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Tennis From Paris • Vive la France: The Country (And The Grand Slam) That No One Can Understand

By Alix Ramsay

A quick trawl through the quotes by the famous and the infamous about France and the French reveals much.

It’s not just us Brits who cannot fathom the Gallic mind and its machinations. My people and theirs have always been awkward bedfellows, separated by just 21 miles of sea that we call the “English Channel” (as we would) and they call La Manche (so that we won’t understand).

We live cheek by jowl and yet we are a million miles apart. But the knowledge that the Brits are not alone in our confusion comes as a huge relief.

As a fragrant nosegay, we present Billy Wilder: “France is the only country where the money falls apart and you can’t tear the toilet paper.” Then there is Samuel Johnson: “What I gained by being in France was learning to be better satisfied with my own country.”

But just in case you thought we were being racist/Frenchist/unwokenly Europeanist, the French – occasionally – own up to their foibles. Here is Charles De Gaulle: “Every Frenchman wants to enjoy one or more privileges; that’s the way he shows his passion for equality.” And CDG again: “How can anyone govern a nation that has 240 different kinds of cheese?” We rest our face.

France, then, is a complicated country and the French Open, run the by the French Tennis Federation, is a complicated event.

On Saturday, the weather forecast predicted dampness for the end of the day. The rain that had plagued the first seven days of the event was due to return around six or sevenish. The guys and gals at Le Meteo had been saying that all day. We all knew that.

No matter, the FFT had lavished €400million on a roof over Court Philippe Chatrier and other redevelopments around the site. They were ready. They were prepared. They had the technology. They knew how to do this. Or so we thought.

Novak Djokovic and ‘lucky loser’ Daniel Elahi Galan (the world No. 153) appeared on court at around 5.15pm. They warmed up, they went through the normal niceties and then they were at work at around 5.30pm. So far so good.

For Djokovic, all was very good – he wrapped up the first set in 28 minutes and allowed his Columbian rival just 10 points. It was all going so well.

And then it started to rain.

Now, for most of the first week, we have wondered why the hugely expensive roof remained closed on Court Philippe Chatrier when the sun was shone outside. Ah, they are French, we thought, and we moved on. Best not waste any extra time in trying to decipher French logic (you could grow old doing that).

But when it started to rain on Saturday, we wondered why they did not close the roof.

At first, it was just drizzle but, pretty soon, it was proper rain. Djoko did not look happy – he wears contact lenses and staring up into the rain as he served cannot have been easy – and looked much less happy as the rain got heavier. By the time he was one point from a 3-1 lead, it was hashing it down.

By now, his stupendous first set level had dropped while Galan was beginning to relax. This was not a good combo for the world No.1. And at same time, the bloke with his finger on the roof closing button had gone for a tea break. Or possibly gone on strike (this is Paris, never forget. They love a strike in the French capital).

When Galan slipped on the baseline (a slip that could have easily done his hip, his hamstring, his groin or his knee), Djoko took charge. All he had to do was serve and he would have had that 3-1 lead but Djoko marched to his chair and remonstrated with the umpire. It was heaving it down and it was clearly dangerous. He checked with Galan – was he OK? Fortunately, he was. But it could have been very different.

Once the world No.1 stopped, the match stopped. But then it all got very silly.

The roof started to close (it takes 20 minutes to shut) as the rain lashed down. It closed so slowly that the court coverers heaved the tarpaulins across the far end of the court in order to keep that end from turning to mud. €400 million spent for this? Blimey.

Djoko sat in his chair with a look on his face that said it all: ‘you numbnuts, what are you doing?’ Galan went off for a comfort break and returned happy and smiling. Djoko was less cheery.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia watches the closing roof during a break due to rain.

As the delay went on, Eurosport wheeled out their new signing: Tim Henman. Tim is deeply imbedded within the workings of the All England Club and, on his patch, they have two courts covered by a roof. When Barbara Schett asked him how this had all gone down, he was awfully polite – as Tim likes to be – but he did point out one or two flaws in the French system.

“The Chatrier roof comes over from one end of the stadium,” he explained. “At all the other stadiums around the world, it comes from both ends and meets in the middle.”

What he didn’t say was: “ours do at Wimbledon – on both Centre and No.1 Courts – but this one doesn’t”. Because Tim would never say that out loud. But what he did explain was that, at Wimbledon, the lights are attached to the roof. If the roof is closing, play stops. In Paris, it seems, if they start to close the roof, play goes on – even in the hashing rain.

Novak Djokovic looks on during a break due to rain as he plays Daniel Elahi Galan of Colombia.

When the roof was finally closed, the groundsmen got to work – and Djoko helped them.

They shovelled more top dressing on to the damp patches; they swept the court (this was when Djoko joined in) and they tried to make the best of a bad job. But as the players were asked to resume, we had two courts: at one end was the dry, faster Philippe Chatrier surface and at the other end, we had the equivalent of used cat litter. It really was not a good look for the French Open and their vast investment.

Novak Djokovic reacts after winning against Daniel Elahi Galan.

Djoko won, grumpily, in the end 6-0, 6-3, 6-2 but it was not France’s best hour. Not by a long shot. Which probably explains the quotes above.