Rekindling a love affair with the French Open

The French Open drew big, enthusiastic crowds on Monday despite wet, chilly weather.
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

PARIS -- Meanwhile, back at Roland Garros -- which is not where Kim and Kanye partied with Valentino at Chateau de Wideville or where they privately toured Versailles or even where they, ahem, got married (Florence? Are you kidding?) -- this leafy suburban grove still managed to stay relevant amid all that hullabafreakshow due to a little event the locals like to call Les Grand Championnats Internationaux de France.

And an American immediately realized how compelling a place it remains -- still crazy after all these years.

It had been 12 long springs since he had last trod the terre battue, and though the clay was still red, the wine still robust and the women, not to mention the men, still ridiculously gorgeous, where were Pete ... and Andre ... and the emerging phenom Andy and ... wait! Where were any American male tennis players easily identifiable by their last name, never mind their first?

Before this bewildered traveler revisited the French Open, some acquaintances would inquire about this magnificent sport as if it were some relic lost in the haze of time. "Tennis? Didn't that thing die about the same eon as boxing and nag racing?"

Well, as Money May and Cali Chrome and a fabulous distaff cartoon character named Serena Williams -- currently doing her best to absolutely Godzillette the game into oblivion -- might tell us: No.

And another friend would strongly concur. "What are you talking about?" said Michael Mewshaw, the noted novelist, memoirist and fellow tennis traveler. "Where have you been? You're so out of it, you're freaking Rip Van Winkle."

Really, the sport still positively smacks of personality, charisma and even some delicious star-power controversy:

• The holy trinity of Rodge, Rafa and The Djoker, aka Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, have done yeomen work to keep the international fires burning.

• The beauteous Maria Sharapova, she of the blonde pout and the outfits and the legs, not only serves as sufficient eye candy, but she also even markets her own candy. (Alas, an 0-15 run versus Williams? That's like Jessica Alba going head-to-pretty-head against Jennifer Lawrence for some blockbuster movie role.) But the sweets? Sugarpovalicious!

• And just the other day the stalled prince of golf, Rory McIlroy, and the even more stalled princess of tennis, Caroline Wozniacki, mailed out wedding invitations and then promptly called off their engagement. McIlroy then immediately won his first tournament of the year.

The problem is, save for Williams, all of these folks are furr-i-nurs. And we're not even sure Serena hasn't turned, given that the last time she kicked this tournament's divine butt, she gave the victory interview in French, for Godsakes.

The fact is, no American man has made an imprint on the dirt of Paris in 15 years, since Andre Agassi won it in 1999. No U.S. citizen has even scratched through to the fourth round since Robby Ginepri in 2010. Sadly, American men's tennis has come down to John Isner, spectacularly tall and nice enough (casual fans probably don't realize that he briefly climbed back into the top 10 after Indian Wells in March) but mostly known for playing a match at Wimbledon that lasted 37 days or something.

Of course, could the French care one wit about the deforestation of America on the world tennis stage? Mais non. Roland Garros remains one of the gem diamonds of Paris life and society and a prideful example of the national culture -- with everyone from taxi drivers and café waiters to the grizzled antique dealers at Porte de Clignancourt and the chic shop girls on the Left Bank eager to show you how much they appreciate their Championnats Internationaux and how happy they are you have come to watch it.

"You will see my favorite, the Simon?" one artist/dealer asked a journalist over the weekend -- the Simon actually being Gilles See-Mone, a slender, dark-haired looker from Nice who may have just stepped off the pages of a Ralph Lauren catalogue and who a day later became a lust object of this infuriated journalist's traveling companion.

Comme ci, comme ça.

Same weekend. Same journalist, trying on a spectacular leather jacket he was lusting after to wear to the tennis but could only afford if he had won the national lotteries of both the U.S. and France: "Please. You belong it!" the comely maiden in the boutique off Saint Germain squealed in fractured English.

Personal memo to the French Open in Paris: You belong it.

The quote is hardly insignificant, primarily because in recent years Roland Garros has become so overcrowded, officials actually talked about moving it -- out to Versailles, to Disneyland Paris, to anywhere that the gorgeous gardens and greenhouses of the Bois de Boulogne would not be destroyed by expansion.

So it was that on Monday, even amid the chill and the constant rain showers, masses of French and international spectators crowded the walkways before the 11 a.m. start and hurried and scurried over 35,000 strong -- not necessarily to their seats in the three stadiums plus the 17 outer courts, but to the restaurants and food stands and merchandise kiosks scattered everywhere. It wasn't until approximately 2 p.m. that most of them deigned to watch the matches. As France's Yannick Noah, the 1983 champion and an enormous rock star (as well as father of the Chicago Bulls' Joakim), once famously pronounced, "The French like their tennis, but they love their cuisine."

About the same time, all the sights and sounds and smells of Roland Garros came rushing back. The quaint green footsteps and replica yellow tennis balls practically embedded in the concrete paths leading to the gates. (As if nobody knew where the tournament was.) The honking blare of the official cars imaging a beverage so large and loud that they resembled huge bottles of Perrier rolling along the avenues. The fragrance of "sandwich menus" wafting across the grounds: ambon et fromage (naturally) as well as "double hot dog," which meant two dogs on one bun! Voilà?

Well, remember, the French also love Jerry Lewis.

Then, too, there was Novak Djokovic, the Baron of Belgrade, at this point in his marvelous career Ahab chasing Moby Dick, the one Grand Slam title he has never won, opening against Portugal's Joao (Philip ... just kidding) Sousa, who would have needed not only a tuba but also an entire marching band to win more than the seven games with which he finished.

There was the diminutive Slovakian, Dominika Cibulkova, all of 5-foot-3, the tiniest woman in the top 50, standing for a TV interview. The thing is, it was pouring ... she was standing smack in the middle of the grounds ... and fully a thousand fans surrounded her.

And there was Spain's Tommy Robredo, matched out on Court 6 against England's James Ward -- "the other one," the Brit writers call Ward, in deference to Wimbledon champion Andy Murray.

"First three games, 25 minutes, wet and chilly, total gloom," said Neil Harmon, the distinguished correspondent from The Times of London. "But it was tremendous tennis, back and forth, the long rallys, the shotmaking. Just brilliant." Here was an Englishman, a Wimby guy, born and bred to the grass and the serve and the volley, reviewing this match played to a blah ending in the bronzed, wet mud. "It's the essential richness of the place that never ends," Harmon said after Robredo's four-set victory. "I sat there in complete wonderment, loving it all."

There was plenty to love even before the second major of the year started. Two Frenchmen -- Gael Monfils, the monstrously athletic "La Monf" with roots in the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and Laurent Lokoli, the pro from the island of Corsica -- spontaneously broke out in an epic break-dancing contest right there on the hallowed clay of Court Philippe Chatrier during Kids' Day.

Kim and Kanye had absolutely nothing on these two for entertainment value. Monfils, 27, is ranked No. 28 and a threat to reach the late rounds here. Lokoli is ranked 406th and a threat to go completely loco at any second.

"You know what? When I was a child, I remember [Monfils] was a showman himself," said the 19-year-old Lokoli. "I was watching TV at the time. You know what? I wanted to be him. That's why I've got this temper and character. That's my style, my status."

And here? "I don't know him. But we would say hello in the locker room. And this time, of course, you know what happened. It was incredible, fantastic. I have so many memories already."

You know what? Rip Van Winkle himself, having finally returned, had one more memory to savor from Roland Garros.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.