Friday, May 28, 2010

No Harm, No Foul

Tennis in the dark, anyone?

It happened on Day 4 of the French Open. It was a beautiful mistake, and a glorious slice of chaos. And while it was stressful for the players on court, it was a unique and wonderfully spontaneous occurrence that made those who saw it feel instantly giddy.

It probably should have never happened, and it probably never will again, but late (very late indeed) in the evening on Wednesday in Paris, two professional tennis players got in touch with their childhood roots by playing on a tennis court that was dark as night.


It was crazy. It was wrong. It was downright stupid. But man, was it awesome.

Gael Monfils and Fabio Fognini were dead even, at 4-4 in the 5th set. It was then that things got crazy.

When tournament referee Stefan Frannson sauntered onto the court at approximately 9:30 P.M., he had every intention of stopping the match. It was the right thing to do, after all, because play had been stopped on all of the adjacent courts already. The conditions called for it, and there was nothing that could be done. But for some reason, instead of making a rational and authoritative decision, Fransson decided to play the humanist and consult the players on their preference, and that is when all hell began to break loose.

Picture a Frenchman, and Italian, and a Swede, all trying to come to some logical agreement, while a partisan French crowd screamed, hooted, and hollered for more tennis. It was comical. It was theatrical. Both players made animated gestures and rolled their eyes to the heavens while the other spoke. Frannson, malleable and perhaps influenced by the rowdiness of the tennis-hungry crowd, appeared eager to acquiesce.

Monfils, who had squandered a two set lead in the previous two hours, was eager to continue. Fognini shrugged. It was hard to tell what they were saying. Was that a yes or a no from Fognini? What is Monfils throwing his arms up in the air for? we wondered.

According to Frannson, it was a yes from Fognini. Monfils, eager to enjoy some more fan support, (whether or not he deserved after squandering a huge lead is another question) shuffled over to the baseline.

Fine then, it's decided: Let's play.

But was it fine? It certainly didn't appear to be fine.

Fognini, meanwhile, was having second thoughts after peering up at his camp. They didn't want him to do it. 'Don't play,' said the looks on their faces, and the gestures they made with their hands.

Meanwhile, the darkness crept in.

Finally, a confused Fognini was given a point penalty for delaying play. He wasn't happy about it, but what could he do?

He took the balls and walked to the service line.

What followed was one of those rare and precious moments that is destined to live on in infamy forever. Long conservative rallies from the baseline ensued. Fognini, displaying a level of calm that seemed impossible given the strange and unfortunate circumstances that he was dealing with, tried to keep from drowning in the ocean of Monfils. He had been penalized a point. He was in a tennis stadium full of rowdy French fans. He was now facing break points. And yet somehow, like a Buddhist monk who walks through fire and over glass, he remained completely calm and focused.

Monfils, desperate to steal the win, tried to rally the crowd - and he did, but to no avail. The flashy showman had nothing of substance to bring to the fight, just spurts of emotion and vapor trails of desire.

Neither seemed adequate until Monfils suddenly found his own back against the wall. Then the sinewy Paris native suddenly started to cramp. This roller coaster ride was apparently making La Monf nauseous. Facing match points in the blackness, and cramping to boot, he was sure to lose.

But if tennis teaches us anything on a regular basis it is that there is more inside us than any of us could have ever imagined. We are complex beings full of all that is good and all that is bad. We are fear and courage, strength and weakness, desire and ennui. Somehow, we try to make sense of all that is inside us, we try to compartmentalize what is bad and stick it where it won't be a problem, then we try to nurture what is good so it can shine.

Monfils wasn't dead yet.

And Fognini wasn't as calm as we thought he was.

It appeared to be a huge mistake for tournament officials to let them play under such extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It probably was.

But this is one mistake that tennis fans are more than happy to accept.

When play was finally called at 5-5, it was apparent that justice had been served in perhaps the strangest yet most effective way possible.

In the pitch dark, both players headed for the locker room, one screaming curse words to the gods, the other waving sheepishly to his supporters.

Those who saw it live will surely never forget it.


  1. Actually the most awesome part of the match was when Kuznetsova did some commentary on it for RG radio.

    Anyway, I'm finishing up reading Rod Laver's book when he won the Slam in 1969 and he mentions RG having lights back then. But I can't find anymore info on why they removed them. Maybe Bud Collins knows?

  2. I would have loved to hear Kuznetsova do that - she's hilarious.

    I think it's easy to say that RG needs lights, but then we'd have matches going on until 3 A.M.

    either way, it's a grand-Slam and the logistics are difficult. Having no lights definitely adds to the drama -

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that I love Roland Garros just the way it is.


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