French Open '09

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

I'm just back from Paris and several days of dramatic tennis at the French Open. If you've never been, I can tell you that's it's quite a different experience from the other Grand Slams. The stadiums are much smaller which makes for an intimate feel, compared to the vastness of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open and Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open. And compared to Wimbledon, where the fans are respectful to the point of reverent, the French are downright raucous, I'd go so far as to say irreverent, during the matches at Roland Garros, especially if one of their own is playing. It's a rich time for French tennis so during the first week of the tournament, it seems nearly every match showcases one of the French contingency. Gael Monfils, Arnaud Clement, Paul-Henri Mathieu, Marion Bartoli, Amelie Mauresmo, Gilles Simon, Josselin Ouanna, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. I scurried to watch at least some of all those players' matches, just to soak up the French passion and outrage, as if they are constantly vigilant to keep their player from being treated unfairly.

ts090604Josselin_Ouanna.jpgThe young Ouanna tackled a better-ranked Marat Safin early on and the French fans were ruthless in their boos of Safin as he became frustrated and starting banging his racquet and questioning calls. But, unlike the English, they will go beyond accepted etiquette and cheer loudly for a foreigner's double fault or unforced error into the net. The analogy of the French tennis fan is the Parisian citizen in general. You ride the New York subway and the people are beaten down. They stare glassy-eyed ahead, silent and exhausted. In the Paris Metro…everybody dressed in stylish watches, shoes, and jeans, by the way…people are energized and fervently discussing politics, sports, social issues, weather, and news. I ducked into an optician's shop to get my glasses adjusted and the two women shopkeepers, who saw my Roland Garros gear, immediately launched into a loud, passionate dialogue as to who is going to win the Championship this year.

Even the brand of tennis on the famous red clay, or the terre battue as it's known in French, is somewhat analogous to the sensibilities of the culture. The hard courts of the U.S. Open produce slam-bam American-style, hard-hitting punches. The silent grass at Wimbledon makes for tennis of a certain decorum. And the slow nature of the terre battue at Roland Garros renders the game interesting with finesse drop shots, a full menu of artistic racquetwork, and long-suffering matches where winners are not easily come by and a player must run and work and be ready to play a game of patience and attrition.

The U.S. Open format of two sets of matches per day, daytime and nighttime sessions, has been discussed for Roland Garros but the joke is that the French would never support night matches. You can be deeply engaged in tennis all day long but when night falls, it's time to drink wine and eat fine dinners, no matter that night matches would double the revenue of the tournament.

The ultimate irony out at Roland Garros is that the food, in the city of the most delectable food in the world, is atrocious. At the U.S. Open you have choices of fresh-cooked barbeque, sushi, great deli sandwiches, all kinds of fare. At Roland Garros, there is one soggy-breaded sandwich and one choice of fast-food kiosks, no made-to-order restaurants. C¸a, c'est absolument fou, I tell you!

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

Banner image of Josselin Ouanna © Fédération Franc¸aise de Tennis



Diana Nyad