- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The same thing that Red Brick must go through to become the clay on which the French Open is contested, a tennis player must go through to win the thing. The surface at Roland Garros is brick pounded into a fine, russet dust; the players pound each other for two weeks, with the fickle Parisian weather getting in a few licks too. Tare battue, the French call red clay—literally, beaten earth—and this year even the winners, Spain's Sergi Bruguera and Germany's Steffi Graf, were by the end both beaten in their own, happy way.
So it was that Bruguera, a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 victor in Sunday's engrossing men's final, lay flat on his back, unable to celebrate his triumph with the customary exultation and jaunt to the net. The man he beat, two-time defending champion and second seed Jim Courier, hoisted him to his feet. "To win at Roland Garros, everything has to be aligned—the heart, the head, the legs," says Sergio Casal, Bruguera's Davis Cup teammate and fellow Catalan, in a testament to the slow surface. "You know you'll have to suffer to build each point." Over nearly four hours, the 10th-seeded Bruguera cobbled together enough points to pull off the upset and win his first Grand Slam title.
Courier described his route to the final as "going to work and clocking in." Bruguera, meanwhile, was working half time, and that may have been his key to victory. The trick at Roland Garros is to spend as little time as possible securing each win, so that you have a few whacks left in you for the next opponent. Before he and Courier hooked up, Bruguera had averaged only one hour and 43 minutes per match, including a 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 second-round rout of Thierry Champion. (If you're looking for an omen that a French title is meant to be, serving a triple bagel to a Parisian named Champion is a pretty good one.) Bruguera needed every bit of the energy he spared, for he would require treatment for exhaustion and dehydration in the training room after the championship match.
Like most clay-courters, Bruguera, who's 22, unspools a long-drawn forehand seasoned generously with topspin. Yet the skills he displayed as he marched through the draw were far from stereotypical for a clay-court specialist. In his six matches before the final, he lost serve only five times, and Courier would wind up on the business end of numerous deft volleys. When a clay-courter on clay folds thunder and lightning into a sound baseline game, it's not a question of beating him, only of how nobly you will lose.
With all due respect to the two champions, few recent Grand Slam tournaments have been so dominated by those not present as this one was. Andre Agassi didn't enter because of tendinitis in his right wrist, although he did find it within himself to fly to Paris on the eve of the tournament to appear at a function on behalf of his corporate patron, Nike. There he tossed off a remark about Pete Sampras, the American who's No. 1 in the world. "Nobody should be ranked No. 1 who looks like he's just swung out of a tree," Agassi said. This utterance belongs on a shelf alongside Agassi's 1990 description of Philippe Chatrier, president of the International Tennis Federation at the time, as a "bozo" and his 1991 comment that reaching the finals of the French that year had left him "as happy as a faggot in a submarine." To his credit, Sampras resisted the temptation to point out that no one should win Wimbledon who looks as if he has just scrambled out from under a bridge. Instead Sampras graciously accepted an apologetic fax from Monsieur L'Image C'est Tout.
A much more agreeable Andre—or Andrei—did play: Medvedev, the 18-year-old ethnic Russian from Ukraine, whose personality is far too outgoing to be confined by a tennis court. Medvedev means bear in Russian, and in this case it is no misnomer. He's 6'4", with the painterly strokes of Miloslav Mecir to go with his power, and before Bruguera brought him rudely to heel in the semifinals, Medvedev eliminated third-seeded Stefan Edberg and enchanted everyone he came in contact with.
Medvedev kept a stash of autographed pictures in his equipment bag so that he could service his fans as obligingly as possible. During a second-round victory he spotted a fetching woman cheering him on and, astonished that he should merit her affections, directed a lingering smile her way. "When I want to laugh, I cannot hold my smile," he said later. "That is what I wanted to do, because she was beautiful. I am not like a robot. I cannot only hit the balls." Although his English is staggeringly good, Medvedev says, "I still want to have the accent, because I think it is charming."
The most notable absentee was Monica Seles, sidelined since April 30 with the knife wound she received from a deranged fan of Graf's during a tournament in Hamburg. (This incident, coupled with the apprehension in Rome two weeks later of another German tennis sicko, who tried to enter the grounds of the Italian Open with several knives and a gun and told police he was James Bond, led to unusually strict security. When a fan tried to present Graf with a bouquet of yellow roses last week, a rent-a-cop inspected each blossom before permitting her to accept them.) Seles did nonetheless seem to be on hand for the first week in the form of Iva Majoli, a 15-year-old from Zagreb, Croatia. Majoli giggles like Seles. She grunts like Seles. She does her hair like Seles. She whacks her two-fisted backhand passing shot—picked up at Monica's alma mater, Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy—like Seles. She clearly enjoys the comparisons, making her perhaps the only Croat on earth right now delighted to be mistaken for a Serb.
But Majoli was just a poor imitation, as Graf made clear by shooing her away 6-4, 7-6 in the round of 16. The real thing was convalescing in Vail, Colo., disappointed that the Women's Tennis Association had decided not to freeze her atop the rankings until her return. The WTA made its ruling after canvassing players on the tour for their feelings on the matter. The organization was unmoved by pleas from the Seles camp that to fail to keep her at No. 1 would give her attacker the satisfaction of seeing his stated goal—not to kill her, but to injure her sufficiently so Graf might lord once again over women's tennis—come about.
Graf was one of the first people to visit Seles in the hospital. But ascending to No. 1 during Seles's absence, which Graf did by reaching the French final, seemed to leave her out of sorts. Every inquiry about the rankings she sliced away with verbal backhands. "Over the years I've said the rankings don't mean much to me, and that's the way I feel now," she said as the tournament began. "What I care about is winning here." When Bud Collins, the man who has popularized the Graf moniker Fräulein Forehand, came upon her following her 6-3, 7-5 quarterfinal victory over Jennifer Capriati, he was struck by her downcast mien. "Smile," he urged her. "It's not Fräulein Forelorn."