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Cirque Du Roland

Photo By Paul Zimmer By Andrea Leand

Under a cloudy political climate and dodgy cast of competitors at Roland Garros, the French Open, situated amongst the scenic sites along the Seine, flourished as usual. Weeks prior to the year’s second Grand Slam event, some asked why go?

At a time when Americans were boycotting French products, from bottled water to the best of wines, over France’s controversial stance on the Iraqi war, some pondered supporting one of France’s premier sporting events as well. And once you got there, who was there to watch, some quipped? Martina Hingis, Marat Safin, Anna Kournikova and Pete Sampras took passes. Stars who did show, such as Venus and Serena Williams, Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati, never performed to potential. The usually obliging weather even dampened some of the early fortnight scheduling and enthusiasm.

So many new predicaments and loose ends made the sport’s footing as uncertain off-court as on the stadium’s slippery terre battue. The death of sports titan Mark McCormack raised questions as to the future of his top-flight management company, IMG. As some speculated on its challenges, the company sought to strengthen its corporate marketing division by aligning with entertainment management group Creative Artists Agency (CAA). The men’s newly formed player association IMTA had ATP CEO Mark Miles scrounging for support in the players’ lounge, but will the makeshift group ultimately bore or score with constituents? Only the bidding war for Serena amongst clothing and shoe companies reached a feverish pitch, although the world champion loyally continued to wear Puma, even as her long-time clothier and she remained uncontracted.

Coaches came and went as fast as taxi drivers whipping around the Arc de Triomphe. Andy Roddick bid adieu to Tarik Benhabiles and hired former Agassi mentor Brad Gilbert, to which Agassi quipped, "(Andy) will get a lot of information … how much of it will be useful, I don’t know." No. 9 seed Daniela Hantuchova split with British coach Nigel Sears when, following her second-round rousting by American upstart Ashley Harkleroad, Sears picked up and left during the match. It may not be perfect coaching etiquette, but it probably should be noted that Hantuchova’s mother, disgusted by her daughter’s attitude and play, left too.

Hantuchova’s three-set loss to the talented rookie, after she salvaged a 5-1 deficit in the third set only to fall 7-6(2), 4-6, 9-7, raised questions about her fitness and whittling weight. Glamour shots of a coy Hantuchova at the Laureus Awards in Monte Carlo and later at the ITF World Champions dinner in Paris looked mighty fine to most. But her whisper thin frame and relentless travel schedule caused initial commotion.

No. 1 seed Lleyton Hewitt grabbed a bit of attention for himself after his surprise exit in the fourth round. He stuck around to support longtime love Kim Clijsters, but sent coach Jason Stoltenberg packing. Stoltenberg said he wanted to spend more time with his family, but Hewitt’s disappointing results recently probably had more to do with the decision. And why does Hewitt really need a coach when he has mom and dad constantly in tow?

The premature departure of so many seeds in the draw left most thumbing through media guides to identify the remaining competitors. The tearful goodbye from former French Open champion Michael Chang after he played his last match at Roland Garros was one thing. But to lose Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Roddick, Agassi, Capriati and, ultimately, Hewitt and Serena Williams in one fell swoop created a daunting shortfall of star power.

Then again, they did not deserve to be in the final rounds. Ball boys showed more heart standing for hours behind the courtside boxes watching the matches on Court Philippe Chatrier during their breaks than the American stars did on court. There is no point listing the excuses for their demises or adjectives of their lackluster play because they know better than anyone that they just did not put forth a full effort.

Fortunately, Paris, the city of lights, has always been a city that creates new stars. Who ever heard of Michael Chang, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Iva Majoli, Carlos Moya or Albert Costa before they won the French Open? In line with the theory of attrition, Sampras and Hingis became distant memories as Dutchman Martin Verkerk and Russians Vera Zvonereva and Nadia Pretova took center stage. Where former champions faded away, Justin Henin-Hardenne and Juan Carlos Ferrrero grabbed the mantel with gumption. Would there have been more interest in the finals with an American present? Probably. But the stands still filled to capacity, champagne still flowed and the French dressed in consummate style for one of the city’s prime social occasions.

French fans ignored Serena Williams quips about their unruly behavior as quickly as they did American protests over France’s stance on Iraq. "Tant pis" (too bad), they rejoined as the Williams camp fumed about the crowd’s indignant treatment of the top seed in her semifinal against Henin-Hardenne. Truth was, Serena was right. French fans behaved horrendously during her third set against the Belgian. They cheered Williams’s mistakes — even first serve faults — and jeered her winners. In the end, the crowd got to Serena and earned an assist in Henin-Hardenne’s victory.

Many were quick to politicize such crowd behavior as "anti-American sentiment." It made for a provocative storyline in light of the political fallout between the U.S. and France, but it may have been reading too much into the situation. Those who have been around for a while know that this was just the Roland Garros faithful being their usual selves. French fans are fickle, always have been, always will be.

French fans have never followed any protocol and have often acted poorly, exhibiting little loyalty to anything but their own sense of satisfaction and entertainment. This was the same crowd that destroyed an irreverent Hingis during her final with Steffi Graf in 1999 and the same crowd that screamed wildly for Serena last year when she trounced sister Venus in the final.

French fans, also having always cheered for the underdog, found a perfect prop in Henin-Hardenne. It was a David vs. Goliath match-up when the lithe Belgian took on the muscle-packed American. After Henin-Hardenne prevailed in the first set, they applauded Serena’s efforts to win the second set and extend the day’s entertainment. But in the end, the fans conspired to see the mighty, the overwhelming favorite, the winner of four consecutive Grand Slam titles … fall.

While tennis’s royalty absconded before the final, Belgium’s King made the special trip to see his country’s two premier players, Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters, battle it out for a first-time Belgian French Open — and Grand Slam tournament — victor. Clijsters’ pre-match behavior provided perfect foreshadowing to her uninspiring play. While Henin-Hardenne sequestered herself in the locker room preparing for her first French Open final, Clijsters socialized in the player lounge with her large entourage of friends and family. She chit-chatted with her dad/manager, joked with others and then headed off for a tete-a-tete with boyfriend Hewitt.

Suffice it to say, Clijsters showed little resilience or edge by the time the match started. Whereas Clijsters may have felt insouciant in reaching another Grand Slam final (her second), Henin-Hardenne, also in her second Grand Slam final, was intent on winning one. Clijsters had all the shots, speed and power to win, as she had in their past semifinal meeting at Roland Garros. But Henin-Hardenne showed more experience and savvy in her better handling of the occasion.

She also made good on a dream of her deceased mother. Months before her death from cancer, Henin-Hardenne’s mother sat with her daughter in the stands at Roland Garros and told the young teenager that one day she would win the French Open. But her mother did not foreshadow the bumpy path Henin-Hardenne took to get there. Unlike Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne came from modest means, commuting three hours a day to find proper training. There were times of estrangement from her father, who did not coach the protégé as so many fathers do, but instead worked at a postal office. There were issues over coaching and management that still raise eyebrows; she has since turned coaching over to Carlos Rodgriguez and long ago left IMG only to be currently (and curiously) represented (apparently) by Meghann Shaughnessy’s coach, Rafael Font de Mora.

It is the kind of anecdote that fits well with the French Open championships. Perhaps such hardships create the tenacity and stamina both mentally and physically needed to win a grueling red clay championship. Henin-Hardenn’s triumph proved that it is not always the glamour queens or kings who come through in the end. After all, there is little flashy about the Belgian, except for her exquisite one-handed backhand. Instead, she tugged her cap on over her head, kept her chin low and let her tennis speak for itself.

Once she won the title, the French crowd did their part in turning her into a superstar just as they had in the past with other first time Grand Slam champions. Behind a landscape of exquisitely bright lights, eye-popping monuments and most beautiful scenery, Henin-Hardenne looked the part in passionately embracing her husband and then holding the trophy high overhead to the adoring, roaring crowd. Through it all, her cap stayed on.
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