By Bill Simons
Miracles happen in Paris. They do, they really do. Lovers meet. Smokers stop. And, get this, over in the 7th arrondissement the other evening, a waiter was outright friendly, more than chatty.
On court, there have been miracles, too. We don’t know if there is a gender-neutral term for journeyman, but let us just say France’s Virginie Razzano is one heck of journeyperson. Never mind her triple-digit ranking, last year she downed the mighty Serena Williams in the first round here to score the upset of the year. Of course, the most important upset of the Open era was Robin Soderling dismissing the mighty Rafael Nadal at the 2009 French Open: a shock loss like few others, it opened the door for Roger Federer to claim his first and only Roland Garros title.
As of late, Nadal has been so commanding and charismatic that any development in his career, little or large, takes on monumental proportions. When he left the tour last summer after Wimbledon with a knee injury, a hefty chunk of the tennis world seemed to shut down. When he postponed his return to Grand Slam tennis, even withdrawing from the Australian Open, there were a flurry of questions, plus a conspiracy theory or two.
The void was vast. It seemed like a bit of a black hole.
In the face of all this, Nadal’s comeback run this spring—reaching the finals of all of the first eight tournaments he played, winning six of them—has been astonishing.
Now, he is a hero in Chile, Brazil, California, and, of course, southern Europe. Every match is scrutinized and deconstructed: a hard court Masters win at Indian Wells, a shock loss to Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo final, crushing Roger Federer in Madrid. Nadal, too, has become an arbiter of sorts on the issues of the day: drug testing, time limits between points, scheduling, prize money.
On court, Rafa was on such a roll that he became a prohibitive favorite, like few others in memory, to tidily collect this year’s French title.
But the first Grand Slam set Nadal played in over ten months was hardly tidy.
Daniel Brands, a modest member of the new brigade in German tennis, came out blazing. Never mind that, in four tries, he hadn’t yet won a match at the French Open. Today, he burst forth with a ‘hit out at all points’ mindset. Here, there were more frozen ropes than a fishing troller stuck in the Arctic. In a manner reminiscent of Lukas Rosol (who, in last year’s other momentous upset, famously smoked Nadal at Wimbledon), Brands launched his own brand of offensive play that, at first, even the greatest defensive player in the game could not blunt.
The tennis world stopped rotating for just a moment. In the first set, the little-known German downed the prevailing clay god, 6-4.
Afterward, a reporter confronted Nadal with the obvious. “You seemed to be frustrated out there.”
“You think?” responded the Spaniard. Certainly, Rafa’s fans didn’t think things got much better in the second set, as their guy found himself down 0-3 in the tiebreak.
But what we think is this: Rafa, now 53-1 on the French Open clay, is the best dirt baller of all time.
Yes, Rafa conceded, “It was a really tough match … [Brands] was inspired today and firing on all cylinders. Every ball, he throws himself into it … He was like a wall, he put everything back. He can’t be No. 60 in the world.” (Editor’s note: He’s not, he’s ranked No. 59.)
During that critical second-set tiebreak, Brands blew a makeable volley. Not surprisingly, Rafa rallied back. It was then, level at one set each, he conceded later, that he could finally breathe. More than that, after his 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-3 victory, he said he could not have possibly done more in the few months since his return. “I’m delighted to be here,” he gushed. “I was delighted to be in Chile, I was delighted to be in Monte Carlo. I’m delighted. I’m tasting every moment.”
THE BUZZ: PARIS IS PARIS EDITION
A NEW BRAND OF NADAL TENNIS: Perhaps on this day only did the phrase “Nadal Brands” not refer to Nike, Babolat, or some of the other products Rafa endorses. Rather, it was a reference to the Spaniard’s first-round match against Daniel Brands.
T-SHIRT OF THE DAY: “Brooklyn Parle Francais.”
LITERARY CRITIQUE OF THE DAY: When asked for his take on Jimmy Connors‘ new book The Outsider, a leading broadcaster said, “It seems like a perpetual ‘FU’ to the establishment.”
POP QUIZ: Question: what does Melanie Oudin have in common with Steffi Graf? Answer: Both have or had an apartment in Manhattan. BTW: Oudin told IT that it was harder to move from the wealthy but boring suburb of Pound Ridge to her apartment near Times Square than it was to move from suburban Atlanta to the suburbs of New York. Oudin, who has lost much of her southern drawl, says she is ready for another big run at a Slam. The 21-year-old is relishing life in the Big Apple, where she is playing soccer, going to world class museums and restaurants, and occasionally clubbing.
IT’S UNCONSTITUTIONAL: Just a while ago, Sloane Stephens was sparkling—fresh and alive, and something very dangerous. She was spontaneous, unscripted, and downright spunky. Now, sadly, she has been bottled-up, packaged, produced, and made mild and cautionary. Such things should be unconstitutional.
AMERICA ROCKS THE CLAY: American winners at the French Open include Melanie Oudin, Sloane Stephens, Sam Querrey, John Isner, Ryan Harrison, Serena Williams, Madison Keys, Varvara Lepchenko, Mallory Burdette, Shelby Rogers, Vania King, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. Jack Sock, Alex Kuznetsov, Coco Vandeweghe, Jamie Hampton and Lauren Davis have yet to play their first-round matches. Due to the draw, America is guaranteed to have at least two players in the third round.
HOW BLASE CAN YOU GET: Millions of young Americans aged 20 would relish the opportunity to go to Paris. But when asked about the magical City of Lights, Sloane Stephens ho-hummed and said, “Paris is Paris.”
THE BATTLE OF THE STATUES: Fresno’s Fig Garden Club recently unveiled a statue of the super senior Elaine Mason. Maybe now the nearby Sierra Sport and Fitness should erect a statue of young Sloane Stephens, who first learned the game there.
HOME FIELD ON FIRE: It doesn’t matter if it is Lleyton Hewitt in Melbourne, Andy Murray in London or Andy Roddick in New York—there’s nothing quite like the raucous roar of the home crowd at a Grand Slam zealously willing a local fave to victory. Today’s version was Gael Monfils‘ epic four-hour five-set win over the No. 5 seed, Czech Tomas Berdych.
SHORT(S) QUESTION: When Monfils, in long shorts, faced Berdych, in throwback short shorts, broadcaster Gigi Salmon was asked, “As a female, do you prefer your gentlemen to wear long shorts or short shorts?” Salmon offered a short answer to the shorts question, saying she preferred her guys in short shorts so she could see more of them.
ONLY IN A TENNIS PRESS ROOM: For the first time in history, Johnny Cash and Richard Wagner were mentioned in the same sentence in a tennis press room.
PARENTAL DISS OF THE DAY: Maria Sharapova said that the only time she wants to Skype with her dad, Yuri, is when she feels like seeing her dog. Maria said that every time the dog sees her, his ears perk up.
BRAND IDENTIFICATION: Reflecting on the Nadal-Brands match, ESPN.com noted, “As they say in advertising, it’s all about the brands.”