plastic raincoats that cover the whole body (I can't get myself to wear one of those), and their enthusiasm. Interesting note: on Wednesday, the French world No. 8 Jo-Wilfriend Tsonga practiced on Court Suzanne Lenglen, during perhaps the only couple of hours of the week where the sun was bright (but still cold) and around 100 people watched him.

The next day on the same court, during a crummy, cold, cloudy, and windy afternoon, with a steady but light rain coming down, a crowd of 300 to 400 watched Roger Federer practice on the same court, and clapped some of his good shots from under their umbrellas with their smile on! Nothing can dampen the French crowd's mood when Roger is on the court. He is practically one of theirs.

On a related note, why in the world do the organizers allow the spectators who want to watch the practice sessions on Suzanne Lenglen to sit only in a small portion of the stadium? If there are only a few dozen people watching, it's understandable. But to stick few hundred people to a small part of the stadium during a practice session is downright silly. At least open up also a small area on the opposite side of the stadium so that people don't have to walk around the stadium to enter through a single entry and search for a seat to watch a practice session on the second biggest court of a Slam tournament.

After watching the American men play in the qualifying rounds, what I always knew was once again confirmed. They have truly developed a weird complex on red clay: it's called the "on red clay, I must stay back on the exact type of balls that I would come to the net on hard courts with my eyes closed" complex. Even Pete Sampras suffered from this. He would stay at the baseline and try to out-rally his opponents that made a living rallying from the baseline on red clay.

Outside of Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Michael Chang, who were natural baseliners, every American that I have seen at Roland Garros tries to win with some variation of a B plan where as their A plan is the attacking style of play that they execute without thinking twice on hard courts. John McEnroe is the only one who executed his "A game" on red clay and he almost won the tournament doing that in 1984 if it was not for the miracle comeback by Ivan Lendl. He would certainly not have done as well, had he tried to do it from the baseline.

Almost without exception, every time I watched an American play in the men's qualifying draw this week, they hit the same aggressive shots, and they watch their opponents run from corner to corner, all stretched and floating balls back with high slices, yet they stay back and try to hit a bigger baseline shot on the next ball instead of coming to the net for the easy finish even though that is precisely what they would have done if the match was played on hard courts.

The top USTA coaches were all present during the matches, so I am assuming they are watching the same matches that I am watching. I am also wondering if I am dreaming this, or am I the only one who sees something where there is none? I am sure, however, that the American ATP players have been carrying this complex on their shoulders for decades, and that it exists (well, not the name of the complex in the beginning of the paragraph, I just came up with that now!).

Lastly, if you still think social media has not totally invaded our lives, watching the tennis players and their coaches and friends will convince you that it definitely has. In the players' lounge, you see more players and their entourage sitting in some corner, immersed in their iPads, iPhones, and tablets than talking to their friends and company.

I saw one player immediately grab his iPhone after shaking his opponent's hand at the end of the match, while he was on the court to read the congratulatory messages from those who were following the score on live score reporting sites as he was walking off the court. What about his bag and rackets? He handed them off to someone to be carried so he could continue his "socializing."

Another time, another place, two players happened to sit next to me during lunch. One of them is currently inside the top 20, the other outside the top 100, both from the same country. Without exaggeration, they talked for over 20 minutes on how to turn down a Facebook friend request without hurting someone's feelings. They analyzed variations of quotes, what to say if it's a girl or a boy, if it's a child or an adult, etc.

Last, but not the last ... rain and cold ... please go away!

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