Alert But Not Alarmed

French Open, Days Two and Three

The 2013 edition of the French Open is now three days old, and its first round isn’t yet complete. Yesterday’s rain is only partly to blame, since it barely distended a schedule that was already tumescent by design. Once again Roland Garros has inadvertently demonstrated that two days is the ideal length for an opening round, and that the heady tumult that characterises the commencement of a Major is only diluted by stretching it out. Julian Finney/Getty Images EuropeThere were times in the first three days when it felt like too little was happening, which should never be the case.

Perhaps in an effort to combat this, the doubles event kicked off yesterday, although this paradoxically only enhanced the sense of dilution. I am not one to inveigh against doubles; if anything I’d see it returned to its former prominence. But like it or not there is a hierarchy at play, and the commencement of the doubles traditionally signals the tournament’s inward contraction. Like a collapsing empire, it is the outer provinces that tell the story first. In the first round you can find seeded players toiling on remote, untelevised courts. From the second or third round these are replaced by doubles. By the second week the outer courts become the province of juniors, and a few days later they are finally consigned to wind and dust. This transformation is more apparent in person than on television, but even from the far side of the globe the early introduction of doubles suggests the tournament is further along than is the case. There’s an ideal tempo for these events, but Roland Garros, lavish with its rubato, never quite gets it right.

On the other hand, spreading the first round over three days does confer a more discernible shape on it. Like an inexpertly plotted three-act narrative, it started off slow, rose to a dramatic climax on the second day, and then mostly petered out on the third. I suppose the rain interruptions on the third day didn’t help. (They certainly didn’t help the Radio Roland Garros crew, whose overly-earnest efforts to fill time only succeeded in land-filling each listener’s brain.)

This shape was even apparent in the headlines. On the third day Stanislas Wawrinka dropped a set to Thiemo de Bakker, which was somehow characterised as a ‘hiccup’. A day earlier Rafael Nadal dropped a set to Daniel Brands, and thus ‘survived a scare’. This discrepancy probably says more about prevailing attitudes towards the respective victors than anything else, and to the expectation that elite players should sail through their early rounds without a care. It was also in keeping with the way Nadal’s matches are reported, and viewed. I confess I’m not sure what the ‘scare’ was. He might have dropped two sets? It takes three to win a match, and Nadal looked pretty good in the third and fourth. I suspect a fifth wold have been no different. In any case, while Brands led by an early minibreak in that second set tiebreaker, against Nadal on clay that hardly constitutes a decisive lead. Certainly not for the German, who was bold off the ground and often devastating on serve, but could hardly land a return when it mattered, and only broke once on a Nadal double fault.

Again, it is indicative of the widespread desire to multiply Nadal’s adversities. Somehow the story wasn’t that Nadal, on his favourite surface on a court he has barely ever lost on, weathered some inspired early play from a big hitter, before his vastly superior game won out. No, it was the Spaniard ‘overcoming’ his own internal demons – no other player’s errors are so conveniently metonymic for their internal state; every double fault and forehand into the net was apparently ‘nervous’ – and a mighty opponent. The fatuous narrative of the warrior spirit isn’t easily laid aside, even as it glosses over Nadal’s qualities as a player. Most of his forehands went in; were those nervous, too? Frankly, the hiccupping Wawrinka seemed more anxious, or at least tentative.

The dramatic centrepiece of the centre day was Gael Monfils’ perpetually magnificent and nerveless match with Tomas Berdych, which the Frenchman eventually won deep in the fifth set. This was one of the finest matches of the year so far: it had pretty much everything, and it had it in spades, for hours. For the first few sets it had a notoriously defatigable local surely wearied by recent exertions – Monfils claimed the Bordeaux Challenger two weeks ago, and reached the Nice final last week – playing the kind of enterprising athletic tennis everyone believes he should all the time. It then had a fight back from the Czech, who began dictating with his forehand and looked likely to complete his desperate scrabble from a two-set pit: a scare, a hiccup, and a dry retch, all a once. But somehow Berdych could never gain the crucial break in the fifth set. Monfils was broken only once all day, though by the middle of the final set serving seemed to be nearly all he could do, and even those were losing pace. Then at 5/5 he decided to pummel everything – he has astonishing power at his disposal when he deigns to employ it – and somehow everything went in. Whether he goes any further is anyone’s guess. He next faces Ernests Gulbis. And a guess is all it is: anyone who professes to know what will happen is lying.

The curse of Nice, whereby the new champion of the Open de Nice Côte d’Azur is destined to lose in the first round at Roland Garros, seems to have weakened of late. Albert Montanes was able to sneak out a five set win over Steve Johnson, whereas previously he would have lost in straight sets to anyone. Then again, perhaps the curse has merely relocated to Westphalia: Dusseldorf’s decision to discard its arcane team-based format in favour of an ordinary tournament draw has clearly angered some god. Newly crowned champion Juan Monaco was the first victim, blowing a two set lead against Daniel Gimeno-Traver.

Philipp Kohlschreiber won a reasonably tight and typically entertaining match against young Jiri Vesely, who for a set demonstrated his impressive capabilities, before the German’s greater experience eventually proved definitive. Kohlschreiber’s reward is a meeting with Yen-Hsun Lu, which is unquestionably the most attractive second round he could have hoped for (Lu, a renowned clay non-specialist, only progressed after Simone Bolelli retired hurt). On the subject of impressive youngsters, mention should be made of Nick Kyrgios’ fine victory over Radek Stepanek, in which he prevailed in three tight tiebreakers, saving more than a few set points in two of them. And on the subject of retirements, Kyrgios is now the only Australian remaining in the draw after Bernard Tomic gave up on chasing Victor Hanescu. We’d been warned this was a tough opening round test for Tomic, and so it proved, although the truth is that no first round could have been easy, even against Lu. He received a long medical timeout for his hamstring early in the first set, an injury that was later exacerbated by the loss of two sets.

This is also Novak Djokovic’s half of the draw, which has been riddled with retirements so far. Alejandro Falla withdrew against Grigor Dimitrov, Florian Mayer against Denis Istomin, and Michael Russell against Martin Klizan. Meanwhile the top seed was unfairly obliged to see off an opponent who kept going all the way to the end. Indeed, David Goffin never stopped coming, and played better than he has in ages. The power he can generate with his birdlike frame is reminiscent of Nikolay Davydenko, although if anything more startling. It certainly startled Djokovic, although it was never enough for a scare. He was alert, but not alarmed, and won in straight sets, the way the top players are apparently supposed to.


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