The woman in the red dress.
That was all that came to mind as I tried to think of the most simplistic phrase to describe what the French Open is like, and has been like for the greater part of it’s 124 year history – particularly to the all time greats of the game. Trust me this ‘woman’ commands more than the distraction element, that other famous woman did in the Matrix. And the men that have sought her ultimate prize are no less compelling or swashbuckling than Keanu Reaves.
Wimbledon might have the honor of being the most prestigious tournament in all of tennis, but Roland Garros is in my opinion the most treasured. It is, in a sense, the true boundary between greatness and immortality. In most cases, this ‘woman’ represents the final frontier for many a tennis great and while she has succumbed quite easily to a few, she has also made many others sweat and toil, some never getting to experience the euphoria of holding her in their arms.
The latest lover to chase after the woman in the red dress, is none other than Novak Djokovic. An Olympic medal, being the only other missing silverware from his impressive cabinet, Djokovic has won just about everything winnable in tennis, and he has posted his own impressive numbers while he’s been at it too. Like many before him, he is a great all round player with the ability to transition his game from hard to clay to grass courts, more easily than many of his peers or others before him. That game plays very well on clay. However, much like Federer before him, and Sampras before him, and John McEnroe before him, and the list goes on… Djokovic has stumbled right at the finish line, in the race to win this trophy.
This year’s finals loss at the hands of that other swiss, Stanilas Wawrinka, might have been the most difficult to digest. Djokovic by all accounts had slayed the behemoth much earlier in the tournament, when he defeated Rafael Nadal in the forth round. He became only the second ever player to defeat Nadal in this tournament, handing the Spaniard just as many losses.
However, he did not expect to fall victim to the Nadal curse. Till date, every player who has defeated Nadal in Roland Garros, has gone on to the final, and lost to a Swiss player. And no Nadal vanquisher in Roland Garros has ever won Roland Garros. Now granted this statement is a stretch since the only other player this has happened to is Robin Soderling. Furthermore, Djokovic is no Soderling. But it is worth mentioning because Djokovic has been a real threat to win this tournament for about five years now. He has missed his mark each and every time, including in dominant years such as 2011 and this year. That Djokovic for all his steely resolve, fought to hold back tears during the trophy presentation, shows just how much he wants this ‘woman’ and her heart breaking powers.
So what kind of man does the woman in the red dress prefer? Is it the talented man? I would beg to differ because Sampras, Edberg, McEnroe, and Becker, were some of the most talented players that have ever played this game and they all have exactly zero french open titles between them. One could say that all the players I’ve mentioned play with a single-handed backhand and are attacking players. That’s true but Jimmy Connors was a defensive player with a very steady game. He was also a southpaw like Nadal and had a formidable double-handed backhand. The same is true for the current lover, Djokovic, who has famously dubbed his two-handed backhand his “secret weapon”. Guillermo Coria – born and bred on clay, with a fine two-handed backhand – was long touted as a future French Open champion and he almost lived up to it. But in a final of errors, he made one too many to give the championship to Gaston Gaudio.
To really find out the kind of man this sought after dame yields to, one has to look at the winners and the unifying trait among them. From the timeless and icy Borg, to the fiery Kuerton. From the daring Chang to the raging Nadal, and even the calm yet mercurial Federer, one thing marked each of their victories at this tournament, regardless of how many times they’ve won it and that is the “Go For It” or GFI factor as I like to call it. Each of these men, at the time they finally conquered the French Open, were at their daring, fearless best. Now how they expressed this lack of fear does not matter. Whether it was by the expressionless, icy nature of Borg or the warrior like unstoppable nature of Nadal, as long as there was a lack of fear of the moment, they were already winners in this woman’s eyes. She is not wowed by the greatness of any man who dares grace her courts and seeks audience with her. She has no attraction for their looks or even their charisma. What she holds of value is their courage and their ability to seize the moment. To be unyielding when the time calls for it.
It took Federer six years to figure that out and his eventual mastery of this element in 2009 was captured not in the final, but in the third round when on the precipice of defeat to Tommy Haas, he fired an inside out forehand from nowhere that clipped the edge of the ad-court line for a winner. He rode that wave all the way to victory and in a sense, the woman aligned herself with his destiny for once. Her current lover should remember this when he steps into her domain next year. As he continues his march towards tennis immortality, he should learn how to make the woman in the red dress, yield.