Flight 111 carried a groundbreaking AIDS researcher, a Saudi Arabian prince, a U.N. refugee commissioner, a Picasso painting, $4 million in cash and 4½ pounds of diamonds. The world of sports appeared to be only lightly represented. LaMotta's son and Rosset's near miss seemed the extent of it, and within a day Flight 111 slipped off the sports pages and ESPN. Who knew? Lost in the coverage, barely noted in the U.S. and barely mourned in his own country, was the man who had come from nowhere to achieve one of sport's quietest, most unlikely triumphs of 1998.
"This victory, it was one of the greatest moments in his life," Babolat says of his father, Pierre. On June 7, 1998, Pierre, 51, sat with Eric in the stands of Stade Roland Garros in Paris, cheering as Carlos Moyá won the French Open with a Babolat tennis racket. For a man who had grown up in a hallowed family business (Babolat made its first tennis strings out of cow gut in 1875) and felt that only a grow-or-die attitude would keep the company alive, it was a moment of vindication. For decades, Lyons-based Babolat had provided the stringing for the world's top tennis players—seven of the men's Top 10, including Pete Sampras, swear by Babolat gut—but Pierre had wanted to put his own mark on the company. So in 1994, with interest in the game slumping, racket sales shrinking and small manufacturers getting squeezed by the likes of Wilson, Prince and Head, Pierre had bulled ahead and unveiled the company's first racket.
"A lot of people said, 'They are crazy, they are launching at a time when everybody is thinking of stopping,' " Eric says. "We were so happy after. We had some stickers made with a picture of Moyá with the French trophy and Babolat's racket, and they said, THAT'S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU BELIEVE IN BABOLAT. My father put one on his car, which I found strange because he never had any sticker on his car. But he was so crazy about this, like it was his son."
It's a hot June afternoon. Eric has been sitting in his father's chair for 10 months now, but the office feels borrowed still. His father's books and tapes fill the shelves, and it's hard to avoid the past in this quaint former monastery that has housed the offices of Babolat's operation for five generations. Across the back courtyard lies the stringing factory, with its sheaves of yellowed cow gut resembling dried spaghetti; the R-and-D lab; and the racket-testing rooms. Eric, the fifth member of the family to run the company, is 29. He didn't expect to be here just a year after that win in Paris. His father had presided over Babolat, which is worth about $25 million, for only a decade and was just hitting his stride. Eric had been his point man in the racket division. Sales of the rackets had doubled every year. The Babolats had headed into the U.S. Open riding Moyá's momentum, expanding into countries all over Europe and making plans to move into Japan.
"It's a trauma," Eric says of Pierre's death. "I think of it every day. Not the crash so much, but him, and things I didn't do or say that I wanted to.... For many things every day I think, What would he have done? I feel him around me."
After he learned that his father had been on Flight 111, returning from meetings and matches at Flushing Meadow, Eric drove to Geneva thinking he would receive news, the body, something. But "after some time," he says, "they just told me there was nothing to wait for." When he returned to Lyons, of course, everything was different, "but the company did not stop," he says. "The first word from people here was, 'There's no way we will stop working. He wouldn't appreciate seeing us just crying and waiting, doing nothing. We will fight.' It was that way for them and for me: Get more involved in the work. Not to forget [my father's death], but to live with it."
For a century Babolat's main competition in the gut market was a U.S. company called Victor. Gut is expensive and fragile, used now mostly by rich amateur players and pros. In 1975, sensing that the mass market had shifted for good, Eric's grandfather decided to upend tradition and manufacture synthetic string as well as gut. Victor stuck stubbornly to gut, and, Eric says, "in the end they disappeared." Pierre wanted to make Babolat a power in rackets, too, and Eric vows to fulfill that ambition.
Babolat supplies free gut to many top players, including Rosset, who has been using the strings for 11 years. Despite that connection, Rosset sent the Babolats no condolences after the crash. In fact, contrary to his musings immediately following the disaster, he seemed utterly unaltered by his brush with death. Simsolo, who had been coaching Rosset for only a month, was looking for a way to lighten the player's brooding manner on the tennis court; he felt that was key to bringing the then 27-year-old Rosset back into the Top 10 for the first time in three years. Simsolo saw the crash as the perfect impetus: "It could've been the best thing to happen to him. If that doesn't affect him, what will?" But Rosset continued his usual slog through practices and matches, and by the end of the following week, after Rosset had lost in the second round of a tournament in Tashkent, Simsolo couldn't hide his frustration. The two men argued. "I told him, 'Don't be so depressed. We could be dead; we could be in the water!' " Simsolo says. "But he said, 'So what? Tomorrow a roof tile could fall on my head.' I realized it had had no effect on him. I don't know why."
Rosset has continued to bob around the nether reaches of the Top 35, and despite making a nice run into the quarterfinals of the 1999 Australian Open and winning a tournament in Russia in February, he split with Simsolo in June. Rosset had long since grown bored with the subject of Flight 111; he summed up his thoughts on it with a simple, "I thought I would be changed, but I'm not." Indeed, when Christmas 1998 rolled around, Rosset acted as if the year had held nothing extraordinary. His usual card arrived at the Babolat office, no different from his card in any other year. He wished everyone there the best.
No, he doesn't mind. You want to talk about it? Jake LaMotta blows a thick billow of cigar smoke in your face. He shrugs. "Other people do the same thing," he says. "They ask. They're all curious about it. And yet, in the back of their minds, they want to know more: How much? When it comes to money, everybody gets greedy. It's the furthest thing from my mind. Whatever I'm getting, I'll leave for my daughters. I don't need it. I don't have to spend it. How much? How much? Ahh, Jesus. Greed."