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French Open Aims to Serve : It May Rain on the Tennis, but Flavor Doesn't Change

June 03, 1989|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — The sun will play hide-and-seek behind white, inoffensive clouds.

-- Weather report for Day 4 of the French Open

On Day 5, those clouds got downright offensive.

A steady, cold drizzle fell upon Roland Garros Stadium Friday afternoon, preceding the appearance of a raft of umbrellas and turning the storied clay courts into something like red putty.

In France, this is regarded as both tragedy and opportunity. The matches might have been postponed for a while, but at the same time the rain provided an invitation to dine without the interruption of tennis.

Poor weather chased thousands of tennis fans under the green-and-white striped canopies in front of the many food booths. There they could sample such items as a croque monsieur, sort of a grilled cheese with ham, for about $3.50.

Also available were strawberry tarts, chicken and fries and the French version of a hot dog. The sausage is dropped into a hollowed-out area in the end of a loaf of fresh bread and then laced with spicy mustard that American TV commentator Bud Collins called "hotter than Steffi Graf's forehand."

Among other things, food and its consumption are a national pastime of the French, who naturally expect no dropoff in quality whether the setting is a restaurant on the Champs Elysees or a concession stand at a sporting event.

Apparently, this is nothing new. Noted tennis historian Ted Tinling said that more than 30 years ago, bread was carried in baskets once an hour to Roland Garros from a nearby village.

"We used to say in the 1950s that it was the best bread in the world," Tinling said.

For a while, French tennis was in a class with its bread, but that was more than 50 years ago, when the great French Davis Cup teams ruled the tennis world. They were the Four Musketeers--Jean Borotra, Rene Lacoste, Henri Cochet and Jacques Brugnon.

Sixty years ago, Lacoste defeated Borotra, 8-6, in the fifth set of a French Open final that is still a lively topic of conversation here.

Borotra and Lacoste now stand in bronze in a plaza just beyond stadium court. Soon the other two Musketeers, and French women's legend Suzanne Lenglen, will be joining them in Roland Garros.

Center court itself is a fortress of gray stone that opened on May 19, 1928. The chair umpire for the first match was 17-year-old Ted Tinling, who traveled with Lenglen as her personal umpire.

Tinling recalled how the French decided to embrace the maverick sport of tennis with a new stadium.

"Sport had been a dirty word in France," Tinling said. "Sport used to be rowing and shooting and horse racing."

The success of Max Decugis, the first great Parisian tennis star, persuaded the city's elders to construct a suitable place to stage tennis events. Since then, there have been several additions made to the buildings, which give the complex a unique architectural appearance.

"You now have to climb steps to get anywhere," Tinling said. "They must have had a sort of mania for stairs."

The French Open is the premier clay-court tournament in the world, and among the men, the names of its winners are dominated by players from nearly everywhere but North America, where clay is not the surface to which the players are accustomed.

The surface at Roland Garros is screened and graded natural red clay one-inch thick. The clay is made of special crushed brick from the village of Hermenon, which is about an hour's drive from here.

It is the clay that makes the French Open different. Like the grass courts at Wimbledon or the hard courts at the U.S. Open, the clay courts of Roland Garros require a completely different type of player and tactics.

Clay, especially damp clay, slows the bounce of the ball. Shots that would be winners on other surfaces are returned with ease on clay, where matches become tests of endurance and patience.

When Jimmy Connors lost to Jay Berger in the second round this week, he said that clay is certainly not his favorite surface, but admitted that he had enjoyed his experience on it nonetheless.

"Now I don't mind moving on to a surface where I can hit a winner or maybe cut the points a little shorter," he said. "Here, you give the ball a pretty good ride and it's coming right back at you."

Tennis purists, historians and guardians of the game are steadfast in their zeal that the Grand Slam be played on different surfaces so that a winner will be a true champion. Clay is unlike any other.

In a uniquely clay feature, there will be many times in the French Open when players point to the mark the ball left on the court to settle questions of whether it was in or out.

"It's a wonderful feeling to see the mark of the ball," Tinling said. "When I umpired for Suzanne, I looked at the type of grouping after points to see how she planned the point.

"If she hit a confident ball, I would see a long, pointed oval. Without exaggeration, a half-hour after the match I could count the winners."

France is in the business of counting winners. A country with a national daily sports newspaper, France takes its clay-court tennis seriously.

The French booed countryman Henri Leconte when he lost to Mats Wilander in the final last year, something that Leconte has never quite gotten over.

When Yannick Noah won his country's national championship on center court in 1983, he became an instant hero. Conversely, his first-round loss this week was treated as a national tragedy. As he addressed a phalanx of television cameras, Noah wasn't quite as devastated.

"I'm going somewhere to take my shoes off and relax," he said.

And he added that he would find a beach with sand, not clay.

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