“A city under siege” was the striking assessment of Paris by John Inverdale during the Roland Garros tennis tournament. It was certainly a city that had experienced a tumultuous two weeks, with disruptive strikes, horrendous weather conditions, and preparations for the Euros football tournament in under a week. All whilst France was a country in a state of emergency.
The French Open seemed to occur in the background of all this, a microcosm for the city. It was experiencing its own battering of projectiles from the sky, hectic and confusing schedules for the players, dwindling crowds, and a recalcitrant flying camera. If that wasn’t enough excitement for two weeks, the extraction of several statues from the Louvre to avoid water damage gave commentators and presenters alike unprecedented scope to pepper the TV audience with an unhealthy dose of metaphor and imagery. Indeed Marion Bartoli, drawing on the plight of these tragic mythological characters, saw the women’s final as an opportunity to “save” this year’s tournament.
This heavily sensationalist rhetoric was designed to reinforce the seemingly accepted narrative line that the tournament was somehow a failure. On reflection though, such a view may be fundamentally mistaken.
The weather was admittedly frustrating and mutilated the pre-arranged schedule for the players. There was a complete washout on the Wednesday, and only a couple of hours play on the Thursday. The idea that the men’s final may be played on the Monday was treated as an apocalyptic scenario for the ITV team, heralding judgement day. Further disturbances were caused by a rowdy crowd at court Suzanne Lenglen, although this is not atypical behaviour from the French spectators, who seemed to be goaded on by the progressively more exasperated pleas of “merci” from the umpire.
Flying objects were an irritance for both players and linesmen, most notably Andy Murray. The winged SkyCam has become the bane of Murray’s existence, surreptitiously stalking him from on high, and forcing him to do battle on court against two foes. Pigeons disrupted play on the outer courts, swooping down and forcing players to duck and weave. And, perhaps the most controversial moment of the tournament, Novak’s infamous throwing of his racket on-court, rebounding and narrowly avoiding the furrowed brow of a linesman, deep in concentration.
Many purists were up in arms, enumerating a litany of counterfactual possibilities, that Djokovic would have had to default if the racket had made contact or other punitive measures. Perhaps it was moments like this that compelled Bartoli to pronounce the tournament such a disaster.
But it seems to me that tennis experiences a tension between two very divergent perceptions of how the sport should be played. On the one hand, there is this utopian picture, emanating from Wimbledon, that tennis must be perfectly organised, and follow strict rules of decorum and propriety. Personified much like the quintessential English gentleman, patiently waiting in queue, being polite and reserved, showing gamesmanship in winning, magnanimity in losing. On the other hand, there is a richer view of tennis as a violent clash between two ferocious beasts, more akin to a boxing match than a game of bowls, full of controversy and contained chaos. Players experience the whole range of raw human emotions, betrayed by their mannerisms, shot selection, and unforced error count. All these elements of tennis are interwoven into some devised fantastical narrative that develops with twists and turns over the tennis season.
The tension between these two positions is further evidenced in our treatment of the players. Many of the players are understandably introspective and taciturn; to become a ‘Great’ at tennis requires serious mental fortitude and profound self-awareness, qualities that don’t nurture gregariousness of personality. So they are given space, silence during game points, interviews kept respectively to a minimum. And yet, we build into them or interpret their behaviour, a whole wealth of personality traits. Murray, the intellectual battler, recently married, dark horse and dry joker; Djokovic, technically superior, but under pressure, nice guy, wants to be loved; Nadal, fiery superstitious perfectionist; Federer, God. Each of them are constructed as unique but troubled characters, taking part in some Games of Thrones spin-off drama, all vying for supremacy over the others.
The French Open this year had the perfect synthesis of both controversy and chaos, order and expectation. There were disappointing moments and it was a shame to see both Nadal and Tsonga leave the competition due to injuries. But it was an extremely entertaining tournament, with many talking points: Stepanek nearly forcing Murray out first round, Djokovic seriously challenged by a young Spaniard, all the players dealing with rain and the cold apparently for the first time, and various on court and off court shenanigans. Moreover, the quality of the tennis on display was absolutely superb.
So I would challenge the view, espoused by Bartoli et al., that the French Open was in any way a failure. A view that is guilty of expecting perfect organisation whilst ignoring the drama and controversy that are essential to tennis, which Roland Garros, this year, had in abundance. It was a messy tournament but, undoubtedly, a great spectacle.