- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

Well, the U.S. men went 0-for-9 — the bagel job of all bagel jobs — in the first round of the French Open. As card-carrying Americans, we’re supposed to be upset by this, I suppose. After all, it’s our worst wipeout in Paris since The Wall came down in 1968 — the wall, that is, that used to separate the pros from the amateurs.

And, I am upset. As upset as I was in 1985, the year before Greg LeMond broke through, when the U.S. men were 0-for-forever in the Tour de France. (Translation: Not very.) As upset as I was in ‘98, when the U.S. men went 0-for-3 in France in the World Cup. (Translation: Yawn.)

Clearly, there’s something about the land of Louis XVI that brings out less than the best in our male athletes. Maybe it’s the freedom fries.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said after surveying the wreckage. “We’ve got some work to do. And by we, I mean all of American tennis, from 11-year-olds on [down].”

That’s right, kids, drop your paper routes and pick up a racket. Get a good, strong, two-handed grip on it.

Here’s what We, from 11-year-olds on down, should really do about this terrible tragedy: Forget about it, turn the page — the way we did from 1955 (when Tony Trabert won his second French) to 1989 (when Michael Chang became the next American to rule Paris). I mean, it’s only the French Open, you know?

Granted, it’s a major, but there are majors and there are majors. The du Maurier Classic, for instance, was one of the women’s golf majors until 2000. Can anybody name the American who won it that year?

(The answer, as any Schwab knows, is Meg Mallon.)

Anyway, the time may come when it’s as hard to remember the names of the French Open champs as those of the du Maurier champs. That’s my real gripe with the French: Its winners — Gaston Gaudio, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Albert Costa, Carlos Moya et al. — never seem to win anything else. And aren’t majors supposed to identify the best players?

Consider: Only one French titleist in the last 18 years has also won Wimbledon or the U.S. Open (Andre Agassi, who won both). Among those who’ve come up empty at Roland Garros are Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and, so far, Roger Federer. And yet, these same six legends have collectively captured 21 Wimbledons, 20 U.S. Opens and 50 total Slams.

France, however, is a country where they “vive la difference,” and so the French Open is played not on a fast surface like grass (Wimbledon) or DecoTurf (U.S. Open) but on quicksand-slow red clay. Most tournaments accentuate speed and power; the French places a premium on endurance and patience. (The endurance and patience of the spectators, especially. Some of the points last so long, you’re lucky if you don’t get a crick in your neck.)

The French Open, in other words, is the Tim Wakefield of tennis tournaments; it’s the knuckleball specialist who turns the slugger into a twisty.

And who hits the homer off Wakefield to win the 2003 ALCS — Bernie Williams? Derek Jeter? Jason Giambi? Hideki Matsui? Nope, Aaron Boone, the Gaston Gaudio of the Yankees.

An even better analogy: The French Open is restrictor-plate tennis. That’s why it pulls in such a huge TV audience (cough, cough) in NASCAR land. It’s like a Daytona 500 for pace cars.

Which doesn’t stop Federer and the rest of The Denied from doing everything they can to win the darn event — to complete a career Grand Slam (or in Roger’s case, single-year one), to distinguish themselves from the sport’s other immortals, to be able to shout in a crowded Paris bistro, “I just jacked one out off of Tim Wakefield!”

So maybe it’s time for Americans — or at least the American media — to file the French Open under “quaintly anachronistic” or “anachronistically quaint” or “the French being the French.” It doesn’t really have much to do with our athletic libido anymore. It’s a tennis tournament that’s held once a year, the ball goes back and forth across the net a lot and, as often as not, the winner is a guy who couldn’t get picked out of a police lineup.

Unless he was wearing Capri pants like Rafael Nadal.

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