Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Roland Garros ~ Where the clay is red and the story lines are always a little unpredictable

Roland Garros 2012 poster art by Hérve Di Rosa /
 "Sensual mouthes and rebellious looks."

As world No. 1 Novak Djokovic began his quest on Monday to hold all four Grand Slam tennis titles at once by winning his first round match at the French Open ~ and Roger Federer and Andy Murray figure to advance deep into the second week of the Paris fortnight ~ Rafa Nadal entered this year's tournament as the defending champion and the favorite to make history on the red clay of Roland Garros.

Like Djokovic before him, the world No. 2 Nadal had no difficulty in defeating his first-round opponent, the 111th-ranked Simone Bolelli, on Tuesday afternoon on Philippe Chatrier Court, the main stadium at Roland Garros.

Each year in late spring, the French Open in Paris serves as a grading period ~ a report card ~ for tennis. It's the second of the year's four Grand Slam events ~ the others are the Australian Open in January, Wimbledon in June and the U.S. Open in August ~ and all the big names of tennis come to the famed Roland Garros to complete for the Coupe des Mousquetaires, or the Cup of the Musketeers.

With a 128-player singles draw for both men and women, there are plenty of interesting story lines among the top men's players emerging after just three days. Here's a few worth pointing out:

* Nadal is going after his seventh French Open singles title, which would surpass the record of six first set by the famed Bjorn Borg. The Spaniard won at Roland Garros in 2011 and is the pre-tournament pick to win it all, again. He is the undisputed "King of Clay".

* Djokovic is aiming to hold all four Grand Slam tennis titles at once. He has won the last three Grand Slams ~ Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. A year ago, Djokovic reached the semifinals of the French Open before losing to world No. 3 Roger Federer en route to surpassing Nadal as the world's top-ranked player.

* As for Federer, he remains a very viable competitor and still possesses the talent and ability to win Grand Slams. With 16 career Grand Slams, including one French Open crown (2009), Federer would have to beat Djokovic in a potential semifinal match-up in order to meet Nadal in a dream championship final.

* Meanwhile, No. 4 Andy Murray has a new coach this year in three-time former French Open champion Ivan Lendl, who beat John McEnroe in an epic, five-set final at Roland Garros in 1984. If anyone can, perhaps Lendl can finally bring out Murray's potential and push him to loftier heights.

On the women's side of the French Open, in Tuesday's fading twilight that fell on Philippe Chatrier Court, unheralded Virginie Razzano of France, ranked 115th in the world, stunned perennial (13-time) Grand Slam champion and world No. 5 Serena Williams in a three-hour, three-set thriller that was anything but a routine first-round match ~ and it knocked the American out in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time in her professional career after winning 46 consecutive first-round Grand Slam matches. The Tennis Channel commentators, broadcasting the match back to the U.S., called the dramatic and emotional loss by Williams a "monumental" and "stunning" defeat.

In a Grand Slam event that few Americans ~ men or women ~ ever fare well in, the early farewell by Williams, who was the last American to win a French Open title in 2002 and was thought of as a "sure thing" entering this year's Roland Garros with a 17-0 record on clay this spring, took everyone by surprise. Including Razzano, who said in a post-match interview while still on court that she just simply wanted to win the match. The last game of the match, alone, lasted a quarter of an hour. "Yes, I think there were some angels watching me up above. I'm going to enjoy this for a long time."

Finally, here's a feel-good story that involves a player little known outside of his native north African country of Tunisia. His name is Malek Jaziri and he's the 94th-ranked singles player in the world. He may not be a house-hold name to most, but he's got a Facebook page devoted to him created by fans from his home country.

Jaziri, 28, hails from Bizerte, Tunisia, and he's a first-time qualifier for the French Open. On Monday, he won his first round match against Philipp Petzschner of Germany on an outer court.

Meeting the media after his victory, Jaziri said that he's been an avid viewer of the French Open for many years and has been to Roland Garros before as a hitting partner for others. "It's a tradition back home in Tunisia. We all watch Roland Garros," said Jaziri. "Everyone in north Africa knows the tournament. I've dreamt about playing here since I was a kid. It's a dream come true. What's even better is that I didn't have to go through the qualification round like I did in the U.S. Open (last year), but went straight to the main draw."

Jaziri is the top-ranked player in Tunisia and the fourth-ranked player in north Africa. As long as he stays ranked in the top 100, he should be able to gain main draw status in Grand Slam tournaments. He said his goal is to be able to some day play Roger Federer. Next up for him in this year's French Open is a second-round match against Spaniard Marcel Granollers, ranked 23rd in the world, on Thursday. It will likely be assigned to one of the outer courts away from the big crowds filling up Philippe Chatrier Court and Suzanne Lenglen Court, the two largest show courts at Roland Garros.

"I'd love to play one of the greats like Federer," said Jaziri, who could only meet Federer at Roland Garros if both reach the final.  Give Jaziri credit. He's full of heart and he's got lofty goals.

"That's why I play tennis," he said. "To play on the big courts with the legends."

Image of 2012 Roland Garros poster art by French artist Hérve Di Rosa, courtesy of Galerie Lalong FFT 2012.

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