French Open: U.S. men already improving
PARIS ó To James Blake, 1-0 sounds a lot better than 0-9.
A year after all nine U.S. men competing at the French Open lost in the first round, Blake won his opener at the clay-court Grand Slam tournament Sunday, beating former top-10 player Rainer Schuettler of Germany 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (3).
The No. 7-seeded Blake lost to Ivo Karlovic in four sets at Roland Garros in 2007. That was part of the worst showing by American men at any major tennis championship in 34 years, and continued their recent trend of struggling on clay.
“We all feel like, you know, last year was an aberration that should never happen again,” Blake said.
The French Open’s first day featured all the postmatch spectacle of a Grand Slam tournament’s final day.
There were the grown men in yellow T-shirts and beige shorts scurrying onto center court with a wooden table to hold a trophy, the speech to the crowd by one of the players, and the dozens of photographers jockeying for position behind a baseline.
Except instead of a celebration of a new champion, as will happen in two weeks, all of Sunday’s fuss was about saluting a departing one. Yes, they feted the match’s loser: Gustavo Kuerten, the owner of three French Open titles and a former No. 1. He is now ranked outside the top 1,000 and is retiring at age 31 because of chronic hip injuries.
“This particular tournament is really like home for me,” said Kuerten.
He was beaten 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 by 18th-seeded Paul-Henri Mathieu of France, hardly a surprising result on a day when surprises were few and far between.
Most of the afternoon’s attention was focused on Court Philippe Chatrier, the venue where Kuerten came out of nowhere to win his first title of any sort in 1997. He followed that up with championships in 2000 and 2001, becoming wildly popular with French fans along the way because of his stylish play and “What me worry?” grin.
They remember not only his flair from the baseline, but also his shows of affection for them, most famously when he etched a heart in the clay after coming back from two sets down to beat Michael Russell in the fourth round in 2001.
And so it was that the locals threw their support behind the lanky Brazilian known as “Guga,” instead of the Frenchman he was playing. Mathieu completely understood why his countrymen rooted the way they did.
“Even I would have shouted ‘Guga!’ if I had been able to do that,” Mathieu said. “He’s a legend of tennis. He is part of the history of Roland Garros.”
When the match ended, on a drop shot Kuerten pushed into the net, he sat on the sideline and covered his head with a towel. When the towel came off, his eyes were red and moist.
“Basically,” he said later, “I’m lucky.”
Serena Williams, the only past French Open winner in the women’s field, won in straight sets, as did 2007 runner-up Ana Ivanovic.
“I guess I do have pressure,” Williams said, “but I don’t put pressure on myself.”
She ceded the first two games before winning 6-2, 6-1 in a drizzle against 61st-ranked Ashley Harkleroad, an American who’ll appear in the August issue of Playboy.
“I’m just surprised she beat me to it,” Williams said with a hearty laugh. “Darn.”