Subsidiary Interests

French Open, Day One

The 2013 French Open is under way, having as usual commenced one day early, on Sunday. This has allowed some lucky players to go home even earlier than usual. I’m patriotically obliged to mention that three of these players are Australian. It’s been years since any of my compatriots reached the second week in Paris. Now they’re lucky if they reach the first week. I’m not sure that’s progress. Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios are the last Australian men standing, thanks entirely to the vagaries of the draw, and the persistent whimsy of French scheduling. Tomic will face Victor Hanescu in what the local news last night termed a ‘tough opening match’. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images EuropeI wonder what the German news said when they learned Daniel Brands will face Rafael Nadal. Being German, I suspect they have a special word for it.

It is a measure of how far we’ve come that when the French Open draw unfurled in Paris last Friday, in a ceremony decidedly less ambitious than the equivalent one hosted in Melbourne four months ago, the only item of popular interest was whose half Rafael Nadal fell into: Novak Djokovic’s or Roger Federer’s. In other words, is the Spaniard obliged to face Djokovic before the final, or in it? It is widely believed among self-avowed experts that no one besides those two has much of a chance, at least not at the title. Who Nadal happened to defeat on the way was of subsidiary interest. Anyway, the feared outcome: they’re drawn to play in the semifinal. The sense of disappointment was palpable, or at least highly audible. Even reaching the semifinals is a longshot for any player beyond the top four seeds, with the arguable exception of Tomas Berdych, since David Ferrer wasn’t particularly convincing in beating Marinko Matosevic, although I suppose he was persuasive enough. Flaccid interest is only further deflated when you can essay a reasonable guess at the last weekend’s configuration, based only on the luck of the draw. It’s no wonder the ceremony was a low-key affair.

Anticipating greater intrigue – wrongly as it turned out – the Australian Open staged its marathon draw ceremony on the banks of the Yarra River, along which Djokovic and Victoria Azarenka very gradually appeared, while media personalities riffed endlessly and foreign journalists despaired as deadlines expired. It was all great fun, assuming your threshold for enjoyment is low, and you had nowhere else to be. Eschewing the tawdry grandiloquence of nature in favour of the Roland Garros media centre, Friday’s affair strove for less excitement, and achieved it. Nadal was joined by Maria Sharapova for the apparently necessary, though not particularly spectacular, task of drawing names from the respective trophies, or at least pretending to. Drawing out these names is the traditional job of the defending champions, meaning Nadal and Sharapova were at once perfectly qualified and thoroughly over-qualified, since this is a job that a not-very-bright robot could perform adequately. I assume it’s the symbolism that matters. Perhaps when the machines take over, they’ll allow us to retain our token jobs.  There was a time when a newly minted tournament draw echoed the limitless potential of a blank map – it was all possibility – or like a misted forest, from which discernible shapes only gradually coalesced. Now the fog of war barely descends, and the entire forest is laid out panoramically from the outset. A few mighty beacons, positioned at the corners, are visible from miles off. You can hardly miss them. There are guidebooks available at the information centre.

In the eleven Majors contested since Roland Garros 2010, at least three of the top four seeds have reached the semifinals every time. On four of those occasions all four top seeds reached the semifinals. Add to that the fact that the only two men besides Djokovic, Federer and Nadal who’ve won Majors since January 2005 – Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro – aren’t playing in Paris, it’s hard to get terribly excited on anyone else’s behalf, no matter how much one yearns to. Those waiting on generational change will need to maintain their vigil awhile yet.

Given his legendary skills, Federer arguably could have fashioned a more generous draw for himself, but he would have needed help, and perhaps sorcery. There is no good reason to think he’ll lose before the semifinals, unless one of his French opponents gains an aptitude for the surface he has hitherto lacked. Asked afterwards, Federer admitted hadn’t even heard of his first round opponent, who was the young qualifier Pablo Carreno-Busta. It’s a shortcoming he apparently had in common with Twitter. Federer set about acquainting himself the hapless youngster via the medium of constant service breaks. IBM’s ineffable Slamtracker suggested that a decisive metric would be Carrena-Busta’s capacity to win more than 18% of his first serves with aces. Insofar as he failed to do this, and lost, I suppose we must bow to the Slamtracker’s superior analysis. Perhaps next year it can do the draw. Meanwhile humanity, in the form of social media, collectively managed nothing more memorable than some tedious punning on ‘Busta’. Otherwise ordinary people suddenly found nothing mattered more to them than outdoing each other’s references to Young MC’s timeless masterpiece. It was precisely as hilarious as it sounds. Federer next faces Somdev Devvarman, another qualifier.

The first day’s centrepiece was Gilles Simon’s recovery from two sets adrift, the first time he has achieved this feat in his career. His eventual victim was Lleyton Hewitt, whose experience with first round disappointment now rivals that of the notorious Bye brothers. Hewitt was magnificent at the start, though Simon was frankly terrible. My antipathy for Simon’s game is not based on the fact that his style is dull. It’s that it is unnecessarily dull. He proved this in the third set, by stepping in, taking the ball early, and redirecting it to the corners. Once again, I was left to ponder why he doesn’t play like this more often, if not always. I don’t know if he’d win a lot more fans, but he’d certainly gain one. Naturally, he didn’t maintain his enterprising play once parity had been restored, but nonetheless seemed content to coast to the finish. The twist came at the end, as Hewitt recovered from 0/5 down in the fifth set, saving match points and levelling the score, only to be broken to love to lose it. Milos Raonic played his best match in weeks to see off Xavier Malisse, and will now face Michael Llodra in what will undoubtedly be an archetypal clay court encounter. Look out for that one.

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