Paris in the spring: chestnut blossom, rain showers, red shoes and much close examination of ball marks on or near the line at Roland Garros, or ‘Rolly-G’ as Andy Murray’s absentee tweets have it. Tous les coups sont bons, as the French say. Roughly translated: All’s fair in love, war and tennis.
If Prince Otto von Bismarck or Niccolo Machiavelli were sitting in the Suzanne Lenglen stand, they might describe the annual slug-and-grunt fest as not so much a tennis tournament, more attritional trench warfare by another means. Choose the right match – Lendl v Wilander, for example – and you can safely watch the serve, wander off for a coffee, wait for it to cool and come back for the completion of the point.
Checking the record books I am surprised not to find Roland Garros more prominent on the list of longest rallies, longest game, set and matches. It’s not that the matches never end, but some of them do go on a bit.
Everyone says how sophisticated and knowledgeable the Parisian crowd is, sensitive to every finer point of the gladiatorial chess game being played out before them. Well, perhaps. It is the certainly the best-looking crowd in tennis, and the cameramen love to show their appreciation of French superiority in this department of the game, letting the lens dwell on the most charming female spectators in a shameless way the BBC would never allow.
Roland Garros comes to life when the crowd takes against a player, usually on account of her (or less often him) being insufficiently French or chic. Who can forget the way they reduced Serena Williams to tearful defeat in her 2003 semi-final against the mighty mouse Justine Henin, applauding what Dan Maskell would have called American double faults when an impartial observer would have had to say that in this instance bad sportsmanship was on the Belgian side of the net. They did the same to poor Martina Hingis when the Swiss miss thought she could repeat Michael Chang’s famous coup de théâtre and unsettle Steffi Graf with an underarm serve.
Big mistake. A joke repeated is never quite so funny as the first time we heard it; and there is all the difference in the world between making a fool of Ivan Lendl, who held the racket like an axe and had the look of a man on day release from Dracula’s castle, and pulling a fast one on Queen Steffi.
Although not present, ringside, to witness the historic Chang service cuillère in June 1989, I was watching the match live on French TV, and can still taste the intake of breath at the sheer cheek of it. With Chang mère blowing energy towards her 17 year old son from the stand, and the boy Michael devouring bananas by the barrow load between games, the David and Goliath epic wanted for nothing. When Chang’s antics provoked Lendl to double fault on match point the crowd roared its delight. If Mitterrand had been there to give the Imperial thumbs-down, Lendl would have made a tough supper for the lions.
A week later we were all rather less enchanted when Chang’s gamesmanship and tedious moonball tactics finally got the better of honorary Englishman and quixotic net-charger St Stefan Edberg of West Kensington, who so nearly pulled off the impossible feat of serve-and-volleying to win the French Open.
And when Chang had the arrogance to thank God for his victory, his fall from grace was justifiably complete. As Andre Agassi observed, if God wanted to show support for Chinese activists, stopping the tanks in Tiananmen Square might have been a more useful intervention than giving victory to an American in a tennis match beside the Boulevard Périphérique.
Goran Ivanisevic was another who liked to think God was on his side, but the Wimbledon crowd forgave him that and the moody Croat’s many other transgressions and spoilt brat tantrums. They loved him because Goran was credited with a sense of humour – not that anyone can remember him making a joke worth repeating – and had the sense to admit that he would have lost to Tim Henman, but for the divinely-engineered rain break.
The year after Goran’s Wimbledon victory I was sent to Zagreb to interview him for a magazine. After a long delay, he came down from his hotel room to the lobby where his minder was valiantly keeping the conversation going in a manner not unreminiscent of a Roland Garros baseline rally. Goran refused to shake hands, speak or look me in the eye; posed for a couple of photos and left.
So I carried on talking to the minder, and as this happened to be the former player Niki Pilic, the interview was considerably more interesting than it might have been with grumpy Goran. Pilic did his best to make excuses for his player, describing him as ‘very tired,’ as Goran had no business to be, the evening before an important Davis Cup match.
During the late 1960s and early ’70s Pilic was a top 10 player who was always there or thereabouts. More successful in doubles, his big moment as a singles player was reaching the 1973 final at Roland Garros, where he lost to a combination of Ilie Nastase and the weather, which was much like this year. “We had three days without playing because of the rain,” Pilic recalled, and of course there were no covered clay courts available for practice.
While Pilic kicked cans in the Bois de Boulogne, Nastase, the sneaky so and so, got Pierre Barthes to drive him south to sunny weather and a clay court near the Loire where he could practise his famous theatricals and keep his dainty dinks and drop shots in trim. When the clouds lifted on Paris, Pilic had no touch at all and won six games in three sets.
It did not help that two hours before the final Pilic heard that he was to be banned for dodging the draft in the Davis Cup, and would miss Wimbledon. Plus it was very windy and the court was slow …. Half a lifetime later his resentment at the unfairness of it all burned brightly.
The ban was unfair too, in Pilic’s view, and he persuaded 81 players including 11 of the 16 seeds to boycott Wimbledon in protest at his exclusion. Trivia quiz favourite Jan Kodes was the beneficiary of that walk-out, and is always described as a journeyman and most unworthy of Wimbledon champions. That may also seem slightly unfair, since Kodes already had two Roland Garros singles titles to his name, fairly won against all the field.
If Pilic’s career as a player came up just shy of ultimate fulfilment, as a producer of champions and captain of Davis Cup teams he has certainly delivered the goods. Three Davis Cup wins for Germany, one for Croatia and one for Serbia is a unique record. Becker, Stich and Ivanisevic came through his coaching and Munich tennis academy and, as he told me in 2002, “we have the European number one under-14 at the moment: Novak Djokovic from Belgrade. Remember the name.”