It is funny what absence occasionally does – the two year gap between my last fleeting visit to Roland Garros and the present day has allowed it to become one of my favourite getaways; the Slam where most people who attend actually care about tennis in the 50 weeks of the year when it isn’t going on. As so often is the case, I leave a tennis major knowing that tennis was the winner despite, and not owing to, the organisers. I’m sure you would have seen a theme develop in my review of the good and bad of my French Open 2016 without that small precursor to what is to come in my summary of what I experienced in my three days at Roland Garros.
Radek Stepanek used every last drop of the wiliness he has gained over the years to push Andy Murray to the brink of his first opening round defeat since the 2008 Australian Open on Monday night. True, Murray was out-of-sorts but this mustn’t detract from a tremendous showing from the 37-year-old Czech (it is now obligatory to use his age as an adjective at all times when mentioning Stepanek). His persistent use of the dropshot was well-documented but I am glad that Murray acknowledged how well Stepanek volleyed too. I had chickened out and left with the Scot trailing two sets to nil on Monday night so was over-the-moon at getting the chance to see Part 2 on Tuesday. The man from Dunblane (or Glasgow according to the scoreboard) needed every inch of his fight to prevail. The five sets will do him well (the later five sets today against French qualifier Mathias Bourgue less so) but he has big work ahead over the next ten days if he is to trouble Djokovic.
That match was the only one I chose to watch on Court Philippe Chatrier throughout Monday and Tuesday and the swathes of empty seats do not implore you to come in and join the fun. Whilst the ‘cheap seats’ had filled up towards the end of a titanic tussle, it has to be said that pricing structures continue to make tennis look under-attended on TV. The true tennis fans are pushed to the top but once there it really is difficult to feel a part of things, therefore I frequently sought comfort on the outer courts. It is of course essential to have VIP sections and those people have paid enough to choose when to have their lunch. But Wimbledon has it right (not often you see me write that) with a standard price for the rest of the tickets. How much longer this will be the case remains to be seen now that the Australian Open has joined its French and US counterparts in introducing category pricing.
The expansion of seedings to 32 rather than 16 15 years ago (thanks Wimbledon!) was a disappointing move; it took away an unpredictability around Grand Slams that will never be fully recaptured. Nowadays, we must wait for a dip in form or an injury to get the first round matches we crave. Grigor Dimitrov’s fall from ‘Baby Federer’ to ‘next big hope’ to ‘also-ran’ appears to be now complete on the surface (and this surface). His five-set defeat to 22nd seed Viktor Troicki was always probable and the latter was simply the more patient of the two. Dimitrov has a tendency to rush points (taking his comparison to Federer to the extreme) and from the moment Troicki levelled at the end of the fourth set having trailed 1-4, he was to be the winner. It wasn’t a classic but it kept the interest of everybody who had stayed on Court 2 for the match duration of three and a half hours, plus a lovely rain delay beforehand.
If we are talking about fallen future stars, it’s logical to mention a star that hasn’t quite managed to ascend thus far. Donna Vekic was once hot property on the junior circuit but her on-court petulance and sulkiness appear to be blocking her progress. She was disappointing in her heavy defeat to Madison Keys out on Court 6, her game taken apart extremely effectively by the amiable American. A word on the watching Stan Wawrinka: as sullen as his rumoured girlfriend was petulant. The defending champion arrived flanked by two security guys and refused a polite request for a photo by the guys sat in front of him (they had waited until the changeover). Wawrinka struggled to even be monosyllabic in his response and nobody was upset to see him leave after the first set. I saw different reactions from the likes of Dominika Cibulkova and Elina Svitolina, the latter running across the court to a group of fans desperate for a selfie at the end of her match which finished after 8pm. The defending champions’ behaviour is even more disappointing in comparison. For what my opinion is worth, the young Ukrainian Svitolina looks a Top 10 player, maybe even a Top 5er. Her forehand is matched by her tactical nous, both very evident in her dismantling of Sorana Cirstea 6-1 6-3.
Another fine men’s match was Philipp Kohlschreiber’s encounter with Nicolas Almagro, the latter being unseeded after a poor last 15 months. His temper is still burning brightly though! Despite beating the 28th seed, Almagro was involved in a heated five-minute conversation/rant at umpire Carlos Bernardes AFTER the match. I arrived a set and a half into his four-set win so I must have missed what he was complaining about because everything looked spot-on to me. Good to see Mr Aggro living up to his (almost) name. There was plenty of other good tennis on show; a small cameo from my outside tip Svetlana Kuznetsova before rain halted play on Sunday afternoon; Julia Goerges was imperious in her same-dress derby destruction of 28th seed Jo Konta (yes I saw both Number 28s lose); Alison Riske continues to lose every time I go anywhere near her, doubly upsetting as she is my favourite; and Heather Watson and Dominika Cibulkova had solid if unspectacular victories. A fine three days of tennis.
The final word must sadly go on Roland Garros as an organised event. Firstly, ‘all exits are definitive, no re-entry is permitted’. Why? Having paid upwards of 60 Euros for a ticket, I see no reason why I should have to remain in uncovered grounds during periods of prolonged rainfall on a sporting day which can last for ten hours. It is unnecessary and frankly cheapens the event into a money-making exercise for the in-grounds vendors. You can leave every other Slam so why is it not the case at Roland Garros? I often wonder whether the four majors associations ever get their heads together at all! And then we have the security checks. I hoped, and expected, that the security would have been ramped up (Is security the only thing to ever get ‘ramped up’?) in the aftermath of terror attacks in Paris and Brussels in the last seven months. In my past visits to Roland Garros, it has been a rather inadequate bag check. On first inspection, it has improved. However, I fear it is actually no safer and has soured the whole event. Here goes: Step 1 – open your jackets half-way between metro station and front gates (a walk that in the past took 7 minutes). Step 2 – a body scan, done by a human waving a scanner. Step 3 – Bag search and pat down at the gates. All okay in theory, but when you have tens of thousands of people arriving between 10-11am, it is impossible to manage. Next year, Roland Garros must open their gates earlier if they are to properly secure their event. Decent people do not mind vigorous checks if they get into an event or onto their planes on time. What happened on Tuesday was that those who arrived at 10am (the time the gates open) missed the start of play, play they had paid for. Additionally, after the body scan had been conducted by just four people for these thousands of fans, the crowd then bottlenecked into a huge throng that had no order awaiting the next stage of the security check a further 200 metres down the road. It is testament to the people in that crowd and nothing to do with the organisers that they remained polite and calm. It was truly shambolic. I felt the bag search on Tuesday was no more thorough than in previous years due to the staff rushing; faced with huge crowds there is an inclination to speed up the process. To do it better next year, they have to open the gates at 9am. By doing this, the early birds will arrive between 9 and 10, thus easing the rush-hour period significantly. Simple, effective and secure. So overall, security and organisation gets a 5/10 but the tennis gets a whopping 9.5/10! Can’t wait for my next taste of Grand Slam tennis!