At Roland Garros, the French Get Behind Their Own

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Had you been at Roland Garros around supper time Wednesday evening and heard the crowd of nearly 10,000 fans chanting Lucas Pouille’s name at a near deafening level, you would have assumed you had just missed a triumphant performance.

Not even close. Pouille, a 29-year-old Frenchman, on the court named for Suzanne Lenglen, the French tennis star of the 1920s, lost in straight sets to Cameron Norrie, a Briton to add insult to injury, in less than two hours.

No matter.

For 105 minutes, the French faithful had serenaded Pouille and met his every winner with rousing roars. A four-piece band with a horn and a bass drum tooted and banged away between points. If you are French at the French Open, it’s what you do.

Each of the four Grand Slam tournaments has its unique charms and intangible quirks, rhythms and characteristics.

The Australian Open is a two-week summertime party held when much of the world is shivering. Wimbledon has its mystique, the sense that the grass, especially on Centre Court, is hallowed ground, and the hear-a-pin-drop silence of the most proper of crowds. The U.S. Open delivers noisy chaos, the rattle of New York’s subways and the teeming crowds that joyfully ignore the idea that big-time tennis is supposed to unfold amid quiet.

Roland Garros’s signature is the near limitless abandon with which the French fans unite behind anyone who plays under the bleu-blanc-rouge as the French standard is known. There are spontaneous renditions of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” as though they are at Humphrey Bogart’s cafe in “Casablanca.”

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This happened after Pouille, once ranked 10th in the world and currently 675th following struggles with injuries and depression, beat Jurij Rodionov of Austria in the first round in waning light Sunday.

“It made me want to keep working to get back and experience it again,” said Pouille, who stayed and listened to the serenade.

When a French player is on the court — any French player, on any court — there is a distinctly louder, higher-pitched and fuller sound that rises from the stands. It’s like the crescendo of a symphony, over and over, hour after hour.

Amazingly, it keeps going on even though the French have been mostly terrible at this event for a long while — or maybe that’s why it happens. A Frenchman has not won the singles tournament since Yannick Noah in 1983, or made the final since Henri Leconte in 1988. A Frenchwoman has not won since Mary Pierce in 2000, which was also the last time the country was represented in the women’s singles final.

Albert Camus, the French philosopher, famously wrote that we must consider Sisyphus, the Greek mythology figure, to be happy, even though he spends his life repeatedly pushing a rock uphill because “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

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Camus would have made a perfect modern French tennis fan.

The zenith of this tournament for the French came Tuesday night as Gael Monfils, whose Gumby-like athleticism and ambivalent relationship with the sport have made him a tennis folk hero, came back from the brink to beat Sebastian Baez of Argentina in five sets.

Monfils, 36, who has been battling injuries and played little the past year, cramped so badly in the fifth set he could barely walk. He fell behind by 4-0, but the crowd never relented and willed him back to life. The roars at the main court, Philippe Chatrier, could be heard more than a mile away. It was obvious what was unfolding simply by opening a bedroom window.

Monfils told the crowd the victory was as much theirs as his after he prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-5, 1-6, 7-5.

The ecstasy ride ended 24 hours later when Monfils called a late-night news conference to announce his withdrawal from the tournament because of a wrist injury.

It came at the end of an awful day for the French players, who dropped all their singles matches. That included Caroline Garcia, the fifth seed and the only seeded Frenchwoman.

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Garcia had spoken earlier in the week of trying to capture the enthusiasm of the crowd and use it to her advantage. In the past, she has experienced it as pressure that has caused her to disappoint in front of the hometown fans. She has never made it past the quarterfinals.

“I try and take all of this energy,” she had said of the support. “It’s a great opportunity.”

No such luck. Garcia was cruising, up a set and a break in her second-round match Wednesday against Anna Blinkova of Russia. But she tightened up and frittered away the lead. The crowd helped her draw even at 5-5 in the third set, rattling Blinkova into double faults as Garcia saved eight match points before she lost, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5.

“She managed the crowd very well and kept very calm,” Garcia said of Blinkova.

There was more pain Thursday as French players lost their last three singles matches, but those uniquely throaty urgings were an accompaniment all the same. When the last Frenchman, Arthur Rinderknech, lost Thursday night to the ninth-seeded Taylor Fritz, the crowd booed Fritz so loudly he could not hear the questions during his on-court interview.

And a year from now, the French fans will push the rock up the hill again, and again, and again.



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