a cold day in hell…er..Paris: first week highlights at the French Open

It is too bad that Lance Armstrong doesn’t play tennis, because he is the only American who seems routinely to do well in Paris.

It’s that time of year again in the tennis world, when the American players start moaning and groaning and trying to stay alive in the one Grand Slam event that they routinely play poorly at. This year is no exception. At least our boys didn’t keep us in suspense: they started dropping like flies almost immediately. Most of the nine entered male players were gone by the end of the second round.

Andre Agassi fell on the first day of play. An inflamed nerve in his back affected his movement on court. The guy could barely walk yet he chose to tough it out. Sure, he was up two sets to one, but plainly he was not long for this match. We don’t like it when players throw in the towel too soon, but personally I think Andre waited way too long. Why risk further aggravating the injury just to give the fans their money’s worth? Isn’t Andre Agassi the one guy in this sport who has consistently treated fans well over the years? He has put a great deal back into the game, so I wanted to say to him, “Andre, you’ve done enough, it’s ok guy, you can pull out of the match.” I hope Andre’s final hours are not going to be, in the words of Bud Collins, balanced on a hypodermic needle, painkillers and the like. That would be a sad way for a wonderful career to end.

As if this weren’t bad enough, we the viewers had to keep on seeing the TV ads for Genworth investments. Featuring, of course, Andre Agassi duking it out with his wife, Steffi Graf. I don’t know which bothered me more, the ads or his losing. Painful on both fronts. I wonder if Genworth was happy they bought the airtime.

Best Shot of the Tournament: Gaston (“Stick it in his ear”) Gaudio, who nearly ripped the Frenchman Benneteau’s ear off in a little tete-a-tete at the net. Benneteau tried to duck, he tried to get his racket up for protection, but missed. Gaudio did not. Shades of Ivan Lendl, crooned the commentators, who obviously found the first week’s play rather lacklustre; they were on the lookout already for blood, wherever it came from. Who says tennis is always civilized? Leave it to those Argentinians. Apparently they are not as cohesive as the Spaniards, in fact, they seem to hate each other’s guts. Gaudio and Coria have traded insults on and off the court, reportedly. Nalbandian is aloof from the whole pack of them. It’s every man for himself down in Argentina now, it seems. Good for the game, though.

The guys on top came through pretty much, Roger Federer has barely broken a sweat. Rafael Nadal never seems to STOP breaking into a sweat, the guy has a relentless energy on the court that must really be intimidating to his opponents. He often jogs to the chairs at the end of games. And he’s in the doubles too. He must be running around in an 18 year old’s body, since not many guys want to play both events in a tournament like this. It grinds you down too much playing on the clay. The French seem quite taken with Nadal, no doubt he is the sexy boy at this place. Already the Frenchmen are donning those white knickers in droves after watching Nadal on court.

Today was the hardest American loss to take, with Andy Roddick winning the first two sets against Jose Acasuso of Argentina, and then, well, basically blowing the match. Andy seems to have a lot of cramping of the brain, in the final game of the fifth set he was hitting moonballs back. Acasuso tied into one of them, and as he had done all afternoon, he crushed another shot up the line to end the match.

Brad Gilbert provided nonstop commentary on this match and you could hear him getting a little agitated as the match went on. As Andy’s previous coach, he probably hopes none of today’s misfirings end up on his doorstep. Andy is not aggressive enough, he kept saying, he’s giving up the baseline too much, he should be moving forward more…why does he keep setting up Acasuso on his backhand side? The guy was driving dozens of balls up the line on that side, and Andy did not make any adjustments for it. And how does a guy with such a booming serve manage to win only half his tiebreakers this year, and why is his overhead so poor?

Maybe the American women will salvage something for us yet. Lindsay Davenport dug herself out of a real hole on Wednesday. Her attitude this year about Roland Garros appears to be, “Well, I’ll just show up and hope for the best.” She played very little on clay leading up to this tournament, it is her weakest surface, but she’s getting thru the early rounds. So far she has been able to get away with that attitude. The American men have not. They usually arrive in Paris with very little clay court play under their belts. And each year, it shows. Sampras was the epitome of this attitude, he liked to talk about how he really wanted to win the French, but nearly every year that he competed he spent little time in Europe during the clay court season.

What remains to be said? Clay is not pretty.