In tennis lately, for the men at least, it’s all about balls.
Take Mardy Fish, for example. After suffering a surprising defeat to Juan Monaco at the Sony Ericsson championships in Key Biscayne last week, the 8th-seeded American vented his dismay regarding the dominance of baseline tennis. “It's not necessarily the surface, per se, but the balls. The balls get so big and so fluffy even after a warm-up that for an attacking, fast-court type player, it's extremely hard to play those guys. ... You have to execute big time to beat those guys playing on the slower surfaces.
"Indian Wells is extremely is extremely slow with the balls, especially at night when we play there. It's two different tournaments: during the day and during the night. Australia is extremely slow. Wimbledon’s balls are unbelievably heavy.”
He is not alone, of course, as many in the sport, from players to historians to fans, all bemoan the slow-but-sure death of serve-and-volley tennis. Make no mistake, tennis is currently reigned by those who can engage in five-hour epic baseline battles – such as was the case at the thrilling Australian Open final when Novak Djokovic triumphed over Rafael Nadal in a match that lasted nearly six hours – and this trend shows no signs of ebbing anytime soon.
Except, that is, in France. Last year, those in charge at the French Tennis Federation decided to discontinue the use of Dunlop balls for the French Open, instead going with the French-owned Babolat. The balls were designed lighter and harder in an effort to sustain their playability for an extended period.
But there's got to be more, right?
It’s hard not to think that there weren’t other motivating factors behind the switch from Dunlop to Babolat. After all, Dunlop is an English company. And the historic – however fading - animus between the French and the English is well known. From Napoleon to the vastly different approaches the United Kingdom (fought back) and France (laid down) approached Germany in World War II there’s always been something of a mutual detestation society at play with the two nations.
Yet while there are still remnants of this entrenched animus between England and France, it pales in comparison to the sports-centered dislike and distrust between France and Spain. And herein is the true reasons why the balls were made lighter at the French Open last year. More specifically it boils down to one thing: the French despise Rafael Nadal and will do anything in their power to stop him from adding a seventh Roland Garros title in two months’ time.
For so long I’ve wondered why the French – fans and journalists alike – seem to downright hate Nadal. After all here’s a man who has won six of their championships (currently tied with Bjorn Borg, he’ll be attempting his 7th this year which would be a record) and has composed himself with tremendous sportsmanship and dignity. Nadal obviously reveres the famed terre batteu and should be treated with awe. And he was the only top player to come to the defense of Richard Gasquet, the former wunderkind of French tennis, when he was suspected of cocaine use.
So why the riotous applause for Robin Soderling when he stunned Nadal at the 2009 French Open, the only year he’s played the event that Nadal hasn’t taken home the trophy; why the vulgar epithets hurled at Nadal during that same year’s Paris Open in the fall; why the constant – and ill-founded – speculation from those in the French journalistic establishment and the nation’s half-brained celebrities (i.e. Yannick Noah) that Nadal uses performance enhancing drugs?
This intrepid reporter posed just such a question to an official at the French Tennis Federation, who wished to remain anonymous. Responding to my queries regarding Nadal, the higher-up told me, “ … the main reason so many in France, uh, uh, – shall I say – think Nadal is unworthy of our attention is the way he plays. He plays tennis slow and ugly. He is not an artiste on the court like Sir Roger (Federer).”
But when I then stated that Borg, a true hero in France during his reign in the 1970s and early 1980s, played an even slower, moonballing style than Nadal, the official just shrugged in his inimitable French manner and said, ”Borg was true, not fake like this muscled-man from Mallorca.”
So come on, I asked him, is it because Spain won the World Cup? Or is France just seething with jealousy and envy because, since 1946 it has produced only one male Slam champion (Noah in the 1983 French Open)?
The official guffawed and stated, “we all know it is impossible to win when up against cheaters.”
Well, it seems that this is about to change. In a fit of stunning candor, the official then gave the real reason for making the balls even lighter for the 2012 French Open. “We refuse to give Nadal seventh trophy for fake winning. We will make balls even lighter so Roger win title against Nadal in final. Roger likes the fast ball. Roger is Paris class – he is fashion friends with Vogue magazine woman. He knows style. Nadal only knows topspin and water bottle placement.”
When pressed further, the now drunk-on-his-third-bottle of overrated French wine official admitted that the main reason the French love Federer is because he speaks French fluently.
But, I asked him, how can you guarantee that Federer and Nadal will be on opposite sides of the draw? They could meet in the semifinals. Waving and gesturing with his hand he uttered, “ah, we figured this out last year and we do it again. We make sure we have spy at draw ceremony so Roger play Djokovic in semi.”
Finally I asked, aren’t you worried about this information getting out there, that everyone will know the lengths the French will go to stop Nadal?
“Not worried” he said. “No one listens to the French ... not on April 1 anyway.”