Monday, 26 May 2008

The Latest Quest I

They love an underdog at Roland Garros. And so the crowd cheered every winning combination that Roger Federer drew from his bag of tricks.

The Swiss world number one may have already 12 grand slam titles and reached the last two finals here in Paris, but he’s been decidedly second best on both occasions to the Spanish clay court maestro, Rafael Nadal.

Federer started his latest attempt for the French Open on Court Suzanne Lenglen – an intimate venue named after the French champion from the 1920s. She was nicknamed La Divine. And she was a one. Renowned for her innovative free-flowing skirts and elegant shots; she was the type to quaff champagne after swatting aside the inconveniences known as the opponent on the other side of the net.

He who would be Le Divin certainly has an old world nonchalance about his game.

Effortlessly penetrating half-volleys off his feet as he moves into the court, a deceptively lethal forehand and an unreadable serve, there’s not much that the 26 year-old cannot do. While the others grunt their malevolence, the Swiss is silent menace. Federer eased past the American Sam Querrey without too much fuss. He said later in his press conference that he was happy to have advanced to the second round.

That was before the rains came down midway through a day of changing conditions. And the problem is that when the heavens open there isn’t that much to do within the stadium complex.

Suddenly the stalls promoting various makes of racquets become the most enthralling thing in the world. But that’s for the people who haven’t been able to huddle under the centre court walkways. Those lucky few stand around blocking the thoroughfare. And it turns into an effort to get out into other areas of the grounds.

Experience has taught me that the best thing to do at the first sign of rain is to vacate the centre court press box and head towards the RFI studio atop Suzanne Lenglen. But it was compelling on centre court today. The crowd was cheering on the underdog with a passion.

And why not. Tzipora Obziler from Israel was giving the American eighth seed Venus Williams a hard time. From 4-4 in the second set, the Israeli won three games in a row to take the set and go a break up in the decider.

As the first droplets of rain spattered about the centre court there was a sense of a shock in the offing. But Obziler refused to accommodate the upset and she promptly lost her own serve. Venus held to lead 2-1, took the Israeli’s serve for 3-1 and just as it all seemed wrapped up, she faltered and we had the prospect of an upset again. No. Very wrong. From 3-2 to Williams it was suddenly 6-2. Venus, pirouetting daintily, waved triumphantly to the spectators and off they came.

Those who had tickets to see Nadal against the Brazilian qualifier Thomaz Bellucci prepared themselves. But the men did not show. Worse still, the covers came on. And that’s where they stayed until play was abandoned at just after 7pm.

The hardy souls that had stayed perched under umbrellas on their seats within the show courts were at least regaled with replays on the giant screen of clashes from yesteryear. It’s one way of passing the time during a rain break but it’s hardly value for money after a certain point.

Tickets will be reimbursed 50 per cent if there’s been two hours play or less and completely refunded if there’s been less than an hour of slugging. You pay your money and take your chance as a spectator at Roland Garros. No wonder they love an underdog.