Fickle French fans change with weather at Roland Garros
PARIS -- To the right is the front page of today's Metro, the freebie newspaper they give out in the subway stations here.
Even if your French is as lousy as mine, you can figure out the two lead stories. One is the civil war in Syria. The other is Gael Monfils' stirring 7-6 (8), 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-5 victory over Tomas Berdych at Roland Garros on Monday.
This provides some sense of the scrutiny French players receive at this event. Players not named Andy Murray can't relate. Serena Williams may feel that the U.S. Open is freighted with extra significance. But her first-round matches aren't leading the national news reports. Sam Stosur's track record in Australia is abysmal, clearly the impact of the pressure she feels at home. But her defeats don't knock other national news items off the front page.
And this isn't just rah-rah nationalism. French players who win are feted like Lindbergh landing here. Players losing here leave the court to catcalls and wolf whistles. Yannick Noah -- all together now: the last French male to win -- was carried off the court in 1983. That didn't stop fans from booing lesser efforts in later years. As he once put it: "If you are French, they want you to win so badly. Until you lose; then they don't know you." Some warm to the occasion, not least Monfils, a born showman who rode the crowd's support Monday. Others retreat. Not for nothing did Jo-Wilfried Tsonga offer a Gallic pfft last year, as he dismissed any countryman's chances of winning this event.
In fair weather Tuesday, we got another display of this fair-weather fandom. No. 13 Marion Bartoli, the highest-ranked French female, got the best and worst of the local pressure. Playing Olga Govortsova on Court Centrale before a battalion of blazered executives from the French federation, Bartoli looked unnerved by the occasion. She stole the first set, lost the second and by the time she was down match point, you could already envision the local response. She lacked courage. She still needs conventional coaching. Her unusual game is limiting.
Then Bartoli played with a sense of both of purpose and territorialism. Hey wait, this is my house. She saved match point twice -- once by taking her fist off the racket and hitting a rare one-handed stroke -- to the sudden delight of the fans. As Govortsova tightened, Bartoli surged, closing out the match 7-6 (8), 4-6, 7-5. She left the court a heroine, chic.
"Well, I've learned a lot out of all these experiments, if you like," she said. "On the courts nobody can do it in my stead, can they? I have to strike the shots. I'm alone, so I have to step up to the mark and shoulder the responsibility and do things and produce the goods as I did today."
Spoken like someone who knows the rules of engagement.
Is Grigor Dimitrov ready to win a major?
-- Carl C., Berlin
• Maybe it's a corollary to either the aging of the field or the quest for the next champion after the Big Four has set the standard for so long. But it sure doesn't take much to be considered a future star these days. We all see the potential in Dimitrov, a 6-1, 4-0 (ret.) winner over Alejandro Falla on Tuesday. Most observers (most recently Toni Nadal) have pegged him as a top-10 player by year's end. But when he won today via an injury, he equaled his best showing at a major. Repeat: he has never made it out of the second round of a Grand Slam! Let's hold off on anointing him a future winner for at least a little while. You have three players who have more than 30 Slams among them. Unless they retire -- or really slip -- it's hard to see many other break the glass ceiling.
Four men retire today? Is that some sort of record? This is getting absurd. There should be greater consequences for retiring -- they should be forced to retire from the sport altogether, and not just the match.
-- Paul R., Boston
• A few of you asked this. Framed another way: is it ethical to play injured and lose/retire in the first round, but collect your $27,000 paycheck? I go libertarian here. You're in an individual sport. There are no guaranteed contracts. One injury, and you're out of the money. If your ranking is sufficient to get you in a main draw, you're entitled to show up and -- despite an injury that keeps you from advancing -- collect your check. It sounds mercenary. It's not ideal for anyone, especially the player ranked one spot out of the main draw. But I don't begrudge the players one of the four fat paychecks they'll get all year.
Read your men's seed report. Funny, but Roger Federer has had decent results on the clay this spring, while Novak Djokovic got bounced very early in Rome. In my opinion, Federer is still the second best on the dirt after Rafael Nadal, and if he can make the final, maybe he benefits from Djokovic and Nadal beating each other up in a five-set semi. Will you promise to eat crow if Federer wins the French?
-- Paul Urbanek, Los Angeles
• I'm telling you, these predictions are a sucker's game. Yes, I will eat crow. As long as it's the metaphorical variety or comes with a honey mustard dipping sauce.
Why have rankings if you are not going to use them and use them properly?
-- Brad M., Baltimore
• Totally agree. I made this point on Twitter and got hammered. But I'll do it again here. If you're going to depart from the rankings and have these quirky draws, whereby the top seed can play third seed, or the fifth and sixth seeds can meet in a quarterfinal -- in contravention with any draw known to mankind -- that's fine. But then don't claim the rankings are sacrosanct and you cannot possibly depart from them and give a seven-time French Open champion the top spot.
Nadal says that he prefers to win six non-major tournaments over one Grand Slam event. That's about as credible as Anthony Weiner claiming that he prefers serving the public over sending lecherous text messages! Why can't a journalist at one of Nadal's press conferences get him to admit that he's the greatest clay-court player ever and an overwhelming favorite to defend his French Open title? And yes, would be nice if Nadal also admitted that winning Slams is a top priority for him; otherwise, I would feel bad for having felt bad for him missing the recent U.S. and Australian Opens.
-- Jagjit Singh Bedi, Los Altos, Calif.
• I didn't hear Nadal make that remark. But let's go macro here. I've seen how the drill plays and players are so often in a no-win situation.
"How much must it mean to you to win in Peoria?"
What are you supposed to say? "Peoria? Meh. I'm all about the big prizes. Go big or go home, no?"
Is it true that Anthony Weiner has requested the ATP for permission to resurrect their "New Balls" slogan for his election campaign?
-- Gary Richards, Jersey City, N.J.
• The second Anthony Weiner references in one batch of mail. Impossible!
• There's another event going on this week. NCAA tennis enter here.
You said this about Tsonga in your French Open seed report: "unable to hold a 2- 1 lead in sets or convert four match points in a quarterfinal loss to Djokovic last year." My comment is this: must have been the hormones. That's all. (Oh, feels so good to get this off my chest).
-- Russianista, Bloomington, Ind.
• The YES Network will premiere its Venus Williams CenterStage interview show Wednesday at 11 p.m. ET.
• R.I.P. Ingrid Remak, a true tennis fan.