The arduous beauty of Roland Garros

Roland Garros.

Two words. That’s the piece really. They evoke an other-worldly, retro vision of sport. Just as they reek of the kind of old money that oozes out of the elegant buildings that line the tranquil streets of Paris’s 16th Arrondissement.

This is where Roland Garros is to be found — the home of the French Open — and the only one of the four majors where the tennis is played on clay, which feels positively 19th century.

A first glimpse of the deep rusty terra cotta clay, caught between the gaps in the fencing of an outside court, is strangely exhilarating, like spying a Marilyn Monroe or a Frank Sinatra smoking in their trailer while waiting for their next call onto set.

Vintage, yet somehow fresh as well as beautiful.

The French are proud of their unique clay. The Roland Garros website waxes lyrically about its history, while recounting the precise alchemy of the fabled surface.

Apparently, the earth is “covered with a total of five layers each around 80 centimetres in depth: the first is made up of stones, followed by gravel, clinker (volcanic residue), limestone and finally a thin layer of crushed brick about two millimetres thick”.

The stadium infrastructure, however, has been modernised, and skilfully so — the Philippe Chatrier centre court feels like the tennis equivalent of the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre in London in that every seat is comfortable and with clear, unobstructed views of the stage.

But in keeping with the retro feel there is no use of digital technology to help with close line calls. Instead, when a line judge gets it wrong, the umpire will scamper down from their lofty seat perched up above the net and with extraordinary speed get to the point where the ball did or did not hit the line and point with admirable decisiveness to the spot, which, being clay, leaves a terra cotta mark on the white line or an indentation in the clay.

The place is full of such eccentric quirkiness. A night ticket entitles the owner to enter only at 6.30pm, yet if the ticket is to one of the three show-courts, the match will only start at 8.45pm (preceded by a nod to modernity with an international DJ in the mix 15 minutes before – although being Paris, both start 10 minutes later to allow patrons to finish their oysters and take their seats).

That the security to get into the grounds is tight is not surprising. Paris suffered its own 9/11 moment just seven years ago, when 130 people were killed, including 90 at the Bataclan theatre. Just in front of me a young Italian man has his rolled-up flag confiscated because it is “too large”, although I suspect it may simply have been a bit “too Italian”.

It helps me make up my mind as to who I will quietly back in the match between world number 4 (and the fourth seed here), the 23-year-old Greek player Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Lorenzo Musetti, a young Italian, playing only his fifth major tournament.

Musetti is ranked 51 in the world and is three years younger than the Greek. Both of these facts are evident in the early games, as Tsitsipas races to a 4-1 lead in the first set of this first round match, without really breaking into a sweat or showing much inclination to do so.

He is bigger and stronger; and clearly more street-wise.

It looks like it will be a very one-sided affair. But then it gets interesting. Suddenly, Musetti’s timing clicks into place and his backhand shots — so impetuous and ill-placed in the early games — begin to pierce Tsitsipas’s defences.

Extraordinarly – exhilaratingly – the young Italian wins 10 of the next 11 games. That’s quite a turnaround. And amidst the whipped backcourt shot there is a liberal sprinkling of delightfully deft drop shots that not even the athletic Tsitsipas, so agile for such a large chap, can get to.

These drop shots also have a retro feel, reminiscent of a modern-day Ilie Nastase, who loved clay but only won the French once, in 1973.  

The tables are turned. Now it is Tsitsipas who is 1-4 down, in the second. He is certainly sweating now. Yet he mounts a fightback, but Musetti is still in the zone apparently, and holds on thrillingly to win the set 6-4.

The shifts in momentum and the corresponding impact on the morale of the opponent seem clearer in the flesh than on television, even though perversely one does not have access to close-up images of the players.

The task for the number four seed, who was a losing finalist in 2021, is no different from when the match started: he must win three sets to win the match. Now, however, there is no margin for error; he must win all three remaining sets. And, to do so, he must summon a deep resolve; he must rapidly gain ascendency and then not let go.

Being so close to the action, seeing the extraordinary physical effort that goes into each and every shot, and the skill that both players show, reveals that this is even more about temperament than perhaps for other sports.

Alexander Zverev of Germany receives medical attention following an injury against Rafael Nadal of Spain during the Men’s Singles Semi Final match on Day 13 of The 2022 French Open at Roland Garros on June 03, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Cricket commentators talk now about winning a (two-hour) session of play. Tennis is broken down into the most precise, almost molecular, pieces. Three to five hundred of them in a five-set match — similar to the number of balls bowled during one single day of a cricket Test match.

Yet with tennis every single little piece is worth a point. Unlike a batter, a tennis player can’t leave the ball. In tennis, there are none of cricket’s “dot” balls (no score, so the scorer puts a dot in the scorebook).

Every point is a self-contained arm-wrestle. Amateurs let some points go; to give themselves a mental as much as a physical break. They have neither the aptitude (nor the skill) to compete on a professional stage.

The pros can’t and don’t. They really do fight for every point. They know that let a few go and you will very suddenly have lost a game to your own serve and then the climb back up is even steeper.

It is a gladiatorial, titanic battle of willpower, rendered even more thrilling and dramatic by colour and texture of the clay, which permits slides and thus encourages athleticism as well as skill.

Musetti’s rhythm evaporates. The momentum’s flipped. Tsitsipas is now in control, and after seven lame double faults, starts to land his 210km/h first serves. This is how it continues and this is how it ends.

In the annals of tennis history, the Greek’s 5-7, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 victory will not merit any great mention. Yes, the numbers show that for two sets the favourite was unsettled and an upstart threatened a shock defeat, but then succumbed to the better, more experienced player.

Yet neither the raw record nor this brief account of what happened do justice to the minor drama and still less the joules of energy expended, and the entertainment that was provided.

And, just in case, remember this name: Lorenzo Musetti. His time will come. Perhaps he will turn out to be the next Rafael Nadal, who this past weekend won his 14th French Open title and 22nd major. A true GOAT, Nadal is the undisputed King of Roland Garros.

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Richard Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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