Always thequirkiest of Grand Slam events, Roland Garros could also be this year'sseason-shaping tournament
WHAT IS IT withthe French? The eternal question begs asking because that confounding Gallicshrug has again moved center stage. The French Open, which over the last twodecades has been the boutique stop of the Grand Slam circuit—the major leasttrusted to prove tennis greatness—is this year's swing Slam. If Roger Federerwins it, his career résumé will be complete, and the summer of 2007 will beinvigorated by his eminently viable quest to become the first man in nearlyfour decades to win all four majors. If Serena Williams triumphs, the seasonwill be energized by her even better chance of becoming the first woman tocomplete a calendar Grand Slam since 1988. For a sport in dire need of buzz,nothing could be better. But if they lose? Then the French paradox kicks in,and Roland Garros 2007 becomes merely the game's most grueling test.
This is noaberration. No other major comes close to matching the French Open's constantswing from pivotal importance to near irrelevance. After all, Paris is whereJimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras cracked time andagain, where Martina Hingis's career crashed and Andre Agassi was transformedfrom punk to legend. But it's also the premier spawning ground of tennisminnows, one-hit wonders such as Andrés Gómez, Michael Chang and Iva Majoli.Eleven of the 13 French Open male champions since 1989 never won a majoranywhere else; 2004 titlists Anastasia Myskina and Gastón Gaudio bombed out inlast week's first and second rounds, respectively.
Why so mercuriala major? The obvious reason is Roland Garros's slow playing surface. Manyblamed last week's U.S. debacle—by the tournament's third day all nine Americanmen had lost—on the lack of clay-court emphasis Stateside. But the women holdform more consistently on clay no matter where they grew up. "I spent mychildhood in America practicing on hard courts, and now I'm playing well onclay," said fifth-ranked Jelena Jankovic, who crushed Marion Bartoli 6--1,6--1 on Sunday to make the French quarterfinals. And U.S. women have never hadthe problems the men do with the surface. "I don't care if it's on clay orgrass, hard court or on mud," said Williams, who joined Jankovic in thequarters with an easy win over Dinara Safina. "I'm going to be doingwhatever it takes to win."
You can point tothe lousy footwork and shot selection of the U.S. males, but in Paris attitudemakes all the difference. For all the joie de vivre at the French Open, it'sthe one Slam where, coach José Higueras says, "you've got to be ready tosuffer." During the long points on clay, patience, smarts and hard work cantrump flashes of genius. "It's not ready-fire-aim tennis," saidtwo-time French Open champ Jim Courier. "You have to think your way throughit."
The French Open,in fact, usually serves an admirable purpose. It's the game's ultimate underdogevent, where the best fear the most because for two long weeks they aren'tquite so exceptional. But now is not the time for that. These are desperatedays. The tennis world needs the French to fall into line, which can mean onlyone thing. Beware the minnow.
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On March 24, 1999, 11-year-old Ana Ivanovic was on aBelgrade tennis court when she heard that NATO planes were on their way to bombthe Serbian capital to stop the Serbs' killing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.She remembers huddling with her family in a relative's cellar that night."That was a little bit scary," Ivanovic says. "The next day wemoved everything into one room on the ground floor." The bombing lasted 78nights, but if Ivanovic, now 19, has any scars, they don't show. Ever smiling,she used her crackling forehand to reach the quarters of the French Open withfellow Serbs Jelena Jankovic and Novak Djokovic. Tennis's Serbian Surge hasgiven her nation some of its best news in years. "It's a greatfeeling," Ivanovic says, "to represent our country."
BOB MARTIN (FEDERER)
DOCTOR DIRT Federer did not lose a set on the red clay on his way to the quarters.
REGIS DUVIGNAU/REUTERS (IVANOVIC)