One of the great concepts in the movies, especially James Bond kind of movies, is the "hit someone in the back of the head with the butt of a gun" move. This tactic, if done properly, will knock the person out for precisely as long as necessary for the plot to progress. It is really convenient. You can just see the first set of Hollywood writers sitting there, stumped, thinking, "Well, we need this guy knocked out but only for five minutes . how can we do that? Tranquilizer? No. Sleeping gas?"
Then one guy says: "How about we hit him in the back of the head with the butt of a gun!" Voila. Genius.
This gun-hitting-head maneuver has now become such a television and movie staple that we no longer question it, barely even think about it, don't even consider what REALLY happens when you hit somebody in the back of the head with the butt of a gun. Hint: It's not quite as clean and simple as in the movies.
The French Open has always been my favorite tennis tournament. I think it's because the French Open is about what's real. Wimbledon is fabulous in the way that James Bond movies are fabulous. British. Polite. Splendid. Everyone wears white. There's a royal box. Strawberries and cream. The queen might show up. Clothes have grass stains. The points are short and thrilling and full of constant danger.
At Wimbledon, those points end abruptly but cleanly. The serve is the ultimate weapon -- the best players almost always hold serve. Bam! Ace. Bam! Another ace. Bam! Like a gun knocking someone out. Neat. Conclusive. Plot perfect. Winners are cracked from all over the court. Bam! Volleys are punched out of reach. Bam! Every now and again a player gets a ball back you didn't expect, sometimes two or three in the same point, and that's crazy exciting, but it doesn't happen much. When you're knocked out at Wimbledon, you are knocked out . and you wake up just in time for the start of the next point.
But the French Open is different. The red clay at Roland-Garros slows the game down to the point where nothing is tidy or clean. They are literally playing in mud. Serves come back. Overhead slams are sliced back into play. The ball can go back and forth 30 times, 40 times, more even. Clean winners on another court are returned again and again so that you often have to hit three, four, five, six great shots in a row just to put them away -- and sometimes that doesn't do it either. The French Open is messy and strenuous and exhausting. Like life, it does not reward skill as much as persistence, talent as much as stamina. To win, you must keep swinging.
Sunday, on the first day of the French Open, Venus Williams played Urszula Radwanska. It wasn't an especially important match -- neither player was expected to go very far in this tournament -- but there was something intriguing about it. For one thing, it was a match of sisters -- Venus, of course, being the older sister of the great Serena, and Urszula being the younger sister of Agnieszka, who is seeded fourth at this French Open.
Even more than the sister thing, Venus is a fascinating character. She was once the best player in the world. Venus said, even then, that she would be surpassed by her younger sister, and Serena did pass her by, but that did not diminish Venus Williams. She won five Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens, not to mention the 13 Grand Slam doubles titles she won with Serena, so her Hall of Fame career is still one of the best in tennis history.
But she turns 33 in a couple of weeks, and truth is she seemed the type to retire a long time ago. She always had so many interests beyond the tennis court -- fashion, entertainment, business, writing, heck, she and Serena are part owners of the Miami Dolphins. She did not seem the type to play past her prime, but there she was Sunday, seeded 30th, in pain (she has dealt with so many injuries in her career -- and she suffers from Sjorgren's syndrome, which saps energy) and without most of the tennis weapons that had made her great. What was she doing out there? It was a fascinating question, and when she lost the first-set tiebreaker to Radwanska, it seemed like she would quietly fade away.
Only . she didn't fade away. The red clay demands so much from players. I remember as a kid reading a player's explanation of why it was so hard to beat the human backboard, Bjorn Borg, at the French Open (where his career record was 51-4 and he won seven times).
The player said that you would see Borg across the net and you would tell yourself, "I don't care if I have to be out here for eight hours, I am going to keep hitting with Borg." Only at some point during the match you would realize that while you were willing to be out there for eight hours, Borg was willing to be out there for EIGHT DAYS or EIGHT WEEKS or EIGHT YEARS . time and effort seemed to have no effect on him. He was a machine or the next best thing, and on that slow red clay he simply broke players' wills.
So, it seemed, Venus Williams had no real reason to fight back. She knew she would not win the tournament -- she never won the French even in her prime (in her one final, she lost to Serena), and she had not reached even a French Open quarterfinal in seven years. She knew that she would have to push herself to extremes to fight back . and for what?
Still, she fought back.
Radwanska is more than 10 years younger than Williams, a junior tennis sensation trying to work her way up in the world as an adult, and she needed this victory a lot more than Williams. She knew this; she seemed to believe that once she won the first set, the second set would follow naturally. She seemed almost surprised at how hard Williams played in the second set -- at one point announcer Mary Carillo made the strong point that she seemed to be waiting for Williams to knock herself out -- but then the second set went to the tiebreaker, and she built a 4-0 lead. It was over.
And then it wasn't. Williams won a hard-fought point, another, another, and for a few fleeting moments she found that balance between caution (refusing to make the error that ends the point) and daring (refusing to hold back and baby shots over the net). For the rest of the tiebreaker, she played as if it was 10 year ago. She won the tiebreaker. Her reward was a third set.
And the third set was grueling, intense. Williams could not get her serve in. Radwanska built a big lead. Then Radwanska's game dulled slightly and Williams crushed winners. The match went past three hours, and each of the players was in that place beyond exhaustion. "This is the sort of match," John McEnroe said, "that takes months off your life."
It's not hard to understand why Radwanska kept playing forcefully -- she has youth and ambition and a purpose. But with Venus, it was something else, something harder to describe, something that comes out of the red clay, which is why I love this tournament so much. The two of them kept hitting shot after shot after shot, angles, volleys, drop shots, lobs, slams. There were no easy points, no easy winners, no escapes, no breaks, no Hollywood moments. It was just body blow after body blow. Neither could give in. And, yet, neither could take control.
Wimbledon is fun to watch. The U.S. Open, with the raucous crowds and great night tennis, is fun to watch. The French Open, well, it's not always fun to watch. This match was raw, painful and, at times, almost too close to real life. Venus Williams seemed to be aging before our very eyes.
"I'm still shaking," Radwanska would say after it ended. She won the match in the end, won it because Williams finally could not hold her serve on the clay. The match lasted three hours and 19 minutes.
"I tried very hard," Venus Williams said.