The French Open, C'est Magnifique!

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The French Open C-est Magnifique!

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

For me, tennis is the ultimate spectator sport. It-s so simple, and works so well on television. One player at the top of the screen, the other at the bottom, with only a net separating them. They move each other side to side, front and back, their courage or emotional collapse obvious on the close-ups. It-s high drama in a very intimate setting. And of all the big tournaments, the Grand Slams, my favorite is the French Open, which is under way in Paris as of this week.

I just love the red clay of Roland Garros. Wimbledon is played on grass, a fast surface. The Australian and US Open Championships are played on hard courts-very fast. The heavy servers at those three slams, on a good day, can whip 130-plus mph serves that the opponent never really sees. When Andy Roddick won his first US Open last year , several games went by in a flash of aces. 15-love, 30-love, 40-love, game. A great, whipping serve is certainly impressive. But a match largely won on aces from boron/Teflon/graphite super weapon racquets leaves me yawning.

On the clay at the French, even a lightning serve slows immediately as it bites the red dust. It-s the one surface where finesse is back in the game. The French, Spaniards and Argentines, who grow up playing clay, feather drop shots just inches over the net, shots that are basically unusable on fast courts. You get to see cat-and-mouse tennis. And conditioning counts, too. A player sprints to the net to retrieve a drop shot, sprints back to cover a high topspin lob, slides across the clay to handle deep baseline drives. It becomes a game of attrition rather than a game of winners. Just this Tuesday two Frenchmen made history in battling for 6 hours and 36 minutes. That was both entertaining and inspiring.

I also love the crowd at the French. You think of Wimbledon as the storied old site of tennis history. And it-s true that the Wimbledon fans know their tennis. They will cue up for literally days at a time to get a chance to fill the Standing Room Only section. Tennis has been part of their culture for a couple hundred years and they appreciate a well-crafted match, even if it-s not between two superstars.

But the 19th century British game of lawn tennis actually derived from the French game started way back in the 13th century, called Real or Royal tennis. And even that came from a game even earlier called Jeu de Paume, or game of the palms when they hit a ball across a net with their hands. Tennis is deep in the French genes, and you can find the terre battue or red clay courts everywhere across the country, in private clubs and public parks, from Paris to Monte Carlo to Nice to Lyon. It-s a national pastime and you sense the passion for the game at Roland Garros. Now, at the U.S. Open, you-ll frequently find fans with binoculars who use them more to scan the gallery for movie stars than to focus on the players. But the French bring an intensity to the match at hand.

When 17-year-old Michael Chang suffered severe leg cramps in the 1989 final that he eventually won, grimacing as he played in pain, the crowd were on their feet yelling, -Bravo!- and -Allez, allez!- in appreciation of his bravery.

Back in -83, countryman Yannick Noah played his last French Open. Yannick was an artful player, but he had never won the French title. His knees gave him a lot of discomfort at the end of his career and he went down to his native Cameroon to meet with the tribal doctor who swept tiger tails back and forth across his knees. Back in Paris, Yannick made it to the final and all through the match, the French stood and waved tiger tails as they yelled their encouragement. They went ballistic when Yannick won. Many of them cried.

The French Open. Well, in a word, c-est Magnifique!

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



Diana Nyad