GOOD NEWS FROM THE FRONT ROW
By Agnieszka Ryszkiewicz
The summer Tennispole
While France is buzzing with various artistic events linking visual arts, performance and dance with sports, the Roland Garros tournament is what captures the general attention from May 22nd until June 5th.
Neither the blossoming DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn) affair nor the eruption of Grimsvotn have managed to stop the flow of devoted tennis lovers all the way to the suburbs of the city of love.
These words were written half a year ago, in a city filled with spring and tourists. Now under the heavy grey November sky, tourists still grow all around like mushrooms, and tennis once again makes the front pages of local newspapers. Whereas the 2011 French Open has shifted into history, some things seem never to change in the city of love.
First, Nafissatou Diallo has been replaced by a French woman going by the name of Tristane Banon. The action transferred from New York’s Sofitel into the Lille’s Carlton hotel suite, and so DSK is still under investigation.
Second, the Icelandic volcanoes might very well have taken a break, yet the world economic crisis has fairly replaced the latter factor of flight reduction over several countries.
Eventually the tennis champions still manage to fly in from all over the world to participate in the second most prestigious French tournament, The PNB PARIBAS championship (a bank-financed competition – sic!).
Rafael Nadal might have outplayed Roger Federer in June, but the sexiest Swiss ever has recently taken revenge at the Bercy Field becoming its king on November 4th.
It isn’t easy for a simple amateur like myself to understand now how the first place in world classification still belongs to the skinny Serb Novak Djokovic.
Therefore, on a sunny June afternoon I decided to skip an already planned dance-devoted event and pay a visit to the French Open.
And as we know that some things are subject to slight modification where some don’t change at all, what difference does it make to look once again at a unique experience of a date with tennis? Roland Garros might have as well been PNB PARIBAS MASTERS. Let’s imagine a roof over our heads and some hard instead of the reddish clay court.
A show is still a show. Let the music play.
Sporting art en vogue?
Tennis: “Tennis is a sport usually played between two players (single) or between two teams of two players each (doubles). Each player uses a racket that is strung to strike a hollow rubber ball covered with felt over a net into the opponent's court.”
This is pretty much it. For the disputable pleasure of watching two guys throwing a ball at each other on the 5th of June 2011, one might have to pay up to 2691,75 US-Dollars – a “special” offer, as I recently discovered on eBay.
Looking for any further explanation of the popularity of tennis on Wiki doesn’t help much: “The sport can be played by anyone who can hold a racket.” If so, what makes Roland Garros so unique?
The perfect “match”?
But then again, it isn’t just “anybody” playing on the 20 courts of the Roland Garros stadium (three main ones and seventeen annexes). Dance and theatre venues might be baptized after Maurice Béjart or Isadora Duncan, but the two most famous “playgrounds” bearing the names Suzanne Lenglen and Philippe Chatrier set high the target of excellence. Suzanne Rachel Flore Lenglen is definitely one of the most interesting female tennis players. In her relatively short and turbulent carrier (1899–1938), she won over 250 tournaments, wore the shortest skirts, and offended the British Queen. But this is an entirely different story.
Today, Roland Garros hosts on its firm grounds no less prominent contemporary personae.
In 2011, all eyes are focussed on the fashionista Maria Sharapova (who wears probably even shorter dresses than Lenglen), on the Spanish favourite Rafael Nadal [who, as we know now won’t let his fans down becoming champion] or his opponent Roger Federer, according to People one of the sexiest men alive in 2010 [who will console himself during the later PNB PARISBAS Masters]. But let us enjoy the story in real time.
A number of French players are to be noticed as well. Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet or the aggressive Marion Bartoli always play to full tribunes.
Today is Friday, the 26th. I have waited the regulatory 1.30 hours with my evening special pass to get a B category sit in Suzanne’s court. I can actually see the umpire’s facial expression.
A shiver runs through the several thousands gathered around two reddish squares. I’m holding my breath. Novak Djokovic walks into the stadium. Head up, slow pace, the world’s number two is, only a couple of days after the arrest of his compatriot Ratko Mladic, more then ever the number one Serb.
Lazily he exchanges a few warm-up balls with the giant Argentinian Juan del Porto, when a female shriek breaks the pious silence. “Djoko will you marry me?!” The TV camera immediately zooms in and seizes a faint smile on the Serbs’ face.
The game begins and the first ball flies at 200 km/hour.
The art of cheering
Every public seems to have its own rules and customs of cheering.
“Alleeeeeeer Richard” resonates long after the blond player has left the clay court. It pops up here and there during the following match. A female double. No offense to the new players, rather a shared recollection, a memory game for a few thousands of tennis goers.
Thus there are things one says, one ought to scream, others that one has to sing. Action–reaction, or question–answer are the rules of voice support at the Roland Garros.
A call: “o,ooo,ooo” generates a specific answer.
Another one: “e,eeeeee” triggers a song. Being unfamiliar with the appeals leaves me outside, as a spectator of the spectators. Nothing more frustrating. Watching sport is a participatory experience. I hang on to my neighbor and try to reproduce, like in church, series of loud sounds without really bothering about their meaning.
Our cheering smoothly interlaces with the players’ moans. A hot mixture of groans, whistles and chanting supported by the irregular beat of the rackets hitting against the rubber ball fills the open space.
A delicious cacophonic concert about desires, dreams, fight and adrenaline.
(If you would like to listen to the call-answers in person rather than sing along with this miserable transcription of mine, visit the Roland Garros!)
Applause can come in to honour a good move, a quick ball, bravely earned points. It bursts out spontaneously and dies slowly, uncoordinatedly.
The second category of clapping would be organized ovation: Generated by a single hand (or rather a pair of them) when the score on one side of the net reaches 40. It has its own timing and progresses accelerando: one, two, one, two, three, four, one two, three, four, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. A silence breaks.
The audience is extremely organized, respectful, trained.
The ball flies high before it touches the racket of the player who is serving to win.
Eventually a huge “wild” applause is a way to thank the players for their game.
For a spectacular analysis of applause, see Discovery Channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O97_4xoYq8A&feature=related.
Paris – Mexico
Finally, there is the phenomenon of the Mexican wave.
The wind might very well be the motor of birth of waves in the sea, yet it remains a mystery how a human wave actually starts. Only in full motion it becomes clearly visible.
I experience this phenomenon here, at Suzanne Lenglen court. I cannot perceive the first movement of mobilization. The activation of the motion happens secretly, and suddenly I find myself immersed in a powerful mass movement that takes me high into the air, only to drop back onto my chair a few seconds later, with my arms still stretched up.
Shamefully I bring those down, looking around if anyone had noticed. But hardly do I have the time to hide my blush when I sense it coming back again. Nearly 10,000 bodies perfectly coordinated by some mysterious force. No leader. No visible structure.
A socialist’s dream.
I shiver and decide to stay sitting for the next round. Clinging to the chair, entwining both legs around the chair, I’m fighting against the upcoming wind. It feels even worse. Despite my immobilized body, a call from the lungs or maybe the guts escapes. “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”. A compromise, that’s all that is left to do when there is no visible opponent. The wave dies as suddenly as it appeared, and only after a few seconds I realize that the game has been resumed.
Dancing the judgment
The game is on.
Two giants face each other. 188 cm against 198 cm.
A ballet begins. This one will count 4 acts.
Describing a fine dance piece is the last thing I would find myself able to do. I will content myself with portraying the performers.
In the middle, we have of course the two soloists. Two young, dark-haired men dressed in flashy Nike sports outfits.
The part they play indeed is tricky. Biggest salary comes together with biggest responsibility. It is up to them to set up the time frame and the dramaturgy. I might very well have the program at hand, yet I cannot know how long the evening will last.
As the time of the performance depends on the performance of its two main performers, or actually on the balance between their performances, I have to be ready to sit through 2,5 hours as well as be prepared to leave after 40 minutes. (Steffi Graf wore out her opponent in just 32 minutes, in 1988 at the French Open final, whereas the longest professional game ever took place last year at Wimbledon, where Nicolas Mahut and John Isner met three days in a row and spent a total time of 11 hours and 5 minutes opposite each other.)
So the soloists are actually the choreographers, co-signing their creation.
The corps de ballet – well, I guess that’s us. We jump up on some discreet cues given by the soloists. We rise from our seats with fervor yet distinction after each set. Sometimes we throw our hands in the air, and at other times we hold our breath in unison.
Yet the more complex choreographies that include entering and leaving, taking seats and moving up or down the rows are led by the coryphées. Slim girls in purple overalls, not Nike but Adidas from feet to head, glimmer in the blazing sun. They let us in and out, hush the unruly ones, and freeze professionally in-between breaks.
Then come the tiny greenish figures that could fit into the category of “stagiaires”. Not part of the company yet, they proudly wear the PNB Paris-Bas logo across their tiny chests. The youngest ones on the grounds; 8 to 12 years old kids who probably didn’t get into Boris Charmatz’s new creation for Avignon – Enfant – and landed up at the Roland Garros. Here they get to serve and touch the God-like figures of the soloists.
Their dances are complex for their age. They stand still, kneel, run faster than the wind, and eventually trot in line around the court. No children fuss allowed, all is perfectly neat. After each point – bring the towel, after each service – the towel and two balls, or just two balls if you are the secondary nymph. Arm up holding a third ball just in case, collect the rolling ball, throw it to the one to your left, or if you are on the left to the one across from you, etc.
Last but not least, down there, around the soloists, are the “sujets”. Eight dark shapes, seated on chairs or standing by the railing.
Those who sit hardly ever move. Their only activity are brisk arm movements accompanied by a sharp shriek. It takes a while to understand this bizarre yelling language. From a mixture of highly pitched “outs” and “faults”, one distinguishes the clear amplified voice of the central “sujet”. He – or in this case, she – counts, screams “filet”, and holds a broken discourse about equality, advantages and gaming in a tongue that sometimes does resemble French. Occasionally she jumps off her high seat and produces a short dance, alone among the idols, only to retreat rapidly to her nest again.
Whereas her short appearances are very remarkable, the standing sujets are those whose choreographies are the most intriguing. Not only do they scream and throw arms, they also follow or even precede (hard to say) some of the soloist’s steps.
Whereas a big part of the soloist’s dances is improvisation, there are some remarkable pas de deux which the “sujets” pick up.
One giant holds both a ball and a racket. He does a very intimate minimal dance before throwing the ball high up and hitting it with the racket. In the meantime, his partner (holding only a racket) spreads his legs wide apart, lowers his upper body, cautiously shifts his weight from one side to the other, and this is where he finds himself doubled, or even tripled by the “sujets”.
All eyes focus on him for a brief moment, mesmerized by this Decouflé- or Beyonce-like duplication and multiplication. Tennis – a game of illusions?
But already the yellow rubber ball is flying high and the eyes are caught again in its vain pursuit.
My eyes as well are prisoners of the fascinating play of a constant va-et-viens of the small yellowish object. I lose track of the dancers. The hurried rubber ball becomes the main actor caught in the turbulences of a Parisian Friday afternoon.
I can feel my neck getting stiff from following its captivating constant movement.
The next day I wake up with a wry neck and decide to watch the next matches on television, or even better go and see “Rain” by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker at the Opera Garnier. Being a sports fan definitely calls for training.