In The Country, In The Bullring: A Day At Roland Garros

Five sets and then some in The Bullring, a noteworthy dearth of crepes, and other notes from a day at the French Open.
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It’s 6:55pm when the sun finally forces its way through the clouds that have been hovering low and occasionally spitting rain over the Bois de Boulogne all day. Evening light worthy of a Delacroix canvas brightens the resplendent red clay where French veteran Julien Benneteau and the Argentine qualifier Facundo Bagnis are locked in a first round French Open match. They have been blasting away at each other for three hours and two minutes on Roland Garros’ Court No. 1, known as the Bullring, the court which Tennis Magazine named the greatest venue in the sport. This is the first moment in which they’ve done so in the sunshine.

The cozy circular stadium has no big video screens, no giant scoreboards, no vendors, no piped-in music. The only decorations are the flags of tennis-playing countries, which hang limply on poles above the aisles. The stately vibe is that of a side courtyard at a Paris museum.

The match began shortly before 4pm, following an hour’s rain delay that brought out the burnt orange-colored tarps over the terre battue. The temperature had hovered in the mid-60s, the sky a silvery gray. It looked, for a while, as if there’d be no tennis at all.

It had also initially appeared that Bagnis, the heretofore unknown 24-year-old Argentine lefty, would walk away an easy winner. His concussive groundstrokes, especially his powerful topspin forehand not unlike Rafael Nadal’s, dominated the early baseline rallies. He banged shot after shot at the 32-year-old Frenchman with the skinny chest and receding hairline, knocking him back on his heels. Bagnis showed his game had depth too, working in some deft drop shots. He easily won the first two sets, dropping only three games in the process.

This was far from a marquee matchup. If it had been at any other Grand Slam, the pair would have been assigned to one of the outermost courts. But nationalistic home cooking is the rule in court assignments at the majors, and Benneteau was as French as the fans that turned out to cheer him on. The capacity home crowd, however, had nothing to cheer about. They watched the first two sets pensively, occasionally oohing at the Argentine’s groundstroke winners.

I was familiar with Benneteau, ranked 45 in the world at the start of the match; I’d never heard of Bagnis, who was ranked 143 and was, it turned out, playing in his very first Grand Slam. I’d also never heard the name Facundo, a name that brings to mind manure and freshly plowed fields. After watching him overwhelm Benneteau for two sets, I wondered how there could possibly be 142 better players on the planet. He was plowing, all right, running a tractor through a field of red earth, right over Benneteau.

After the whipping Benneteau took in the first hour, I had thought the only chance he had at not losing was a longer rain delay, perhaps one that would extend until the next day. At the end of the first set, sporadic sprinkles turned into a steady downpour that caused the umpire to stop play, but it was not heavy enough to send the players to the locker room and bring the tarps back out. After sitting for five minutes beneath umbrellas, the showers stopped and play resumed with Bagnis continuing to dominate.

Late in the second set there was a potential turning point. Bagnis approached the net, dove for a passing shot and came up gimpy. After he closed out the set, he called the trainer and got the top half of his right thigh wrapped in a bandage.

At that point Benneteau dug in and showed why he has been a regular on tour for 14 years. He has beaten Roger Federer twice; he seemed, suddenly, capable of beating Bagnis this once. He battled back into the match by mixing it up and getting more balls to Bagnis’s backhand, serving well, and relying on a vast array of shots. Bagnis began to make mistakes; his ranking seemed, suddenly, to make sense.

The fans felt it, too. When Benneteau jumped out to a third set lead, the French crowd came alive, standing, clapping, and shouting. The distorted shout of allez, a shout that sounds to my ears like “Aaaaaaa-lay-up,” echoed  around the Bullring. They also joined in a cheer that began with one person making a trumpet-like sound with their mouth to the tune of the opening of the bassline of  “Seven Nation Army” followed by the crowd yelling a coda that ended in “hurray!”

Benneteau won the third set decisively, dropping only one game. He rolled on through the fourth set, winning it 6-3. The first four sets had been fast, totaling only two hours and three minutes. We were into the final set, and far from finished.

***

My wife and I had gotten caught up in the fervor and had started pulling for Benneteau, more than anything just to join in the excitement, but also because we wanted to see a competitive match. I had hoped to see a five setter, but didn’t expect this to be a close fifth set. I assumed that Bagnis was hurting and overwhelmed and demoralized—later I learned that his all-time ATP Tour record is only 1-1—and would fold.

But in spite of the French crowd and the new life in his veteran opponent, and in spite of those two sets so loudly lost and his thigh wrapped in a bandage, Bagnis started the fifth set strong. He broke Benneteau to go up 2-1; the Frenchman kicked the Perrier sign beneath his chair on the changeover. It seemed then that the young Argentine was in control, bashing his groundstrokes, winning all the long rallies, wearing down the older, less powerful French player. The match was now into its third hour.

But, serving at 4-2, Bagnis played a shaky game and Benneteau broke back, putting the match back on serve and sparking the crowd back into life. “You know they don’t play a tiebreaker here,” I said to my wife, “so this could go 9-7, possibly 15-13. Or maybe even something like that Isner match.”

Her eyes got wide. “Don’t worry,” I said. “That probably won’t happen.”

2

Back in March, I stayed up half the night to buy tickets when they went on sale at 7am Paris time. Although the ultimate purpose of this trip was to celebrate the end of my wife’s nine-year journey to complete her PhD with a vacation of wine and food and museums that we had dreamed about for years, I bargained for one day of tennis on the side. After a life spent watching the grinding, primal tennis played at Roland Garros—Borg and then Nadal in dominant communion with the red clay, Ivan Lendl unmaking John McEnroe—it was a thrill just to hold our tickets.

We took the Metro to the western edge of Paris under rainy skies, following the line of ponchos and umbrellas into the grounds. My wife, not normally a collector of souvenirs, suggested as soon as we arrived that I buy a towel to wipe off our seats. A small, nondescript towel cost 30 Euros, but I decided to go big, and added to my growing American Express bill the official Roland Garros towel. It’s just like the ones used by the players, and cost a mere 43 Euros ($58)—only six Euros less than the cost of our tickets.

The tarp still covered the court as we took our seats at 11am, when play was scheduled to begin. When the scoreboard flashed the news that play would not begin before noon, we strolled around the grounds to find something to eat. I’d been warned by a friend that the concessions were disappointing. He was right, although the “double-hot dog”—a tubular processed-meat analogue to a double hamburger—that appeared to be one of the most popular items at least got points for originality. Numerous attendees were taking this double-dog dare, but there was not a crepe or croissant to be found.

Back in our seats we cheered along with everyone else when the grounds crew emerged with squeegees and began removing the puddles from the tarp, and then removed the tarp. The clay didn’t have the bright red color it has on sunny days, but there was a thrill in simply seeing it.

We stuck around for the first set of the first match in the Bullring, which pitted Kei Nishikori, a Japanese player whose recent run of success bumped him into the top ten in the world, against the lean, calf-tattooed Slovakian Martin Klizan, ranked 59 in the world. Nishikori was hurt and played sloppy tennis. After an unsightly first set wrapped up after nearly an hour, we lit off to see what other matches were going on the 15 active grounds courts, what the French call “out in the country.”

On Court 9 we found Michael Russell, the 36-year-old American who has held an ATP ranking since 1996 without ever rising higher than 60 in the world. He’s earned $2.2 million in his career, but considering that his career covers 18 years, it’s not much against expenses. In 2001, Russell reached the fourth round of the Open and took a two-set, 5-3 lead over Gustavo Kuerten, then ranked number one in the world. Russell held a match point, but lost in five. He was one point from the quarterfinals, and it was as far as Russell ever went in a major.

Four years from 40, and 14 years later, Russell has a career Grand Slam record of 7-31. It was not too serious a stretch to imagine him as a Rocky Balboa in waiting, the sort of gritty player who could go deep in a major and upset the stars who advertise for Rolex and travel with entourages of coaches and masseuses and cooks.

And if such an unlikely journey were to start anywhere, it might as well begin on the least glamorous court at Roland Garros. Court 9 is not the country—it’s the boondocks, a setting akin to a high school match. The only seating are five bleacher rows at one end; it’s standing room only on the side.

Russell started out with a strong hold and had a chance to break the serve of Alejandro Gonzalez, a lumbering 25-year-old Colombian ranked 77. It seemed to be a winnable match for Russell, a chance to earn both some ranking points and the 42,000 Euros he’d receive for reaching the second round. Russell hit a few nice drop shots, but then started falling apart, pounding flat groundstrokes into the top of the net. After each ball into the tape, he looked down at the court, as though something mysterious had happened to the ball when it bounced.

I wanted to shout out encouragement for Russell, but he looked so serious—and the French crowd in their mostly dark clothes so pensive in the drizzly gloom—that I worried a loud American voice would be received like a fart at a cocktail party.

Russell blew two break points, then lost his own serve and went down 3-2. A heavy rain kicked up, and the players ceded the court to the tarps. They left as they arrived—to no applause. We watched as they made their way through the crowd back to the locker rooms, the Parisians wondering who the hell they were if they noticed them at all.

***

This second rain delay began around 2:30. My wife had gone in search of wine or beer, and found it surprisingly difficult to find. She saw a glass of champagne for 14 Euros, but passed.

We went to the front gate and asked if we could leave the grounds and return. I figured we could walk to a nearby café and have a drink while we waited for the rain to stop. A handsome young man with striking blue eyes—my wife pointed out that all of the ushers, men and women, were good-looking, as though they are wearing colored contact lenses—politely told us it’s “imposs-seebla” to leave the grounds and return. And so it was.

3

We met up with Tennis Magazine's Peter Bodo outside the press area. To call him merely a “senior writer” seems insufficient—he’s tennis journalism’s Most Interesting Man in the World. He has covered the tour since the seventies and has written thousands of articles, as well as a number of books. His Courts of Babylon: Dispatches from the Golden Ages of Tennis is in my opinion the best book covering the Connors-Borg-McEnroe-Lendl years, and he collaborated with Pete Sampras and Patrick McEnroe on their memoirs.

He also happens to an expert fly fisherman and outdoorsman who has written a trout-fishing novel, a salmon fishing handbook book, and a book about deer hunting. He doesn’t take his young son to Disney World, he takes him horseback riding in Ecuador. He once climbed over the wall of Roland Garros in the middle of the night to try retrieve a misplaced notebook. This is all true. I do not know if he prefers Dos Equis.

He’s also unfailingly kind, the rare sort in magazine publishing who once answered my out-of-the-blue voice message regarding an article about my search for Bill Tilden’s lonesome grave in Philadelphia. He returned the call and found a space for it in the magazine, all in the space of about twelve hours. And even though he was in Paris working, and had a nice, warm, dry spot in the press center, he was glad to come out and talk with us for a while.

He told us he flew in that morning and was awake most of the night except for a little sleep on the airplane, and that he was preparing to cover Nadal’s match against Robby Ginepri. He said he hadn’t planned to write another tennis book, but wound up landing a contract for one about the 1975 Wimbledon final, in which Arthur Ashe upset the heavily favored Jimmy Connors. As with virtually every other meaningful tennis match in the last four decades, Pete had been there, in person, covering it. The Hero and the Hellion, the book is to be called, and it will be out next spring.

Again, the rain let up. Pete bid us farewell and went to watch Nadal while we headed back out to the Bullring. Nishikori had lost the second and third sets easily. We sat down just as Benneteau and Bagnis were starting up, hoping that we might belatedly make a day of it.

4

In a match that had been rife with service breaks and short sets, at 4-4 in the fifth set the Frenchman and the Argentine settle into a rhythm and each hold without much challenge. Starting at 4-5, Benneteau begins calling the trainer on changeovers, getting his legs rubbed; at one point a doctor comes out to check on him.

On the court, Benneteau looks fine, if exhausted. Both players strike the ball cleanly, driving groundstrokes deep into the court, hitting the ball hard. Either looks like he could win, provided the match ever ends.

On Bagnis’s serve, however, at 10-11, 30 all, Benneteau wins a long rally by bashing a hard crosscourt backhand that forces a Bagnis error. It’s match point for Benneteau. It’s also 7:30pm, more than three and a half hours after the match began. The crowd stands, rowdy and roaring. There are lots of distorted allez shouts now, until Bagnis toes the line and begins his service motion and all 3,800 or so gathered in this big circle fall quiet.

The Argentine hits a hard serve to Benneteau’s backhand, and the Frenchman returns it deep down the middle. It looks for moment like the ball has hit the tape to force a weak shot from Bagnis and the match could soon be over if Benneteau just puts the blooper away… but the line judge shouts “OUT!” with all his might. The crowd buzzes and Benneteau runs toward the net, anxious to see the mark. The umpire gets down from his chair and runs to the baseline and examines it and points it out, the ball just an inch or so back.

At the French Open, unlike the hard court and grass tourneys where high tech laser beams measure the landing of the ball, there is no Hawkeye technology, only the mark of the balls on the red earth. Clay court tennis leaves its mark on the ground. The mark Benneteau has most recently left is, it turns out, just a little bit long.

After the match point, Bagnis rebounds and holds serve. By this point my wife is very hungry, and she eats an old granola bar she finds in her purse. I tell her we might be seeing history, to hang on, that they can’t play indefinitely because these courts have no lights. At best they can see well enough to play until nine o’clock, maybe 9:15.

She has French-Canadian ancestry and has been pulling for Benneteau. Now she starts pulling for anyone who can win, for the end of the match. These five-setters without tiebreakers are crazy, she says, and many, like John McEnroe agree with her. The U.S. Open is the only major that ends the fifth with a tiebreaker; at the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and in Davis Cup, matches are played out in the fifth set until someone wins by two games.

And these days even best-of-five matches of any sort are rare, a form exclusively used in men’s singles in the majors and the Davis Cup; otherwise, men play two-out-of-three, just like the women. I’m thrilled to be here for the glory of a long five-setter, the ultimate physical test of tennis. Most likely five set matches without tiebreakers (and who knows, maybe five setters altogether) will one day go the way of 15-round boxing matches, nine-game world series, or American football’s helmet-to-helmet hits. Many factions want to shorten tennis matches, and it has already happened in ATP men’s doubles and much of USTA recreational league play, where “super tiebreakers” totaling ten points are substituted for a third set.

But what a loss that would have been. Bagnis and Benneteau’s play in the fifth set is super, their best tennis of the day. At 13-13, Benneteau goes down 15-30, and it seems he might be about dead, stretching as he is between points, obviously hurting and exhausted. But he ends a rally with a risky but perfect drop shot and then steps up to the line and bangs two aces, his 15th and 16th of the match, to take a 14-13 lead.

I feel certain in the face of Benneteau’s mettle that Bagnis will fade, reveal why he is ranked lower, and the experienced Benneteau who has fought so admirably to come back will win in front of his hometown crowd. Bagnis won three matches in the qualifying tournament last week just to be here; he should be happy with the ranking points he’ll get and the 21,000 Euros he earned for making the main draw. Pushing a much higher ranked player this far will be a moral victory.

Except Bagnis doesn’t go away. I realize that in spite of watching him now for four hours, I have yet to see him double fault (a check of the stats later shows he did, once, in the third set. It was his only double of the entire match.)

At 16-16 all, on Benneteau’s serve, Bagnis breaks through, hitting a deft drop volley winner to earn the first break of serve in 24 games—the equivalent of two full 6-6 sets.

At 17-16 he will try to serve out the match. Bagnis had been shaky when he held a previous service break, but now he’s rock solid, hitting big serves and playing strong on the groundstrokes, keeping Benneteau on the defensive. Bagnis goes up 40-30, match point.

He hits his big lefty serve out wide to Benneteau’s backhand, and Benneteau drives it down the line to Bagnis’s backhand. The Argentine hits the ball back into the corner, trying to hit behind Benneteau and wrong foot him, the classic clay court tactic, and it throws the Frenchman off for a moment. Bagnis follows his ball into net and takes Benneteau, who hits a defensive groundstroke back down the line, by surprise. The Argentine lunges forward and hits a backhand volley crosscourt into open space for a winner.

As soon as it’s obvious the ball is out of Benneteau’s reach, Bagnis collapses onto his back in the red clay, arms and legs splayed out wide in exultation as if he’d just won the championship. He smiles up at the sky and raises his arms. A total of four hours and twenty seven minutes have passed since the match started, a full two-and-a-half hours for the fifth set—they’ve played the equivalent of seven sets.

Bagnis has won a total of 195 points to Benneteau’s 187, but more importantly, he’s won the fifth set 18-16, tying the record for the longest fifth set in the long history of the tournament. Reports said Bagnis cried for twenty minutes after the match, talking on his cell phone to friends and family back home in Argentina.

***

We did not soak in it for long, and my wife swiftly and decisively nixed my suggestion that we sneak into the big stadium to see the end of Stan Wawrinka’s match, as it appeared that the Australian Open champion would fall. I was not suggesting it all that hard. No other match would be as good as the one we just saw, and anyway it’s time to eat. We were satisfied.

I was satisfied with Bagnis’s win because this sport is cruel to those like him who are not at the pinnacle. If you are the 143rd best baseball or basketball player in the world, you count your money by the millions. If you are Bagnis, you’ve earned a total of $26,000 in prize money this year coming into the French Open. His earnings-to-date in 2014 tripled based on winning this one match. The win meant a great deal to him, in more ways than one.

5

To turn any corner in Paris is to see something beautiful: the buildings, the light, the traces of history down cobblestone alleys in this ancient city. By the time we went to Roland Garros, we’d been through eight museums, including the Louvre. On the top floor, paintings by Delacroix and Corot and Rubens astound as they have for a century and more, not merely with their shadings of color and sentiment, but with the wild ambition palpable in every subtle shade.

A painting and a tennis match are different things, of course. But there is art to a brilliantly played battle, even if it is not between Federer or Nadal or Djokovic, but between the seventh-highest ranked player from France and the tenth-highest ranked player from Argentina.

Bagnis’s big forehand and Benneteau’s strong serve and his dogged backhand, his resolve to not go away after being pounded in two early sets, made for an evening in the Bullring that will endure. In tennis, as in boxing, the clashing of styles make fights. But the stubborn beauty of this match, the tenacity and the spirit of this most polite type of combat—that is what made this first round into a memory that will last.

Photos by Joe Samuel Starnes.


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