PARIS’ FEEL-GOOD FELLOW – Lucky Loser Trungelliti Wins Big

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Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON / AFP / Getty Images

THE BUZZ – OF BERNIE, NOLE, VENUS AND THE COOLEST PERSON IN TENNIS

Road stories and car tales are part of tennis lore.

Long before Open tennis, pros would pack into station wagons and drive from Fargo to Fort Worth to play one-night stands. South African Abe Segal bought a Mustang in Geneva just to get to the tumultuous 1968 French Open. Others took taxis from Luxembourg. Derek Rostagno traveled about from tournament to tournament in a hippie VW van. Lindsay Davenport liked to drive herself to the US Open. She felt more calm that way. John McEnroe and Peter Fleming were defaulted from the US Open when they got stuck in a traffic jam on the Long Island Expressway. Coco Vandeweghe spoke of car trips across the American desert just to get to junior tourneys.

On the down side of things, players ranging from Venus Williams, Tracy Austin and Thomas Muster to Peter Carter and Gottfried Von Cramm have been involved in serious accidents.

Last week Ilie Nastase was arrested twice in one day for drunk driving. That takes a certain quality. And German Andrea Petkovic regaled the media with her car stories. One car she was riding in in Beijing rear-ended another. They had to change cars – and then that car caused an accident. On one trip, there were two accidents in 20 minutes; she called it “car-ma.” Then she was in a crazy three-way accident in Morocco. She saw trouble brewing as three menacing men began to argue and fight. But then they shook hands and kissed each other. “If that’s how you handle things in Morocco, I like it.”

Today, Argentine lucky loser Marco Trungelliti was liking life. The Argentinian, who drove ten hours from Barcelona across much of Spain and France just to play a French Open match, is the toast of this now-soggy town.

The 28-year old journeyman, who’s ranked No. 190, lost in the last round of qualifying. Then Nick Kyrgios pulled out, and soon Marco and his clan were figuring out how to get back some 650 miles to Paris. Trains in France were on strike. Flights were being canceled, so he, his brother and wife piled into a car his grandmother conveniently had rented, supposedly for a beach vacation. The Trungelliti clan left at 1 p.m. and would drive for two hours, then get coffee. Ten hours later, they arrived in the City of Lights, when many were out. Translation: He got into town at 11 p.m., slept a bit and then went out to Roland Garros at 7:30 a.m. and 22 hours after he left Barcelona, made opponent Bernard Tomic feel like a loner. Trungelliti dismantled the once high-riding Aussie, who long ago was No. 17, in four sets. Pictures of his happy road trip trended on the internet. He gained a payday of over $80,000 and etched himself a place in tennis history as the most zany, joyous and feel-good tale of a wildcard or a qualifier since Brit Marcus Willis had his 15 minutes of fame at Wimbledon. In 2016, the breezy local London teaching pro had to win seven matches in pre-qualifying, then qualifying and the main draw, before he met and lost to Roger Federer.

THE COOLEST PERSON IN TENNIS: When asked what it’s like to be called “the coolest thing in tennis,” Naomi Osaka replied, “That’s so embarrassing. If they wanted to title it something, they should have titled it the ‘Most Awkward Person in Tennis.’ [But] if that’s how they feel, then I’ll take it, but I don’t think…I’m that person.”

GRAND SLAM LOSERS: Last year’s French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko lost on opening day. Other Grand Slam champs who have already fallen include Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Stan Wawrinka and Francesca Schiavone.

MULTILINGUAL OSAKA: Japan’s Naomi Osaka was raised in America and never became fluent in Japanese. But she’s trying and clearly improving. After doing a press conference in English she’ll do another one for the considerable Japanese press corps. In the past, she would just respond in English. Now she goes back and forth, using her newfound Japanese until things get dicey and she switches back to her native English. There’s a bit of linguistic whiplash involved. But all in all, just like Osaka herself, it’s delightful.

A TALE OF TWO PLAYERS – PATHETIC TOMIC, PASSIONATE DJOKOVIC: Tennis brings together all kinds of folks from all corners of the globe together. Novak Djokovic emerged out of the outback of the Serbian mountains where his parents ran a pizza restaurant. All business, as a teen he went to Germany to hone his craft. His family’s future depended on his skills.

As a teen Bernie Tomic suffered abuse. During his first spell of success, he was arrested three times in one day for speeding and later faced another arrest due to loud music at a Miami Beach party.

But let’s flash forward. To his great credit, Tomic, who is now ranked No. 206, used his stylish game to get through the tough French Open qualifying tournament. But then he lost today to Argentine Marco Trungelliti, ranked 190. In the past, the troubled Aussie has seemed adrift – a wealthy, self-indulgent young hedonist without purpose or compass. But at least he was open and transparent. He confided he was just playing for the money. He added that people shouldn’t bother coming out to see him play and boasted about his many luxury cars. Still, we thought, everyone grows. And maybe his fall in the rankings gave rise to some perspective. So we entered into this curious dialog.

INSIDE TENNIS: These are times that are challenging for you. What are some of the things that you’ve learned during this time?

BERNARD TOMIC: What do you mean?

INSIDE TENNIS: Well, have you reflected on your place in tennis? On your desire? Are you in this primarily for financial reasons or do you want to do other things?

BERNARD TOMIC: Next question.

Of course, Tomic isn’t the only one in the sport who is struggling. The last twelve months have been more than rough for Djokovic. Long No. 1, he’s now ranked No. 22. We wondered what he’d learned from his fall from grace. He was a tad more insightful than Tomic. “Few in the game,” we noted, “are more reflective on their careers than you. Obviously, it’s been a challenging twelve months. What have you learned about yourself as a person and an athlete during this time?

Djokovic then offered an in-depth reflection. “I had to dig deep,” he recalled, “especially when I came back to the court after four months [of] not playing at the end of last year. And then the [elbow] pain recurred, and I didn’t know in which direction that was going to take me…I was not able to serve.

“Then I was put in a position to play Australian Open. I managed to find some temporary solutions.

“But at the end of the day, that surgery had to be done when the season was already in its second month. That was frustrating, really. It is what it is. I don’t regret anything. Again, I kept on saying that everything in life happens for a reason, and it’s on us to really figure out why certain things happen and try to learn from it.

“This sport has given me so much. I don’t feel that I owe anything to the sport or the sport owes anything to me. It’s a relationship that is based on pure love and passion.

“As long as I feel like I’m supposed to play, I’ll play. If, at some moment, I don’t feel like playing, I will not, and I don’t feel obliged by anyone but myself to be on the court. I just try to remind myself why I started playing and that’s where I draw a lot of energy from.

“It’s a challenge. I’m not the first player to face big injuries. Del Potro faced even worse with two, three years of surgeries, coming back, not playing really well, and then having to retire so many times.

“And now he’s back in the top 10. That’s impressive. Those kind of stories inspire you – and hopefully I can do the same.”

VENUS DESCENDING? It was a legend who is known simply by her planetary first name vs. a Chinese player whose ambitions have remained under the radar. Be honest – have you heard of Wang Qiang? It was the No. 9 player in the world, Venus Williams, vs. the No. 91 player. It was a matchup of a one-time French Open finalist vs. a player who’d won just one match at the French Open. And Venus beat Qiang early at last year’s French Open and at Wimbledon.

But not on opening day, when the great star – like so many tall powerful Americans before her – got stuck on Suzanne Lenglen Stadium’s mean, sticky clay.

It was the best win of Qiang’s career and left Venus watchers wondering. Last year, incredibly, the 37-year old reached the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the US Open semis, and the fourth round at the French Open. Williams then assured us, “This old cat still has some tricks up her sleeve.”

But it really didn’t seem that way on a muggy Paris afternoon. Williams was up 3-0 in the second set against a foe who had only four career wins on clay, but floundered, as she lost seven of the next nine games. She floated her forehands, her once considerable backhands found the alleys. Only briefly could she impose her will, and she had few answers for Qiang’s modest weapons. Her foe got better and better.

Down match point, Williams tilted her 6’1” frame backwards. Off-balance, she netted a makable forehand into the middle of the net. Before the first Monday of the second Slam of the year, Venus’ French Open singles run was over.

Her broad, brown shoulders were still glistening as she walked off the court with her giant Wilson bag. Maybe she needed to hold her gigantic resume. But now she had lost in the first round of back-to-back Slams for the first time in her career. And she hasn’t won a Slam since 2004. Only modestly, or so it seemed, had she fought to hold on.

There were whispers. It was hard not to think the clock was ticking.

Here in France, in the art capitol of the world, barring some bizarre robbery, the Venus di Milo statue will long be a key attraction at the foremost museum of Paris. But how long will Venus be an attraction at Paris’s foremost tournament?

Then again, don’t violate the first law of tennis these days: never underestimate a Williams. This legend, who’s won 49 tournaments, is still in the top 10, and she could go on to play the Tokyo Olympics as a 40-year-old. Tennis sages sense that the old cat still has some tricks up her sleeve. And Wimbledon, with its Williams-friendly grass, is just five weeks away.

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