Saturday, May 23, 2020

Un moment triste

Centre Georges Pompidou (photo by Diane Elayne Dees)
The French Open is my favorite major. I've never attended it, and when I was in Paris, I didn't even go to the Roland Garros site (I'm not sure why), though I did attend the quarterfinals of the Paris Masters event. But I love watching it.

Part of the reason that I love watching the French Open is that I simply enjoy watching clay court tennis. Also, I was a huge fan of Chris Evert's, and so watching the French Open was always very exciting for me. In 1985, when Evert made her Roland Garros "comeback" against Martina Navratilova (I was a fan of Navratilova's, too), I was in Chicago with a friend, and we were staying at the home of a very rigid, unpleasant person. (This was via one of those organizations in which people swap dwellings for visits--we had already vacated the first one, it was so terrible. I should add that I had nothing to do with this.)

It was our last day in Chicago, and our host insisted we go to a local festival. I announced that I was staying in the apartment, which didn't go over well with her at all, and probably didn't go over well with my friend, either. But I wanted to see the French Open final. I was so glad I stayed! It was an electrifying match (I have it on DVD), and it gave Evert a renewed clay court star status.

Evert won the French Open seven times, and would have undoubtedly won it a few more times had she not been playing World Team Tennis, whose matches occurred simultaneously with the French Open for a while (reason number 100-something why we cannot compare eras).

Suzanne Lenglen won the French Open four times when it was a French-only event, but only twice after it became an international event, i.e., a major. Steffi Graf won it six times. Justine Henin won it four times, as did Helen Wills Moody.

French women who won the French Open when it ceased to be a French-only event:
Suzanne Lenglen (2)
Simonne Mathieu (2)
Nelly Adamson Landry (1)
Francoise Durr (1)
Mary Pierce (1)

Perhaps the most dramatic French Open victory of recent times belongs to retired Italian player Francesca Schiavone. In 2009, Schiavone was defeated in the first round by Australian Sam Stosur. In 2010, the two met in the final, with Stosur generally favored to win (but not by this writer). The Australian had done a lot of heavy lifting throughout the tournament, defeating Justine Henin, Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic (and--as a historical footnote--qualifier Simona Halep, in the first round). Never had Stosur looked so strong.

But Schiavone, who had brought her Fed Cup coach along to guide her, appeared as though her entire professional life had been merely a preparation for this moment. Using her signature slice, and some expert volleying and a lot of spin, the Italian player won in straight sets, ending the match with a dramatic tiebreak, in which she put on a virtual clay court clinic.

Schiavone's kissing the clay turned into an iconic photograph, and it was a pleasure to share her joy over the victory. She would reach the final again in 2011, too, but would be defeated by Li Na.

I feel compelled to mention Svetlana Kuznetsova, who won the French Open only once (2009), but who, arguably, should have won it a few times. Kuznetsova was in one other Roland Garros final--2006, and she lost that to Jusine Henin. She also reached the semifinals in 2008, but lost to countrywoman Dinara Safina. The Russian's clay game is excellent, but she was able to hold the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen only once.

It is a reasonable expectation that recent champions Garbine Muguruza and Simona Halep will win the event a second time (and it would be splendid to see them together in a final); I would like to see Alona Ostapenko win it again.

In "normal" times, the French Open would begin this weekend. As it is, we must be content with watching classic matches and reminiscing about our favorite champions. It's a sad time.