Pair of aces
Price: French Open titles for Mauresmo, Federer would be good for tennis
Posted: Wednesday May 26, 2004 7:41PM; Updated: Wednesday May 26, 2004 7:52PM
Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price is covering the French Open for the magazine. Price talked to SI.com about Wednesday's big upsets, Martina Navratilova's Roland Garros swan song, and what's ahead for French favorite Amelie Mauresmo and men's top seed Roger Federer.
SI.com: What has been the big story of the tournament so far?
Price: For the American audience, it's Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick losing early. No doubt about that. For a French audience, it's probably the marathon Fabrice Santoro-Arnaud Clement match. But give that a day and we won't be talking about it anymore. Justine Henin-Hardenne [losing] was no surprise.
It was Kids Day here at Roland Garros, and the place had a spirit like you rarely see -- not just at any other Grand Slam event, but at any sporting event. It's one of the great days in sports -- thousands of elementary school kids were running around with all of that energy, yelling and screaming. The place felt completely different. There was just this energy in the crowd, and Amelie Mauresmo obviously felt it.
SI.com: Speaking of Mauresmo, can she finally win her first Grand Slam title in front of her home crowd?
Price: I think the best thing for tennis as a whole -- not just the best thing for American tennis -- would be for Roger Federer and Mauresmo to win titles. They are both playing well and I'd like to see that play out until the end. Mauresmo has been playing great, and it would be terrific if she can establish herself by overcoming the nerves that have afflicted her in the past and become France's first true French champion since Yannick Noah. She's enormously popular here. It would be great for the women's game for Mauresmo to break through and be part of that elite group. She's smart, and she's a wonderful player to watch in many ways. The women's game has some holes in it and it would be nice to see someone with authority establish herself and fill one of those gaps.
SI.com: What about Federer?
Price: I think the men's game needs something to revolve around. To have Federer suddenly in the saddle for a possible Grand Slam and everybody gunning for him would give balance to the men's tour and provide a narrative that even the casual fan could understand. It could only be good for tennis to have the casual fan exposed to that.
SI.com: Why wasn't Henin-Hardenne's early departure a surprise?
Price: I'm tired of players dropping into tournaments [after a long layoff] and winning them. I don't just mean the Williams sisters -- although they're an obvious example. I don't think it would have been good for the women's game if Henin-Hardenne had come back after being out for six or seven weeks and then won the championship. It would have further reinforced the weakness of the women's game that has already been highlighted during the past year.
SI.com: What were your impressions of Martina Navratilova's return to the singles draw?
Price: It was interesting, but it wasn't large as a moment. We're dealing with a former champion playing in her first Grand Slam tournament in 10 years and it should have felt bigger. But, it didn't. It felt pretty small.
It's hard not to look at it as an ego trip because Navratilova is 47, and she played a 19-year-old [Gisela Dulko] whose mother is her own age. Navratilova's reasoning for coming back to play the French is one I've never heard before. She said she's a doubles specialist, but she needs to play singles to get in shape for her doubles.
She mentioned in her press conference that if she doesn't get a wild card for Eastbourne (a Wimbledon tune-up event) that she'll consider playing in the qualifier. If she wants matches, and not "publicity," then she should go to Eastbourne and play qualifying. The competition is a lot less intense in events like that than it is a Grand Slam tournament, and she wouldn't be subjected to a Serena Williams in the first round. That would be the logical follow for somebody who just wants to play matches as opposed to somebody who wants to come and get on a soap box.
However, there is something compelling or irresistible about watching a 47-year-old walk out there and play. You can't take your eyes off her because it so unusual. Navratilova played on Court 1 -- which is a great, if not the best, place in the world to see a tennis match. It was curiously empty and devoid of emotion. Let's put it this way, nobody thought she had a shot to win the match, especially once it got started. At times she came up with some vintage slice approaches and some great volleys, but overall her timing was way off. She looked 47 years old. She was wearing granny glasses with a baseball cap on backward. It was a weird generational age meld.
When Jimmy Connors was 39 and playing at the U.S. Open, there was a real feeling that something was happening. That was never the case with Navratilova [Tuesday]. Nobody bought into the "this is a strike for old people to show we can still do it." Everyone was sort of cringing.
Navratilova says this is the last year she's going to play. And what she's done in doubles is extraordinary, and she deserves every single prop for that. If nothing else, she should reassess her immediate strategy if what she wants to do is play matches. Because if she plays like she did Tuesday, she risks not only getting the matches she says she desperately wants but she also risks embarrassing herself. And since we are moving toward the grass-court season, she definitely doesn't want to embarrass herself on that surface. The one thing that gives her credibility or a free pass on this is that she is still a legitimate doubles force and deserves every credit for that. It's a credit to the shape she's kept herself in and the fact that she has been able to weld together a second career as doubles specialist. All credit to her in that regard.
We'll see what she does next. It'll be interesting. Clay is one thing, grass is another. She certainly has a chance to play better on grass. It's her surface.